On “Stealth,” “Passing,” and other problematic phrases.

When I first encountered the term “stealth” in relation to trans issues, it was used to describe the very specific and uniquely trans experience of temporarily presenting as one’s assigned gender. There are dozens of perfectly valid reasons why someone might do this, ranging from not being ready to come out to specific people or groups to simply being exhausted of explaining trans issues or having to justify oneself. So the term, as deployed in this way, is useful, describes a real, common phenomena, and accurately conveys the stressful nature of this dynamic.

 However, as I learned more about trans issues, I realised that the vast majority of trans people do not use the term this way. In the wider trans community, the term “stealth” still refers to not disclosing trans status, but while presenting as one’s actual gender. I should not have to explain how utterly messed up this is, but in brief, any intimation that trans people are somehow being deceptive or secretive with regard to their gender plays into a widely prevalent and deeply damaging transphobic myth about trans people “really” being their birth gender. When people, cis or trans, refer to trans people living as their actual gender and choosing not to announce to everyone they meet that they were assigned a different gender at birth as “stealth” it makes me wince. Like “passing,” it is a relic of a time and an attitude when presenting as one’s actual gender was seen as a mask or performance.

 Generally, opposing this use of the term “stealth” is relatively unproblematic. Most people recognise the problems with the assumptions it makes when they’re explained. Recently, however, there has been more pressure from the LGBT community in general on trans people to be “open” about their trans status, mirroring the more long-standing pressure for gay and lesbian people to be unashamedly “out” in all walks of their life, whether they are relevant to their sexuality or not. I won’t comment at length on that model here, save to say that it does not map across to trans people’s needs or experiences.1 It is the absolute right of every trans person not to disclose their trans status. It is also their absolute right not to be regarded as secretive, deceptive or duplicitous if they choose to do so. It is at once ironic and utterly unsurprising that a narrative about truth and honesty and pride would so totally buy into myths about the deceptive nature of being trans. Just because someone chooses not to disclose does not mean they are closeted or ashamed of who they are. Even more so than for cis gay people, disclosure represents a psychological and often physical risk for trans people. To expect or demand disclosure in this context is not just to demand that trans people expose themselves to danger for the sake of someone else’s comfort and ideological beliefs, it is also actively reinforcing dangerous and damaging narratives. Visibility and pride are not the same thing as exposure. Often those trans people that would be most at risk from disclosure are precisely the ones least able to control the circumstances of that disclosure, and every additional pressure is one more avenue of potential harm directed at them.

For most trans people, life is a constant grind of unwanted and unsought disclosure. It is at its most intense when the decision is taken to change one’s legal status and name (if that is the path the trans person chooses) and although it does lessen slightly with time, it becomes a constant background drumbeat as you find that in today’s information society, no-one destroys information unless forced to. Companies and government departments with whom you have had only the briefest of interactions with maintain details on your old and new identities in perpetuity, while you sail on blissfully unaware until an accident of communication brings you once again face to face with your old name and you have to explain to yet another complete stranger details of your intimate medical history. This grind obviously presents in different ways for different trans people. Those often taken as cis may experience it as sudden eruptions of incomprehension and prejudice, whereas others may experience a far more constant and overtly hostile set of reactions, but it is common in some form to all trans experience.

This right not to disclose (and, just as importantly, the right not to be implicitly judged by other LGBT people for that decision) is even more important as the UK continues towards criminalisation of non-disclosure. Non-disclosure of trans status is now a crime that has no parallel in our legal system. It has become a legal obligation that pertains to no other group in our society, not sex offenders, not violent domestic abusers, not convicted murderers (I should note here that I don’t necessarily think these groups should be forced to disclose these statuses – merely that the targeting of trans people has become so concentrated that it outstrips even the traditional hate figures of our society). Non-disclosure of trans status (or rather, a cis person’s perception of non-disclosure) is now enough to turn consensual sex into “obtaining sexual intimacy by fraud”, and to provide grounds for the annulment of marriage. Disclosure on these terms is not about openness and pride; it is about control and repression. It is about identifying, isolating and suppressing trans people. Taking control and agency of trans people’s own bodies and identities away from them has a long history of which this legal and social assault is merely the latest chapter. To imply, in this context, that trans people are somehow being deceptive by “concealing” the gender they were assigned at birth plays directly into this pre-existing narrative and should be resisted at every turn – and that resistance starts with examining our own language and the assumptions it carries.

 1 It should probably be noted here that in terms of the medical and psychological model for transitioning trans people, precisely the opposite pressure applied and was (at least until recently) official medical advice. Trans people were advised to move home, change jobs, and cut off relations with everyone who knew their old identity. This was justified under the name of “passing” but in fact presented a brutal isolation for already-vulnerable people. Julia Serano notes how this was almost certainly more about hiding trans people from public (cis) visibility rather than protecting them. Though no longer pressed quite so thoroughly, there is still an assumption that non-disclosure is the norm. Note the media coverage of the Lucy Meadows tragedy, and the disingenuous assumption from both journalists and the public that remaining in her job and forcing cis people to deal with her transition was the problem, not her transition itself. It will be interesting to see how this conflict between two equally damaging and incorrect official narratives is resolved.

 A request.

 This post has been very much written with binary trans people in mind – people who transition from one socially and culturally recognised binary gender to the other. I would be interested to hear the experiences of non-binary or otherwise non-gender-conforming trans* people with regard to disclosure and the concept of deception. What are the demands made on you to disclose? How do you experience the narrative of “deceptive” trans people? How do you cope with demands to justify your “real” gender when that gender may not even be recognised as a gender? How do concepts like “passing” and “stealth” apply when your actual gender is erased or unrecognised?

 Thank you.

Postscipt: Just after I finished this piece, cisnormativity published an excellent demolition of the concept of stealth by Patience Newbury, touching more thoroughly on many of the same ideas and problems I outline here. It’s well worth a read.


2 Responses to “On “Stealth,” “Passing,” and other problematic phrases.”

  1. 1 A
    July 27, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    very cool article (saw it on facebook). i wrote a little in response if you are interested in a view from someone who is nonbinary–>nonbinarythinking.tumblr.com

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