’Coming Out’ Doesn’t Begin to Describe It: Message from a Trans Survivor

Courtesy of TED Conferences

Geena Rocero at the TED 2014 conference

After more than a decade representing top brands as a model in New York, Geena Rocero compelled us to reconsider womanhood when, during a March 31 TED Talk, she revealed that she is transgender.

"Today, this very moment, is my real coming out,” Rocero told a TED audience gathered at the Vancouver Convention Center in Vancouver, Canada.  “I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror.” 

In the weeks that followed, the press treated Rocero’s announcement, delivered on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, with much the same fanfare as the recent string of gay athletes coming out in professional and college sports. Harper's Bazaar and Glamour called her story "inspiring" and “moving"; she sat for an interview with New York magazine and did a first-person piece for CNN.com.

Having revealed my trans status publicly, I struggled with Rocero’s use of the phrase “coming out,” which signals an equivalence between being public as trans, and gay people “coming out of the closet.”  According to this metaphor, revealing one's "true" identity is an act of freedom, of moving from the confined space of the private realm to the expansive public. This allows everyone to recognize you for who you really are, and for people to accept and celebrate you in your entirety without secrets and lies. But for trans people, to speak our truth is also to have it called into question.

In the gay community, “coming out” serves not only a vital political function—it allows gays and lesbians to advocate for civil rights and be a visible part of an established minority group—but also a social one: It marks their entrance into the gay community, where they have the opportunity to be widely seen as objects of attraction for people of the gender they desire. But while Rocero’s disclosure allows people to understand her factual history, it also, paradoxically, leads some to doubt her identity as a woman. 

The personal freedom to love and be loved does not accompany "coming out" as trans in the same way that "coming out" does for gays and lesbians. Instead of opening the door to a world of potential partners, going public as transgender often prompts many who had previously seen us as a potential object of love to view us as no longer worthy of their affections. It is to be deemed undesirable both by people who are attracted to our assigned genders, and by people who are attracted to our true genders. 

Seeing the standing ovation that followed Rocero's TED Talk, I wondered: How many of those in the audience would have seen themselves with her prior to her talk, and how many of them no longer did afterward? It's easy to stand up for someone for a minute, but much harder for the long haul.

When I revealed myself as trans to my entire class of fine arts master's students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, my classmates also praised me for being courageous. But then I overhead myself referred to as “he," both mistakenly in my presence, and intentionally when people didn't think I was within earshot. 

On more than one occasion, I heard those who I thought were friends warn men who might be interested in me about my trans status. When I was assertive in expressing my opinions, some assumed that it was because I was socialized as a man. Since I have the privilege of being mistaken for a cisgendered woman (one whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth), these types of experiences prompted me to keep my trans history hidden after I finished art school and moved to New York in 2004.

From that time until the publication of this article, I’ve disclosed my history only to men I’m dating, and only after I decided the relationship was serious enough. I've done this with five men, all of whom identify as straight. One of them accepted it immediately and we were together for almost five years. Another continued to date me, but we broke up six months later because he realized it was important for him to have biological children. The third noticed my surgical scars while we were having sex, and though we continued dating, the relationship was long-distance and petered out over time. 

I've been fortunate not to have endured the kinds of rejection many trans women face, some of which lead to violence, as in the case of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a trans woman in New York who was murdered after making the mistake of attracting the wrong man. But even without such experiences, disclosing to lovers always fills me with irrational fear because of the way such moments are depicted in mass media and the news. These are the kinds of psychological burdens trans women have to face in a culture that conditions men to reject us because of our history.

In my most significant experience of romantic rejection, I was blindsided when a man I was dating told me he was no longer attracted to me after finding out I'm trans, even though we already had sex and he told me how much he enjoyed it. This man, who defines himself as a feminist and an LGBT ally, also went on at length about how he felt an immediate emotional connection with me. "I wish I were bisexual," he said, as I became something other than a woman in his eyes after I recounted my history.

For many, even those who claim to be liberal LGBT allies, it's fine for me to claim my identity as a woman and for others to perceive me as a woman. It's just not fine for me to be a woman they would associate with intimately, whether as a lover or as a close friend.

Despite the challenges faced by trans people in going public with our personal histories and trans identities—greater even than those faced by “out” gays and lesbians—I’m not saying that we should hide. Being public allows us to be much more effective advocates for transgender rights, and allows those who are contemplating transition to have a broader and more representative range of role models. Trans people who are mistaken for cisgender also challenge the rest of society's own stereotypes about who we are and what we look like. And while speaking the truth about ourselves also leads some to question our identities, it is greatly satisfying to be surrounded by friends and loved ones who are able to see us completely.

The phrase “coming out” doesn’t begin to address what transgender people are doing when we put the fact of our trans identity into the public sphere. Instead of "coming out" as trans, I prefer to call myself a trans survivor. The phrase "survivor" recalls communities where members have endured traumatic experiences that they have turned into a source of strength. We have survived the battle against societal norms, against intolerant people, against our own self-hatred, to be the men and women we truly are. 

My decision to be public as a trans survivor is not about personal freedom or social belonging. It's about becoming a voice for depicting the complexity of trans experience. It's about the knowledge that every trans person who reveals their history reduces the stigma for others, and brings us closer to the day when being trans is something we all can celebrate fully.

"I'm skeptical of anyone who has never felt the need to question the status quo," the man to whom I most recently revealed my history once said to me. As my boyfriend who supports the decision to disclose my transgender history publicly, he joins me and other trans people in challenging what society considers normal.

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