The Stress of Stealth?

5 07 2009

It’s never been a part of my plan to go stealth although I’ve wondered what it must be like. I’m pretty open and, since I want to keep my job (tenure and security for life if I want it!), there is no way that I could have transitioned and be stealth anyway.

However, there are certain quarters in which I’ve tried to be discrete. I haven’t really been that open with my students, for example. Because of the perfect timing of me getting PhD funding and being able to take first, a part-time leave, and now a full-time leave, most of the physical changes necessary for me to be consistently read as male were done before going back to teach. And now I won’t be teaching for 2 years while I work on my doctorate. So there hasn’t been any need for me to deal with students so much.

Now, as a general policy, I don’t talk too much about myself in class. If there is a relevant example from my life, I will use it if it’s not too personal. There have been times when I’ve come out as queer in higher level classes with more mature students and smaller groups, where we had established a closer dynamic and there was an atmosphere of trust. But in large intro classes like the one I taught this past winter, that is usually not the case. But sometimes things slip out in the heat of the moment (I get very excited and passionate when I’m teaching) and I’m not into self-censorship.

Therefore, the one class I did have last semester was an interesting experiment. It was my first time teaching as male and I found that I had to think twice before I gave my usual examples. In the past, I would sometimes qualify something by saying: “As a mother . . .” I had to catch myself a few times before that slipped out.

Now, it’s not that I want to hide from my students. If someone asked me about it, I would be as honest as I could, depending on context. It’s just that I didn’t feel like having to spend a whole class explaining why their male teacher was a mother. I teach anthropology and therefore talk about gender and sexuality pretty frequently and I do make sure to raise awareness about LGBT themes that way. I don’t want to propagate the idea that only queers can talk about queer issues though. So I don’t want my personal things to become more central than the actual material.

But where I’m going with this is the stress of self-censorship. Having to think about what I am about to say is a new thing. And I did spend some time stressing over how I would deal with it if I accidentally slipped and called myself a mother. Or said something about having been a little girl. I know it would have been mostly OK and my students surprise me by their openness sometimes. So I wasn’t extremely stressed. Just a little apprehensive, one might say.

Another place where I got a mini-sampling of stealth was in my PhD seminar this past academic year. I had written to the professor before it began in September to let him know that, although he had a Nancy on his list, I was transitioning and going by male pronouns and the name Jacky and that I would appreciate being addressed that way so that my peers could get to know me the way I was. Again, it wasn’t a question of hiding. Eventually, I did come out to most of them. But I didn’t want *trans* to be the first thing they knew me as. The prof wrote back the next day, warmly saying that he would address me as Jacky and use male pronouns and thanking me for trusting him. One other student knew that I was trans but we knew each other before.

Throughout the year, I came out to other students here and there (well, there were only 12 of us) if it happened to come up. In one case, I was having coffee with a woman fom the seminar. In her late 40s, her kids are all grown up but she works on child development in her research. So we were talking about children, in general and our own. Of course, the question came up: where is the mother of your child? Do you live with her?

Awkward silence as she probably realised she was asking a personal question and as I assessed how to best answer her. Finally, I said: “I’m the mother.” The poor woman practically had a heart attack as she thought that she had been misgendering me for the past 2 months. So I immediately explained the situation with a smile.

After that, there were situations where I felt I had to hold back in group discussions. It wasn’t a question of hiding but a question of respecting the conversation that was happening. At lunch one time after a seminar, 3 of the women were talking about their childbirth experiences. I could have shared my own. As someone who has given birth, I had that right. But knowing that I would have to explain myself to 2 of these women who did not yet know I was trans and knowing that the conversation would shift away from their sharing and toward my transition, I felt that I should keep it to myself for now and simply sympathise with them. Interestingly, they all seemed quite comfortable talking about this with a guy there.

So, all these circumstances, and other similar ones, helped me see that going stealth is probably extremely stressful. The stress of self-censorship and of having to watch one’s words would be, for a mouthy person like myself, hell on wheels. My examples above are pretty tame since I could simply not say anything most of the time and avoid complications that way. But if I were stealth, I would actually have to reinvent my past.

I understand that many trans people have the desire or need to go stealth so I’m not bashing this at all. For myself, it just wouldn’t work. I would find it stressfulfor one thing. Secondly, with a child that calls me Mommy (and I want it that way), it would be impossible whenever he was around. Finally, I actually enjoy some of the fun things I get to say with my wonderful male voice: “When I was in the girlscouts” or “when I was in labour” or “Ouch, my ovaries hurt.”

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8 responses

6 07 2009
Shirley Anne

Hi Jacky. Reading through your post I began to think of my own circumstances. I am stealth but only to those who don’t know me, so I suppose to the world I am stealth. I am often asked about my ex-husband and I take that as a compliment of course and a re-assurance that any traces of masculinity are well suppressed. nevertheless I have been clocked once or twice over the last few years. I think the biggest threat to going stealth is one’s self and as you have pointed out, you are your biggest enemy in that area. You cannot be but yourself so if you are the talkative type and seemingly you are, then it is always going to be dangerous ground on which you tread. Of course if you don’t worry about such things and you can take them in your stride there is no problem. I admire somebody who lives up to the motto ‘Just do it’. It’s all about personal choice and as long as you are happy then that’s all that matters. I think your approach is well balanced in that you don’t overtly expose yourself but are open to reveal to understanding and inquisitive people. I wish you a happy future. Love

Shirley Anne x

7 07 2009
Jacky V.

Thanks Shirley Anne;

Yes, in a way I’m stealth to the world, as you say, in the sense that I don’t go up to strangers and introduce myself as trans. However, I’m open to letting people know that I am trans once we’ve gotten to know each other.

I’m very aware as I move through the world now that people walking by just see a guy and I’m ok with that.

Happy future to you too, beautiful lady 🙂

30 07 2009
nix

yes, i’ve been having a similar issue recently, as i am now read most often as a guy, and so i kind of need to make the choice to be out as trans (as opposed to having to constantly correct people’s pronouns, etc).

and sometimes it’s just a bit too much of a derail to ‘out’ myself: like, recently a cis woman acquaintance was talking about her problems with an ex boyfriend. i could have said, “yes i had similar problems as a woman with one of my ex boyfriends”, but then it would probably move the discussion from being a supportive one for her to being all about me being trans. so i just said “yeah, one of my exes was a bit like that too”, and left the trans stuff out of it.

and then sometimes i feel like i should be derailing more conversations, because it’s not “derailing”, it’s questioning ciscentric assumptions about people’s gender and history!

3 08 2009
Jacky V.

Hey Nix;

Thanks for adding to the discussion. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who simply chooses to omit this info in the spirit of not taking attention away from the actual topic. It sucks that we can’t just mention it and have the person go: “oh, ok” and move on but that’s the world we live in for now. When the conversation isn’t too deep, I sometimes do that though as in: “Oh, yeah, when I was in the girl scouts . . .bla bla bla” but then proceed with the conversation as though it were a perfectly normal utterance from a guy. If I’m asked what I’m talking about, I clarify that I used to be a girl then continue with the initial topic to make the point that this IS just another way of being and perfectly normal to me. In this case, it’s more in the spirit of your second point about questionning assumptions. It can be fun!

6 08 2009
nix

your post had me thinking . . . and i wrote this song, in some ways inspired by those thoughts!

10 08 2009
Nix’s Song « Tboy Jacky

[…] 10 08 2009 In the comments section of my post: “The Stress of Stealth?“, Nix Williams linked to a post with the lyrics and an uploaded recording of a song he wrote. […]

13 08 2009
BT

Hey, Jacky! Long time no read, but we return again.

The stealth thing is always fun. We’re in a similar situation, though more restricted: out to friends, and immediate family (to some extent), but not in general public. Part of that is safety, but Christ, does it chafe. Mac and Rogan are getting hitched, and one of their concerns is wearing their wedding rings and how they’ll explain if asked, since they don’t have a corporeal spouse to introduce, and since we’re hoping to be a librarian, there are questions of getting fired if we’re honest.

Argh.

15 08 2009
Jacky V.

Good to see you guys! Yeah, I imagine in your case there is the added dimension of whether to be stealth about being multiple. I’m guessing that there is even more stigma attached to that than there would be to trans.

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