One of the many problematic aspects of treating gay and lesbian (mostly just gay) experiences and narratives as the archetype against which all queer experience is measured is how it causes particular models and tropes of queer lives to be applied indiscriminately across the many varying identities that comprise our community All kinds of important nuances, subtleties and distinctions can get lost in this process, and entire identities erased. Concepts, issues and experiences which are complex or problematic in very particular ways for certain kinds of queer lives end up being expected to fit into the same patterns, and have all the same implications and meanings and values, as how they operate in relation to gay lives.
There are lots of issues that end up being treated as exceptionally meaningful and central to queer experience, often being sort of central rallying points for the LGBTQ rights movement despite their lack of universality, and how they really don’t have nearly the same implications for everyone. Marriage equality, for instance, is treated as sort of the priority objective in the push forward for legal equality even while the narratives used to support it can be dismissive of other queer identities, such as those who are polyamorous or asexual. Non-discrimination bills will be structured around sexual orientation while choosing to leave gender identity and gender expression out of the wording. The “born this way” narrative is pushed in increasingly dogmatic terms at the expense of bisexual, pansexual and gender-fluid experiences. Narratives of gay self-acceptance often hinge themselves on the idea of bisexuality not even existing. The “just like normal people” narrative pushes aside butch, effeminate, drag and transgender identities entirely.
And the concept of coming out, its significance and what it means, is applied indiscriminately across the queer spectrum, failing to consider the vastly different implications it carries for people who are not gay or lesbian… such as how it means something almost wholly different for transsexual experience.
In the archetypal gay/lesbian narrative, coming out is a singular moment of triumph and courage. It is considered one of the absolute most central and defining rites of passage in the life of the queer individual. Before that moment, there is a closet… stifled, ashamed, scared. After that moment, there is out… accepting, brave, unashamed, proud, free. The closet is self-denial, pretending to be something you’re not. Out of the closet and you are finally freely expressing yourself and your actual honest identity.
For trans people, it does not quite work like that.
For us, there certainly is a moment where we come out to friends and family and inform them that we are transitioning, or plan to transition. But this is hardly a singular action that moves us out of our shame and inauthentic self into who we truly are. Instead, the process of transition itself will often construct a new closet of sorts. In fact, the whole “closet” metaphor, with an outside and an inside, doesn’t really make sense at all relative to transsexual narratives. This gets complicated because we’re juggling far more iterations of identity than simply a closeted self and an out self. We move from our closeted, ashamed, pre-transition existence into a transitional existence, but the transitioning self is not the honest identity -in fact it’s hardly any better than the closeted self we were a few seconds before- and the act of coming out while cathartic and important does not in itself grant us arrival at an identity that is meaningful and true for us. The goal is typically to end up living and being accepted as our identified sex, which is a further step along a continuum of experiences, and full acceptance within that identity will, by the nature of the world we live in, often largely be conditional on the degree to which we can disguise our transsexual history and experience and leave those prior identities, including the transitional one we constructed through the act of coming out. In a way, we come out so we can find somewhere comfier to go in.
Whether we choose to be stealth or not, we will attempt to present ourselves in a manner consistent with our gender identity. If binary-identified, this means that our presentation is not wholly concomitant with our history, and in the eyes of the world we are disguising who we “really” are. That isn’t true, of course, and the self we are presenting is our real self. But binary-identified transsexual identity is largely predicated on walking a tightrope between acceptance of ourselves as trans while also trying to maintain social and interpersonal acceptance as our identified sex. The concept of a closet is useless here.
What we end up with is an endless series of disclosures. Over and over and over again in our lives, we will again have to “come out” and disclose our gender status… sometimes called “spooking” in regards to intimate partners, due to their sad propensity to get spooked out of their wits by that fact. This act, disclosure in regards to sexual intimacy, presents us with a horrible, anxious, and extremely risk (not only emotionally, but physically) confrontation with “closets” every time we attempt to pursue relationships. We can of course simply be so open about our gender that everyone knows before any kind of courtship begins, but that carries its own consequences, such as the risk of people dismissing us as worth dating and writing us off before even taking a shot at getting to know us and see if we have any chemistry. It also presents us with the challenges and complications of people pursuing us strictly because we’re trans. Disclosure is an endless series of tough choices, each one carrying the risks of broken hearts (or broken ribs), unless we end up lucky enough to find ourselves in a loving, long-term relationship and can finally put it behind us. We’re constantly hovering in an anxious space between “in” and “out”.
Even beyond romantic and sexual relationships, there just really is no definitive “in”/”out” dichotomy for trans lives. Instead we’re constantly weaving in and out of various degrees of trust and understanding, various types of relationships with varying degrees of information we’ve chosen to provide people. Some may understand our bodies intimately. Some may understand that our sexual identity and gender isn’t quite so clean cut. Some may know that we’re transsexual, but not know our op status or when we transitioned or any of that. Some may be so close that we’ve entrusted them with our birth names and childhood photographs, all the intimate and painful memories and stories of our prior lives. And these degrees will shift and change over time. Some people will be pulled closer in to our circle, and some may be cut away. We’ll negotiate and renegotiate our precise boundaries and what feels right for us. We endlessly walk our tightrope, and move in and out of an infinite series of revolving closet doors.
Each of these individual acts of disclosure, of expanding or contracting our boundaries, carries unique and individual significance. Rather than there simply being one overarching state of “out of the closet and proud to be who I am!”, we need to negotiate in each interpersonal relationship or context the precise dimensions of our “closet”, of the information we’re prepared to disclose and the consequences we’re willing to accept. What it means to have a trans person tell you their gender status is very different than what it means for a gay person to inform you of their sexual orientation. The potential consequences are different, the implications are different, the level of trust is different, and the way it effects interpretation of identity is different. While a gay man’s personal identity in relation to his sexual orientation may be “gay” and adding “out” to that identity is only a solidification and assertion of who he proudly (rightly) presents himself as, a trans woman’s personal identity (and outward presentation) in relation to gender is usually primarily just “woman”, and disclosure of her transsexuality will potentially compromise the degree to which that identity is accepted… rather than disclosure of “trans” and “out” being something that strengthens the identity she presents, it’s something that qualifies, modifies and possibly undermines that identity. The disclosure is an act of trust… trusting that you won’t use that qualification against her, and decide that it supercedes and undoes the identity she’s presented to you, and feels herself to be.
As said, there’s not simply two states for a trans person, out and in, but instead a constant renegotiation of boundaries. For me, at this point in my life, I am almost as out as a trans woman possibly can be. I’ve even been willing to take the risk and sacrifice of allowing my gender status to be a public identity, something I share openly with a potentially infinite number of strangers. But at any point in the future I may choose to renegotiate. I could choose to go stealth. I could cease my blogging, or simply begin compartmentalizing my meatspace social and professional lives as wholly apart from my online presence, and choose to keep my trans status quiet in the former. My relative degree of “passing” privilege would allow this to be a real possibility, and doing this would allow for considerable validation of my gender and generally make things a bit easier for me, a little bit more like a “normal” woman’s life. It could make me happier. And indeed, even as I currently live, I’m not walking around with a neon flashing tranny sign above my head. As I maneuver through my life, depending on my interactions, the degree to which I am accepted as a woman, a trans woman,or not accepted as either, is in constant flux.
Now what if I did go stealth? This is where application of the meaning of closets in the archetypal gay/lesbian sense to trans experience becomes harmful. Under that narrative, the closet is said to represent shame, lack of self-acceptance, limitation, cowardice and not being true to yourself. But for a trans person, going stealth can instead actually be a case of asserting one’s true identity and refusing to have it be compromised by a history you never chose. You can place the “trans” behind you and simply be the woman or man that you are, and let that be your identity (and the whole of it). Interpreting all queer narrative through a particular lens ends up destroying these important distinctions and nuances, forcing narratives to conform to concepts that don’t make sense for them, and leading to negative contextualizations of what can be positive, individual acts of empowerment.
It’s often been argued that the closet metaphor is in itself destructive, that coming out of one closet is to place yourself in another. You remove a false “straight” identity, but instead box yourself in to the limitations of an equally socially constructed gay, lesbian, bi (or other) identity. I find this interesting… not in that I feel that it isn’t important and powerful to assert one’s sexual identity and refuse to hide it, but in that it illustrates the limitations of the closet metaphor, and points out how the metaphor is entirely about how we construct our identity. When you imagine the available identities as only a choice between two constructs, that’s not exactly as freeing as “coming out” initially presents itself to be. There are so many more than two possible iterations of sexual identity. The degree to which trans narratives smash the closet metaphor to little splintery pieces simply by trying to stuff into that limited metaphor such a multi-faceted set of experiences based so much on the inherent complexity of human identity- personal, interpersonal, cultural – and the many individual negotiations of it, is highly evocative of how limited concepts can sometimes become, even if initially useful.
The closet metaphor IS useful. Absolutely. It does mark what is an important experience in the process of self-acceptance and actualization in certain kinds of queer lives. But when these metaphors begin to be applied indiscriminately, without attentiveness to what they mean in different contexts… when we begin unconsciously allowing the entirety of queer identity to be dictated by what makes sense for very specific, archetypal, “default” (and privileged) types of queer experience, we quickly begin demanding that other lives and narratives conform to it.
Queerness is about nothing if not variance. We need to be able to understand the variance and nuance that occurs within queerness, and we need to be able to adapt our metaphors and concepts to accommodate our beautiful diversity. What is a closet and prison in one experience can be a protective set of boundaries, or a wardrobe from which to clothe and express a meaningful and comfortable identity, for another.