[Edited to add context: I am a trans woman. I have not yet publicly transitioned, so I still present as male. And I am a police officer.]
In “Milk”, the movie starring Sean Penn, there is a scene which haunts me. In a strategy meeting with fellow activists, Harvey Milk points out that they’re making no headway because most homosexual people are in the closet, and so almost all heterosexual people think that they don’t know any homosexual people. He says that everyone needs to come out, so that people can see that homosexual people are regular people, just like them. One of the other activists says, rather guiltily, “I’m not out to my father.”
Milk hands him the phone.
(I could not find a link to this clip. If anyone has one, please contribute.)
Harvey Milk had a good point. I have heard a senior member of my family declare that she does not know any gay people. Her college roommate, back in the first half of the twentieth century, was nicknamed “Butch”, and since college Butch has lived her entire life together with another woman. But this member of my family doesn’t know any gay people…
People have to stand up. They have to speak out. If members of a vilified minority don’t testify, if we don’t represent, then people are free to go on thinking any damn thing they want about us. Someone has to be first, on the tip of the spear, and even if you’re not first, well, someone has to be second. And third.
I’m a long way from being first. Whatever I do to advocate for trans people, I do by walking down a road paved by others, trans and otherwise: Christine Jorgensen, Sylvia Rivera, Becky Allison, Gwen Araujo, Linda Simpson, Julie Marin, Leslie Feinberg, Monica Helms, Kate Bornstein, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stephan Thorne, Robert Eads, Helen Boyd, Betty Crow, Pat Califia, Lynne Conway, Mina Caputo, Christine Daniels, Brandon Teena, Ina Fried, Autumn Sandeen, Buck Angel, Wendy Carlos, Andrea James, and too many others to list. (There are many thousands of such people who have gone before me. If you are trans and conscious of a debt to someone I did not name, please feel free to comment.) Many of these people are dead, and most of those didn’t die of old age. They are, and were, human; all of them are/were flawed, and some I don’t admire. But I have to give them this: they stood up. Some of them are activists, some are advocates, and some are “just” people who live their lives.
They aren’t all paragons of bravery, either. Some went right to the brink of suicide before they transitioned. See Jennifer Finney Boylan’s superb She’s Not There. Some did their best to transition and then committed suicide.
But they all stood up. I haven’t stood up.
It gnaws at me.
It’s an homunculus which sleeps in my gut. Every so often, he wakes up and demands an accounting: What have you done to justify the oxygen you used up today? He and I are on pretty good terms, generally. I work in a job where I can often help people, where I sometimes I even have the honor and privilege to stand between the abuser and the abused. But more and more often, he says, “So. When are you going to stop hiding? There are other people out there, you know. They’re taking shrapnel. You could be standing next to them, in front of them, and they need you, too.”
During his warm welcome to my first blog post here, Robert mentioned that he appreciated my bravery in sharing my stories and my life. Over at the My Husband Betty boards, I mentioned that I had posted at Alas, and a poster there also lauded my bravery.
That’s nice to hear. If you press me, I know that I’m brave to some extent. My job can be dangerous and unpleasant, but I do it anyway. I’ve gone through doors when I knew the person on the other side was angry and armed. I’ve searched places where violent people were hiding. I’ve arrested violent offenders at gunpoint.
One day, in a fit of overintrospection, I worried that I might not be actually brave, but simply too soft in the head to really understand the risks.
I asked my wife, “Am I brave?”
She managed to hide her amusement, almost. After our many years together, she knows better than to feed me the easy answer, because I’m cussed and I’ll play devil’s advocate against her. She used Socratic Judo instead: “When you’re about to do something which could get you maimed, are you worried?”
“Well, sure,” I said.
“Then, yes,” she said. “You’re brave.”
Oh. Well, when you put it that way… Fine, I’m brave. But I don’t feel brave.
So it’s not about bravery. It’s about strategy and tactics.
I’m a field training officer. I help train new officers. And one of the things I tell them is: “Don’t be a hero unless you must. We fight ethically, we fight legally, we fight within the rules, but we don’t fight fair. Call for backup the moment you think you might need it. Always take backup with you to serve a warrant. I’ve marched at the funeral of a friend who made a stupid mistake and got himself killed. Don’t do that to your fellow officers.”
(I want to link to that friend’s name in the ODMP, but for now I’m not going to. I’m in the closet. The choice I make, here, not to recognize my friend by name, will anger some of my fellow officers, who will believe me disloyal.)
Other trans police officers have said the similar things to me, most recently today: “Picking your time is wise. Remember a coward dies may deaths, where the brave only die once. You are far from being the coward.”
So, good tactics. My spouse and I feed a family. We have a mortgage. I won’t do them any good if I stand up and get my head lopped off.
“Ah,” says the homunculus, “But then why aren’t you an accountant?”
Okay, fine. I take risks. But you have to draw the line somewhere.
“That’s true,” he concedes, “But it’s also what every coward on earth hides behind.”
Oh, shut up.
But he won’t, for long.
I want to be Toni Maviki’s kind of brave. She’s also a trans officer. Last year in New Hampshire, the NH Judiciary Committee was debating whether to move a bill which would bar employment discrimination against trans people. Toni testified. She said, “I carried a badge, and I protected all you people, and there was no law to protect me from harm.”
(The Judiciary Committee unanimously voted the legislation, and therefore the human rights of trans people “inexpedient to legislate”. Remember, kids, sometimes when you reach out a hand you pull back a stump.)
Like Toni, I want to be able to hold people accountable, to their faces. I want to do it by pointing at myself, not by talking generally about trans people and letting people picture whatever trans stereotype they favor. I want to be able to look people right in the prejudice and say, “I’m trans. Stick that in your preconceptions.”
But it’s not all about me, is it? I’m not just restricting myself. There’s a cascade effect. Because I’m in the closet, my mother can go to a trans advocacy meeting (which she has done, because she is awesome), but she can’t say something as simple as, “My daughter is trans.” She can’t own her own pride in parenting a trans person. My friends can’t wear this button…
…At least, not if they worry that someone might connect it to me.
When I discovered that I was trans, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in a closet. It took me longer to realize that every time I told someone, I dragged them into the closet with me. The fact that I needed my closest friends to know one of the most important things about me doesn’t change the fact that now they have to be careful how they talk about me and refer to me.
I want them to be free to speak, too. And until I step up, they can’t.
So I wrestle with this. There is no useful conclusion, here. It’s just this thing I have to wrestle with from time to time, which saps my energy and helps me to doubt myself. But there’s no cunning ruse I can use to escape it. I just have to work with it until I’m out.
I don’t really have anything to say, other than, thank you for posting this. I really enjoyed reading it.
And I think almost all of us — at least, those of us who have something they can be closeted about — are balancing between being out and brave in some aspects of life and taking discretion as the better part of valor in other parts. Except for a few extraordinary heroes, anyway.
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You know, I’m not sure about the premise here. It seems to me that you have to live your own life the way it’s best for you. If it works for you to publicly advocate then great. But I don’t see that you’re obligated to do so.
As a mostly straight, cis-gendered ally, I want to thank you for sharing this story. It breaks my heart to know that not everybody can be who they are.
And I agree with the previous commenter who said you should do what’s right for you. It may not be your time to advocate, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that time won’t come.
You said it well: It’s not about bravery. It’s about strategy and tactics.
You do what you can, when you can. Right now, you are thinking and learning and challenging yourself. When you do come out, you will be more prepared in the spiritual/psychological and in the practical issues. You are not wasting time, you are getting ready.
There are so many kinds of bravery. And there are so many different ways to serve. To achieve your (our) goal of the normalization of trans people in the eye of the public, we can use multiple strategies and tactics. Coming out is one of them, and certainly a necessary one. But acting as an ally in any number of ways can also be an important strategy and tactic. I work hard to support the openly trans people in my life. I work hard to promote and support legislation that strengthens the civil rights of trans people. In trying to be as much myself as possible, I work to subvert gender norms, and I don’t hesitate to point out examples of when gender is not so binary after all. I might be in the closet as a trans person, but I feel that I am nonetheless helping out. So, I have no doubt, are you.
Those also serve….
Being out is one way to change minds- for good or ill. Dealing with several closets in several ways in my life, rest assured that not everyone who is out is helping the cause. Nor is everyone who isn’t hurting or delaying it.
Allies who aren’t publicly known to be part of the closeted group in question often can do more good. For it is expected that those who identify with a group want to see changes in how that group is treated. When people not known to be a member (or in the rare cases not a member at all) also speak to the cause, it often gives people pause, and makes them consider the radical idea that all people should share the same rights.
When/if you come out doesn’t harm those you’ve already prompted to think, but you will find it lessens your impact on other. Admittedly, it bring perks to your life and to the debate in other ways. However, don’t lose track of the work you are doing for trans rights- and human rights in general. Working undercover so to speak is still working…. As is setting a powerful example for family, co-workers, and clients what honor, duty, respect, and service still mean.
Being out is the single most powerful political act any queer person can perform. But like any powerful political act, it has costs and risks. Most places, being out as trans comes with a risk of being fired. Everywhere it carries a risk of less obvious discrimination. Many places it puts you at physical risk. Certainly it has economic costs. And as I’m sure you know, it takes emotional strength just to go out in public as an openly trans person.
Coming out is not just a political thing: coming out can feel like being let out of prison. Even with all the problems, being able to be yourself is a wonderful feeling. Most people, once they’re out, wonder why they didn’t come out sooner.
So, yeah, coming out, being out, is really important. But there are huge obstacles, and no one but you can judge whether, or when, it’s right for you.
That was beautiful, thank you. Don’t forget that your words alone can help to change stereotypes. I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
Grace, you have a family to protect, a family which depends on you. They have the legitimate first claim on you, before the claim of other trans people. Or so say we who are family people first, and activists second.
So that I can admire, say, blacks in Mississippi in the first half of the last century, who put their lives on the line for justice (and many of them, of course, did not survive the experience), without being at all like them. People in Europe who died in the Resistance, during the darkest times. I’m not like them either. I would not have done that. I recognize that in myself. I’m not proud of it, necessarily, it isn’t very glorious, but there it is.
We too, we family people, we have something to contribute too. We will not see our names in lights, but also you may never know how much good you did just by being who you are.
It is a journey. You will find your way.
Grace: *hugs* to you. It’s a hard line to balance on – meeting the needs of your family’s safety and trying to stand up and be counted for who you really are. I agree with what others have said here. You don’t have to be out to serve. You’ll know when the time is right.
You’re in such a tough position, and from your posts here I think you’ve done a lot of work mentally making sure that you balance your commitments with your desire to be yourself. I wish you the best.
This resonates with me so much. My beloved of nine years is trans and genderqueer. We’ve been together since long before they came out as either, so a vast majority of my family and old acquaintences still think we’re a “fine”, “upstanding”, straight married couple. Being out with new friends is easy, but coming out to the old guard entails outing my beloved, too, and that makes it that much heavier and scary of a task. We’re a year and a half out now, and I can say it hasn’t gotten any easier, but I am reaching a point of utter fatigue with it all. I suspect I’m going to blurt it out at some point with my huge family all in one room, just to get it over with. I don’t really have a good point to make on this, I just wanted to say that I empathize so hard. <3
Here’s to lileyo, Grace’s wife, and all the people who stick by the people they love under difficult circumstances!
I am proud of you, Grace, no matter where you are standing.
Thank you, Susan.
/*Grace’s wife looks around the blog, nods sociably to new friends, sits back to be quiet again with her knitting and a butterbeer…*/
Egads. Folks, meet my wife, Lioness.
Careful, hon. Assume nothing. Some of these people can get Pointed and Earnest. Simultaneously.
P.S. – Thank you to all for the support. I have a more substantive reply than that fomenting my brain, and I will post when and if it, er, boils.
Welcome Lioness! I lurk a lot, having no real connection to this place other than having StumbleUpon’d the blog one day and thinking, “Wow, reasoned intellectual discourse about tough topics? Yes please!” and Barry being kind enough to tolerate my comments…and questions…and half-cocked ideas, etc.
So yes, this post is my (off-topic) appreciation for the blog, and a welcome for you to a place I enjoy a lot. :D
Aw, thanks! *blush* And welcome to you from me as well, Liioness. (I’m Barry, aka Ampersand.)
Now back on topic, comment-writers! (Cracks whip!) :-p
The manifested existence of and participation of Grace’s wife, a main support in Grace’s life, is totally on-topic and germane. I, as a totally powerless yet disturbingly attractive commenter, have spoken. Obey my chiseled good looks and despair.
Welcome, Lioness. You should know that Grace says absolutely awful things about you on this blog, thinking that you wouldn’t look. If you go search for them now, you probably won’t find anything; Grace is very tricky and undoubtedly pushed the special moderator-only Hide All Smack Talk About My Wife button the instant you appeared on the scene.
I’m out, as of this afternoon. Everything so far has gone completely according to plan. So far I have not heard a single negative reaction from family, friends, or co-workers.
Thank you to everyone hear who offered support and counsel while I was in the closet. Don’t worry, I will continue to post at Alas as I can. In fact, I have three things in draft form already which were waiting for this event, and they’ll be popping out of the oven in coming weeks.
Congratulations on taking the plunge, Grace. I continue to admire your courage. I hope it continues to go the way you want it to.
Good luck to you, Grace. The point of my comment #2 was that you can’t let someone or some group push you into doing something you don’t want to do because it’s best for them even if you don’t perceive it’s best for you. I’m glad that you’ve done what you’ve done on your own timescale and for your own reasons, not someone else’s.
Good thoughts for continued good reception!
Congratulations, Grace! I’m so excited for you – there really is nothing that can compare with the huge beautiful freedom that I felt after coming out (as bisexual and genderqueer, in my case), and I hope you have a similar experience.
If, in the coming days or weeks you feel like you need a bit of encouragement, I highly recommend Lana Wachowski’s amazing acceptance speech for this year’s Human Rights Campain Visibility Award: http://www.autostraddle.com/lana-wachowski-trans-director-of-the-matrix-gives-touching-speech-that-will-probably-make-you-cry-done-148515/
In the meantime, I’ll be sending heaps of positive thoughts in your direction : )
Go, Grace, go!
That’s awesome, Grace. Moziltov!
So much <3.
WHOA — gimmie a little warning here! I’m fresh out of fireworks and champagne.
Am I perhaps the first to say, “You Go, Girl”? :-)
This is just so absolutely wonderful. Good for you! Congratulations! Yay!
Hurrah! Congratulations and best wishes moving forward.
Yay! You’re so brave. I hope that you can continue in a positive environment, supported by those who love and care about you. I’m glad you finally get to be fully who you are. *internet hugs*
Also the partner of a trans woman (who has been out for 5 years now), sending MUCH love to Grace and the Lioness.
I hang out on reddit’s “my partner is trans” subreddit (link above) and the Lioness would be welcome over there for mutual support. (I also haunt Susan’s Transgender Resources sometimes.) Looking forward to hearing more from you two!
Be careful Grace, I have a friend that is a police officer and when she came out at work everything seemed to be roses until she was called into the chief’s office and told to give up her sidearm. The chief later claimed she had attempted to draw her weapon on him. Luckily her union rep was in the room and denied that version of events. Based on the things they have done since then I have no doubt the rep being there saved her life as the chief probably would have killed her otherwise and claimed self defense.
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