The Trans People You’ll Never Know
We’re five years out from what Time magazine deemed the “transgender tipping point,” and in some ways, the world has fundamentally changed.
In the past five years, thousands of us have come out as trans or nonbinary and started living more authentic lives (myself included). There are far more out trans actors, musicians, writers, and performers than there ever have been before. Some of those out trans performers (particularly the white, thin ones) are getting celebrated for their bravery and beauty, getting high-profile acting roles and magazine covers.
Today, our existence is acknowledged (and milked for revenue) in commercials, toy lines, and TV shows. We are the subject of countless workplace diversity trainings and national political debates. In progressive cities all around the world, earnest cis people are having conversations about putting their pronouns in their email signatures and making bathrooms gender neutral for the sake of our safety.
Trans people used to be considered so rare that people acted as if we didn’t exist. But in the last five years, the number of trans-identified people has doubled, to roughly one in every 200 people. That makes being trans-identified more common than knowing how to code. If you’re reading this essay, the odds are good that you know at least one openly transgender person. If you live in a city and rub elbows with left-leaning people, you probably know several.
But this piece isn’t about the trans people that you know. It’s about the ones that you don’t.
If you’re a cis person, even a super well-meaning one, I guarantee there are several trans people in your life who have never felt safe opening up to you about it. Maybe they transitioned years ago, and now live stealth, letting people assume they’re cis. Perhaps they’re only out to a select handful of trusted loved ones, and you’re not on that list because of something ignorant you said long ago. Or maybe their transition is happening right before your eyes and you keep refusing to see it.
“When somebody finds out that you’re trans, they start treating you differently, even if they saw you as a guy the minute before.”
In the three and a half years that I’ve been out as nonbinary, I’ve spoken to dozens of closeted trans people who have decided to never come out. I know dozens more who have decided to censor or downplay parts of who they are, to keep their cis friends and family from exploding in confusion and rage.
It breaks my heart that so many trans people have chosen to live hidden. And it outrages me how often that is a completely logical choice. Most closeted trans people have a very accurate gauge on how accepting and supportive their families and communities would be. Many have weighed the pros and cons, and determined quite accurately that it’s better to just be quiet.
There are trans people all around you whom you’ll never get to know. Here’s why they’re hiding from you.
They’re not coming out
In her remarkable and bracing essay “I Am A Transwoman. I Am In The Closet. I Am Not Coming Out,” Jennifer Coates explores her decision to never live publicly as a woman. I can’t do the full essay justice in a few paragraphs — you really should read the whole thing — but here’s a passage where she begins to explain her choice:
“There are social and financial repercussions to transitioning that I cannot afford emotionally or financially. I don’t want to be treated like I have glass bones by well-intentioned cis friends. I don’t want to be told I am ‘so pretty’ when I hate my reflection. It doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse, and it’s almost impossible to get cis people to turn it off.”
The essay tracks Coates’ gender journey from childhood through her midtwenties, illustrating her life as a sensitive, feminist, self-aware woman who has been boxed in by other people’s transphobic expectations and bigotries. Throughout the piece, Coates conveys in beautiful, aching detail what it’s like to know who you are, but to realize that hiding that truth is the safest, smartest, healthiest choice.
Coates says her decision to remain closeted came with a spirit of acceptance and resolution. Like so many women, cis and trans alike, Coates has chosen not to define herself by her appearance. She could pursue a more feminine presentation, but she knows herself well enough to recognize she’d find this pursuit frustrating more than liberating. Instead, she’s decided instead to spend her life focusing on more important things:
“I wish I looked like that but I don’t and can’t. It sucks and it makes me feel really awful if I brood on it. That’s why I focus on my writing — I’d rather make things. Investing in and building things that aren’t my body helps me cope with the body issues I’ve been saddled with against my will.”
I’ve known a lot of trans people who have gone through similar decision-making processes as Coates. Privately they’ll share that they’re transgender, that they’ve known this about themselves for years — but when they imagine coming out, they cannot envision it ever going well. There is too much to lose. Too much violence to risk. Too many awkward, undermining conversations with close-minded people. Too many lost relationships.
“I know I make a handsome-looking guy, and I’m fine with people thinking that’s what I am,” my friend Lena once told me.
For some trans people, coming out is a beautiful and liberatory experience. I’m very glad I decided to do it. The improvements to my mental health have well been worth the struggles. But that just isn’t true of everyone. Not everyone has the buffer of privilege that I have — the whiteness, the thinness, the relative wealth. I have deep respect for people like Coates, who have weighed their transition options and chosen not to pursue them. And I know far, far more people like that than most cis folks could even imagine.
They’re not transitioning
My friend Lena is a manager at a tech company in Texas. In the past decade of her life, Lena has worked hard to overcome the intense depression, anxiety, and social isolation that used to plague her. She’s clawed herself out of the pit, developed healthy habits, and built a comfortable, successful life for herself. She has a lot of friends and is well-respected by her employees. Almost everyone in Lena’s life believes she is a man — but usually, that doesn’t bother her.
“I know I make a handsome-looking guy, and I’m fine with people thinking that’s what I am,” she once told me. “I go on dates with women I find attractive and who feel the same way about me. I have a good job where people look up to me. If I transitioned, it would change how people see me, and I could really lose a lot.”
Trans women are harshly discriminated against in the workplace, and they face a high risk of physical violence — especially in red states like Texas, where Lena lives. And with the Trump administration stripping trans people of legal protections at every possible opportunity, this is unlikely to get better anytime soon. In this context, Lena’s decision to remain male-presenting makes complete sense.
With close friends and romantic partners, Lena is up-front about who she is. She exclusively dates bisexual women, who find both her “male” appearance and her female identity to be attractive. All of Lena’s close friends use her female name, and refer to her with feminine pronouns. She wears feminine clothing, wigs, and makeup in the privacy of her home. But when she ventures out into the world, Lena lets people assume she is male.
“I do feel joy and peace when someone uses feminine words for me,” she says, “But people using male terms for me doesn’t hurt, per se. So it just doesn’t make sense to come out to everyone and to fight to be recognized.”
A gender transition is rarely a graceful and easy process. Whether a trans person uses hormones, surgery, or simply a new wardrobe to assert who they are, there are bound to be moments of discomfort and social awkwardness in even the best of circumstances. Far more often, there are serious social repercussions to changing one’s appearance in these ways.
Lena has decided that it’s better for her to just live as a woman in the private spaces of her life, and to continue existing at work as a man. Cis people often fail to realize it, but there are trans men, women, and nonbinary people like Lena in just about every workplace in the country.
When he was fresh out of high school, Miles began the medical aspect of his gender transition. This was in the early 2000s, when public awareness of trans issues was far lower than it is now, and access to transition-related medical care was subject to gatekeeping by doctors and psychiatrists. Despite all that difficulty, Miles was ultimately able to get the hormones and surgery he needed. Once he did, his transition was a pretty smooth process.
“People were calling me ‘sir’ within a couple months,” he says. “And after a year anybody who met me just assumed I was a cisgender guy.”
Every time you say something ignorant about trans people, you make the closeted people around you far less likely to come out.
As soon as people started seeing him as a cisgender man, Miles decided to go stealth about the fact he was trans. He deleted all his old social media profiles and untagged all the photos of his prehormone self. When conversations with new friends touched on topics like childhood memories or early dating experiences, Miles left out any details that would reveal him to be trans.
“Sometimes people think it’s dishonest, which I find so annoying,” he says. “I just want to maintain the impression in people’s eyes that I’m male, which I am. When somebody finds out that you’re trans, they start treating you differently, even if they saw you as a guy the minute before.”
I’ve heard other trans people express the exact same sentiment. One friend of mine, Geoff, noticed that as soon as he told his professor that he was a transgender man, the teacher started slipping up and calling him she. Even though Geoff has a full beard, and looks stereotypically male to most people, respect for his identity waned the second his professor became aware of his history. So I can’t blame Miles for wanting to obscure his history from the people around him.
Miles sometimes feels conflicted about his choice to go stealth.
“I feel like I could educate a lot of people about trans issues if I told them,” he says. “I wish I could turn to all those people who are panicked about sharing a bathroom with a trans person and tell them, you’ve been using the same restroom as a trans guy for years, and it’s me, hello.”
For the time being, though, Miles has chosen to remain stealth. He doesn’t think he should have to lose respect and recognition in order to educate the cis people in his life. I’ve met a lot of cis folks who don’t even realize people like Miles exist; they think that they can spot a trans person easily every time, and they fail to understand that for many trans people, a lack of visibility can feel far safer than public recognition.
They’re tired of fighting for respect
Recently, I overheard two cis male friends talking about me after they thought I had left the room. When I had been in the same room as them, their pronoun use had been 100% correct, and their language was totally affirming and respectful. But as soon as I was out of sight, one of the guy’s carefully practiced gender respect fell apart, and theys and thems started being replaced with shes. To my dismay, the other man didn’t correct him.
“They,” I called out, from around the corner. “Not she.”
“Sorry Devon,” the man replied hastily. He was obviously startled. “Sorry. I’m only human. I make mistakes.”
I think both these men would describe themselves as allies to trans people. But if they both respected me as much as they pretended to when I was around, it wouldn’t have been hard for them to continue using my pronouns when I was no longer there to hear it.
I can already anticipate a few outraged cis readers scrolling down to the comment section, ready remark about how I ought to be more patient and understand that people make mistakes. I do understand that people make mistakes. I let a lot of things slide. Too many, really. You have no idea how much patience I give to the cis people in my life. You have no idea how rarely that patience ends up being rewarded.
When this cis friend started misgendering me, I initially held back. I waited a few minutes to see if he’d notice the slip-up, or if the other man would correct him. That didn’t happen. The guy just kept calling me she and it went totally unremarked upon. If I wanted to show self-respect, I had to jump in. So I did.
I don’t think a lot of cis people recognize just how exhausting exchanges like these can be. It takes a lot of mental energy to constantly monitor how people talk about you, ready at all times to jump in and stand up for yourself. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that if I want to be respected, I will have to fight for it. No amount of patience and politeness is gonna make people change.
What hurts the most is how defensive and sensitive cis people can be in the face of even the most careful, polite self-advocacy.
When people get corrected for using the wrong name or pronoun, they often get really squirrely. They beg me to forgive them, or they try to explain the mistake away. Sometimes they’ll prattle on and on about all the times that they did get the words right, and how hard they are working. Sometimes they just tell me that I need to be more patient. But what cis people really mean, when they ask you to be patient, is that they want you to wait for a day that will never come. If I don’t hold them accountable, no one ever will.
Because all of this work is tiring and emotionally diminishing, most trans people decide to choose their battles. We pretty much have to. We have to make decisions on the fly about who is worth trying to educate, and who will respond poorly or ignore us. This means that for every outspoken, assertive trans person that you have ever encountered, there are at least twice as many who have chosen to remain silent around you about any harm that you’ve done.
They don’t even know they’re trans
The last kind of unseen trans person that you encounter on a regular basis without realizing it is the trans person who doesn’t know that they’re trans. Even though trans and nonbinary people are more visible than ever before, there are still lots of closeted trans people who don’t have access to the support and information they need to embrace who they are.
I had to talk to a lot of trans people before I could truly accept that I was one. I had to read a lot of detailed, heartfelt personal accounts by nonbinary writers before I could recognize my gender dysphoria for what it was. And even once I had an inkling, I still needed a lot of support and encouragement to push through the self-doubt and guilt. My insecurities kept telling me I should just shut up about all this trans stuff and stop being so self-absorbed and annoying.
Some of us spend years in “egg mode,” putting up defenses and letting the fear of judgment keep us from proudly asserting who we are. Some trans people still spend their entire lives trapped behind that shell of denial and fear. I guarantee you’ve met some of these people. In fact, you may have unwittingly said or done something to drive them farther back into the closet.
Every time you say something ignorant about trans people, you make the closeted people around you far less likely to come out. Every time you refuse to use someone’s chosen name or correct pronouns, you encourage more people to hide their truth from you. When you fail to stand up for the out trans people in your life, you unwittingly create more guilt and denial.
If you’re a generally well-meaning cis ally, it’s not your fault the world operates this way. You didn’t create the systems of oppression that have left so many of us hiding. But you still have a choice to make about whether you’re going to make matters better or worse.
I’d recommend always behaving as if there is a potential trans person in your midst, even if you think those around you are cis. Make sure your language is inclusive and that the public spaces you occupy are safe for trans people to inhabit. Stop assuming that trans people are rare, or that you can always spot them at first glance. Don’t speak or behave as if you think being cis is “normal” and being trans is rare. There are far more of us than you could ever imagine. By being a steadfast and consistent ally, you may get to know a few more of us.