When I identified as a lesbian, I really looked like a lesbian. My hair was cut in a faux hawk, I wore only gender-neutral or masculine clothing, I smoked cigarettes, and I drank beer.
It’s a stereotype to “look lesbian” but I looked like a lesbian. And I was proud of it. I was happy to be seen and read as a queer person. I didn’t really have to come out because it was pretty clear I was something other than a heterosexual, cisgender woman.
When I started passing as male, something interesting happened. My queer identity was erased. It’s a privilege to be seen as the cisgender male I identify as, but it also meant that my identity as a queer person became invisible. I suddenly had to come out again, something I hadn’t had to do for a long time.
Before transitioning, I was in an obviously lesbian relationship. I had to think about where I was and how safe it may be when I wanted to hold her hand in public. Now, my wife and I almost always pass as a cisgender, heterosexual couple. It makes us feel both safer and also less seen.
I know I’m not alone in this dilemma either. Many trans guys like me are both happy and sad by their newfound passing privilege. To pass means to be seen as cisgender. It means that for many trans men our months, years, sometimes decades, of identifying as masculine women have disappeared.
I worked hard to come out and be seen as a lesbian. Now that identity was erased to make way for something else. I’m proud to be a trans man, but I was also proud to be a lesbian and a masculine woman.
The invisibility of my own identity is not unique to me or to many men of the transmasculine population, as well as bisexual people in different-gender relationships, agender or gender queer people who are read as cisgender or who fall into binary-passing identities, asexual individuals, and many other people in our queer community. I also know of a few lesbian couples where one partner transitions to male and they are now in a straight-passing relationship.
To be visible is also to be a target. It is often the visibility of trans women, particularly trans women of color, that leads to transphobic violence and even murder. Because my queer identity can be hidden, I am safer in society. I have the option to never tell anyone about my identity as a transgender person. Not everyone has that option. Nevertheless, I choose to be out because I want people to know that this is what trans looks like. I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to be out or who can’t be out. There are many reasons why someone may want to live their life without their identity as a sexual or gender minority in the forefront.
There is a lot of privilege in passing as a white, cisgender, straight male in our society. I don’t forget that. I worked hard to be who I am and I’m proud of it. Now, I have the choice to come out or not. There’s no shame in being seen as someone other than who you are.
I just have to remember to use my privilege to empower those less fortunate than myself, those who don’t have a voice, and to step back when others’ voices need to be elevated. When we think about Pride this month, let’s not forget the hate those who are visible constantly receive and also how those who pass in our society also belong.