My recent post about not being necessarily out at work has prompted me to think about why people get so worked up about the use of the word “out” in the context of a person’s disclosure of their trans status, history, or identity. As someone who has very few opportunities to even have a choice whether or not to openly disclose my trans identity (as I said in that post, I haven’t mentioned it, but everyone knows), I understand that it is not for me to pick the terms that are used to describe people who are able to not disclose and so don’t for any of a number of reasons. These are just some thoughts I’ve been kicking around.
An argument I have heard against the word “out” in the context of disclosure is that “not out” carries connotations of dishonesty and secret-keeping, that people who don’t disclose are out—they are out as their identified genders. The term stealth, though sometimes seen as problematic, is a widely accepted term to describe people who don’t disclose.
I have to admit that while I’ve spent a long time regurgitating that rhetoric, I don’t really understand it. Stealth, to me, has much heavier connotations of dishonesty. It implies that trans people who are living as their genders have infiltrated cis society and are flying under the radar. It’s like being a mole. While it can feel properly descriptive because it does imply the effort that people who live that way must sometimes put into maintaining their stealth and the dangers specific to living stealth (people who do not disclose must often worry about what will happen if people discover their trans status and feel either tricked or betrayed; people who disclose don’t have to deal with that worry as much), it’s a word that has sinister connotations outside of trans contexts, and that doesn’t sit well with me.
Coming out and being out, on the other hand, have always seemed to me to be about a self-determination of readiness to have people know things about you that are really none of their business and that—if you want them to—should have no impact on the way that people interact with you. I don’t know a lot of people who would say that LGB people who are not out are being dishonest. I know people—and I might be one of them—who would say that those LGB people might feel freer if they were out in more contexts, or might find that their interactions with people are enhanced by a full recognition of who they are, but in the end it’s every individual’s own business how much they care to disclose that information and how much they feel it is a part of who they are. Certainly I could never respect a person who pressured anyone to come out before they felt ready or safe to do so. There are many, many respectable reasons not to be out.
Out is also a term that recognizes the complexity of a person’s openness. Some LGB people are immediately highly visible and never have to come out because everyone knows by looking at them (that knowledge can involve problematic assumptions, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen). This type of visibility often limits a persons ability to choose who knows they are LGB. Some LGB people want everyone to know, but are not so immediately visible and are forced to come out all the time in order to maintain their visibility. For these folks, their ability to choose can feel burdensome because they must put in effort to be seen the way they see themselves. Some LGB people who are not visible are glad to have the privilege to disclose to specific people at their discretion. And some LGB people use this privilege to actively avoid letting people know, sometimes avoiding talking about details of their lives. Some of those folks will have mixed feeling about the effort, and some will not. Any of these circumstances are possible for trans people’s disclosure of their trans status, history, or identity.
Another argument I’ve heard against the term “out” is that to say that a trans person living and presenting as their identified gender and not disclosing their trans history, status, or identity, is “not out” is to erase their coming out process. I disagree. First of all, if we use the LGB coming out example again, people go back in the closet all the time for a lot of different reasons. Just because you’re not out now doesn’t mean you never were or that no one ever gave you shit for it. Secondly, The way I see it, when a trans person comes out, they come out about two things that may be as separate or as linked as they experience them: they come out as their identified gender, and they come out as trans. Visibility and degrees of “outness” with regards to these two aspects of one’s life can also be as separate or interwined as one makes them. For instance, a person who is male-identified, has undergone extensive medical transition, and never discloses their trans history is highly visibly male and not at all visibly trans. They are out as male to everyone, and not out as trans to very many people at all. Someone who has just taken the steps to tell some people in their life that they have started to question their gender and has not yet started to present in a way that feels true to them has low visibility as their identified gender and low visibility as a trans person. They are out as trans to only a few people and they may not be out as a specific identified gender to anyone, including themself. I am highly visibly trans, and because I have a non-binary gender, I would say that I am highly visibly non-binary, but only have medium visibility as a male, which is my goal for binary readings of my gender. I am pretty much always out as trans, but not nearly as often out as a makeup-wearing, hyper-feminine, female-assigned, male-centered, genderfucked androgyne with a passion for facial hair and women’s shoes. They are different things to be out about, and they operate on different need-to-know basis.