On Stealth

Sometime late last month a young Detroit woman called Shelley Hilliard was murdered. Whoever killed her wasn’t satisfied with her death. They also decapitated and dismembered her, and tried to burn the pieces of her body. As yet the police have no leads, but it appears to have been a case of a deliberate ambush outside her home, and the most likely motive for her killing was simply that she was trans. She was 19.

Shelley Hilliard wasn’t the first trans person to be murdered this year, and she won’t be the last. The numbers of trans people in the world are not large, but they are killed, often brutally as Shelley was, at a rate of about one every 72 hours. Most of the victims, like Shelley, identify as women. Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. You can find the roll call of some of this year’s dead here.

Given the date, and the fact that the My Transsexual Summer series is still airing in the UK, this is a good time to talk about “stealth”, an issue that generates a lot of controversy in trans circles.

Back when gender reassignment first became popular the medical profession adopted a standard narrative for trans people who underwent treatment. The plan was that they should prove themselves by living in their desired gender for a couple of years and, if they passed this “real life test”, they would be allowed surgery and could disappear into society to live their lives as “normal” men and women.

Time has shown that while this narrative might work for some people, it is by no means suited to all. To start with there are many trans people who do not wish to simply swap one socially accepted gender for the other. They want something different. In addition, even if they do fully identify as either male or female, there are many good reasons why not every trans person can undergo surgery (the most obvious being that they can’t afford it). There is also the issue that if you want to campaign for trans rights you can’t disappear into society, you have to be publicly out as a trans person.

As a result of these issues, trans activists have become more and more suspicious of the standard narrative. This suspicion has been exacerbated by some of the words used to describe the process. A trans person who is not openly trans in their day-to-day life is described as living “in stealth”, a term that suggests a certain level of dishonesty, and which fits right into the standard transphobic idea of the trans woman as a “deceiver” (see the film, The Crying Game, for a classic use of this trope).

Also living in stealth requires that the trans person “pass” for their preferred gender. This can be very difficult for some trans people without expensive cosmetic surgery, and again the word has problematic associations. Back in the days when racism was a much bigger issue that it is today, people of color who could “pass for white” were able to live in better parts of the town and get jobs normally reserved for white people. The idea of “passing” is thus tainted as meaning being a traitor to one’s kind, and pretending to be something one is not. This narrative was lapped up by radical feminists some of whom continue to maintain that trans people can never be anything other than the gender assigned to them at birth.

The term “pass” also has connotations of succeeding at some sort of test. Trans people who do not “pass” are sometimes seen, by the authorities, by other trans people, and even by themselves as somehow having “failed” to correctly complete the process. No one would say that someone fitted with artificial legs was a failure because he isn’t as athletic as Andre Pretorious, but a trans woman who, after treatment, fails to be beautiful is regarded as a failure and a joke. This is not a healthy situation.

So a counter narrative has grown up. According to this way of thinking, trans people who “pass” and live in “stealth” are dishonest, are failing to do their bit for the community, and perhaps even deserve to be outed as a punishment. Meanwhile those who did manage to live in stealth would often distance themselves from those who were unable to, or unwilling to, pass, leading to unpleasant divisions within the trans community.

Along the way, the world has changed. The original trans narrative pretty much expected people to discard their old lives and take on new ones. That’s fine if you have no family, or your family has rejected you. But with increasing social acceptance of trans people, families are becoming more understanding, and people are transitioning at a much earlier age when parental support is vital. Even many older trans people who have taken time to come to terms with their feelings, and have married in their birth gender, now choose to stay with their partners. The UK’s requirement that, in order to be legally recognized in their new gender, such people must divorce and enact civil partnerships instead, is starting to look more and more anachronistic and cruel.

Furthermore, the significant increase in identity management by government, and the creation of online identities by most citizens, makes it very difficult for someone to just disappear and start a new life. These days people have Facebook profiles created for them by their parents when they are born, and these get filled with photos throughout their childhood. It is starting to look suspicious if you don’t have such an identity trail. Jane Fae has a recent blog post about how laziness on the part utilities and poorly designed IT systems are making it very hard to trans people to get their names changed online.

Given all of this, the standard trans narrative has changed. These days what happens is that you express your desire to change gender as soon as you are aware of it. Some jurisdictions allow children to change gender roles at school. Puberty blocker treatments can be used to stave off the unwanted effects of adolescence until the patients are legally old enough to have surgery. There are clear issues with how this process is managed, especially if the child changes roles at school, but most older trans people would agree that this is a far better state of affairs than what they had to go through.

Nevertheless, the issues are not going to go away quickly.

Part of this is political. Currently I am reasonably happy with my appearance (though I put on a lot of weight while my shoulder was seriously injured and I need to get it off again). Most of the time I am accepted as female by strangers I meet in my daily life. In other words, for the most part, I pass. I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by transgender activists that I have a moral duty to modify my appearance so that it is obvious to all than I am a trans person, not a woman. Well sorry, but no. The whole point of trans rights is that people should be allowed to live their lives the way that suits them, not that gender roles and identities should be imposed on them in order to further a political agenda. That applies equally to radical feminists, hardline transgenderists, and the Pope, all of whom can take their “one true way” and stuff it.

But mostly it is practical. As we have seen from the documentary series, My Transsexual Summer, anyone who is publicly identified as trans faces enormous difficulties in life, in particular in getting a job. And today reminds us that to be publicly identified as trans puts you at risk of your life. That may not be so great a risk in the sort of communities in which I live, but in other parts of the world, even in poorer parts of the USA, the death rates are horrific. According to this post on Equality Network, globally the average lifespan of a trans person is just 23 years. Many deaths are due to suicide, poverty, or inability to get health care, but huge numbers are the result of murders.

I should note also that passing won’t save you. Shelley Hilliard, like Gwen Araujo before her, transitioned as a teenager. Both girls were good looking. Shelley lived at home with her mum. People in the community must have known she was trans. My suspicion was that she was killed, not because she looked like “a man in a dress”, but because a few young men couldn’t process the fact that they were sexually attracted to her with their belief that she was “really” male. When men accuse trans women of being “deceivers” any deceit that happens is generally inside their heads. If you are pretty and openly trans, that confuses them, and they blame you.

If the issues were just personal then it would be easier, because it would only be yourself that you were putting at risk by transitioning. But most people have families, and those people are also put at risk. Some of those relatives will be children: nieces and nephews, perhaps even your own kids. Every parent wants to protect their children, and any sign of difference can be an excuse for bullying at school. Sometimes parents feel they have to cut themselves off from trans relatives for the sake of their kids. The old style narrative kept such people happy, because it was your duty as a trans person to disappear and start a new life.

For my own part I had responsibilities. People were depending on me for the money I could bring in. I had the skills to get well-paid work, but I could only get that work if I passed well. And that’s not just prejudice at work. In the consultancy business everyone has to look the part. The men need to be well groomed and sharp-looking as well as the women. As it happens, I’m perfectly comfortable with trying to look smart and attractive, though the former is much easier than the latter. So essentially I was “stealth” at work, even if I could be more open about myself with friends.

All that changed when I won my first Hugo. Suddenly I had a public profile, and got talked about. The first person to out me publicly was not a trans-hater, or even someone who disliked me, but a left-wing activist I had thought of as a friend who presumably thought I had a moral duty to be out. Since then I have talked a lot more about trans issues on this blog, though it wasn’t until I was free of financial obligations to others, and was no longer dependent on my mother for somewhere to live, that I have felt able to be vociferous about things.

Eventually, I think, the existence of things like Facebook will make stealth impossible. I also think that the more out trans people we have, the more likely it is that society at large will come to accept us rather than hate and fear us. Equally, I very much understand that not everyone is as free to be open about their lives as I now am. Not everyone is able to be, or wants to be, an activist. I won’t criticize anyone who feels that they need to live in stealth.

Nevertheless, those of us who are out activists need to move fast. It is still the case that being out and trans often means being homeless and penniless. At least the possibility of stealth gave people hope of starting a new life. Thanks to our increasingly computerized civilization, that possibility is vanishing fast. If it becomes obvious that there is no hope, and that transitioning condemns you to at best a life of poverty, at worse to a brutal death, we’ll be back to a situation in which trans people won’t dare consider trying to be themselves.

11 thoughts on “On Stealth

  1. Great post Cheryl. I don’t think many people outside the trans community are aware of the narratives you describe. I’ve been attending a gender non-conforming discussion group for a couple of months now and it’s new to me. Thank you for writing this.

  2. . I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by transgender activists that I have a moral duty to modify my appearance so that it is obvious to all than I am a trans person, not a woman. Well sorry, but no. The whole point of trans rights is that people should be allowed to live their lives the way that suits them, not that gender roles and identities should be imposed on them in order to further a political agenda.


    I swear some activists on the left–in many different movements–would like us all to wear badges/school uniform so they can tell where to pigeonhole people.

    1. I blame it on the RadFems. In much the same way as some transsexual women try to buy the support of the Patriarchy by conforming to the binary and rejecting genderqueer folks, so some activists try to buy the support of the RadFems by insisting that every trans person must reject the binary. When you represent only a part of a very small minority the temptation to buy into someone else’s narrative in order to receive validation is intense.

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