Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Coming Out" as Trans

I just came across this very interesting article: "‘Coming Out’ Doesn’t Begin to Describe It: Message from a Trans Survivor." The author, Meredith Talusan, describes how disclosing that one is transgender often causes people to doubt one's gender identity.
When I revealed myself as trans to my entire class of fine arts master's students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, my classmates also praised me for being courageous. But then I overhead myself referred to as “he," both mistakenly in my presence, and intentionally when people didn't think I was within earshot.

On more than one occasion, I heard those who I thought were friends warn men who might be interested in me about my trans status.
Because the experience of coming out as trans is so different from the experience of coming out as homosexual or bisexual, Talusan prefers to speak of herself as a trans survivor. This fascinates me, although I still feel that the term "coming out" is relevant to my experience.

For one thing, I had to come out to myself as transgender. For another thing . . . I identify with other trans and gender-nonconforming people more than I identify with cis people. It took me a while to reach out to a trans community, but once I did I felt like I belonged. As for the term "trans survivor," it resonates with me but it doesn't describe the way I felt for most of my life. I've survived a lot of things, and it's only very recently that I realized I survived being transgender as well. I'm still trying to comprehend my own experience.

Some of my trans friends say that transitioning is about becoming "your true self." This is a challenge to other people. They thought they knew your true self, but they were wrong. I knew who my true self was, but I blocked that knowledge out because I was afraid. For me, discovering my true self has been such a revelation that introducing other people to my true self actually takes second place. I'm still amazed at myself.

Moreover, I'm still bemused by the idea of presenting myself to people. How often do we ever really see someone else's "true self"? Not very often. This is not confined to transgender people at all. It's just that we expect to be able to recognize someone's gender as soon as we meet them. (And then we think we've discovered something about their true self.)

Talusan says that for LGB people, coming out means "revealing one's 'true' identity [as] an act of freedom, of moving from the confined space of the private realm to the expansive public. This allows everyone to recognize you for who you really are, and for people to accept and celebrate you in your entirety without secrets and lies. But for trans people, to speak our truth is also to have it called into question."

I think that this is partly a result of social acceptance. There was a time when homosexuality was not a "real thing," just as gender identity is not a real thing for most people today. Nowadays, when someone comes out as LGB, very few people will question their sexual orientation (although bisexuals are more likely to be challenged.) When someone comes out as transgender, people line up in droves to question their gender identity. (For an example of this, check out the "talk" page on Chelsea Manning's Wikipedia entry.) Hopefully society will continue to evolve in this area.

Moreover, although this happens less often now, it used to be quite common for people to marry someone of the opposite sex, have children, and then suddenly announce that they really were homosexual and none of their heterosexual activities had expressed their "true selves." Under those circumstances, it's natural for other people to wonder if they really mean it. And this type of delayed "coming out" is still very common for trans people.

Of course, it's also true that for many trans people, presenting as their "true selves" means erasing the fact that they were born transsexual. They just want to be ordinary men and women.This is the paradox of transgender. But it seems to me the real problem is that we live in a society that doesn't recognize the validity of trans existence.

One last comment -  although I like the distinction between "coming out" and "surviving," I'm not sure that it makes much difference on a practical level. If you tell people you're a trans survivor, they will ask what that means and at some point you will have come out to them, with all the attendant problems.