The Cost of Transgender Visibility


Trans people are surprisingly visible nowadays. You’ll find us popping up regularly in the news, press releases, and even in Parliament. You’ll mostly hear about our effects: annihilating nature (according to the Pope), erasing women, cheating at sport, threatening children with “social contagion” (whatever that is), silencing journalists and academics (who tell us all about it on national media), distracting everyone with our pronouns, or just being denied access to rape crisis and domestic violence services, or vital medical care. We’re busy people, apparently.

Or perhaps you missed those stories – there’s always lots of news and no real reason to pay attention to stuff that doesn’t affect you. Maybe you’re just aware trans people are a thing nowadays in a way we weren’t before. That’s not quite true, of course: we’ve always been here but now we’re more visible.

Make Space for Trans Voices

For all this visibility, though, it’s much less likely you’ve heard from a trans person. We only seem to exist in the abstract, in vague crowds, or implicitly in short and careful statements by LGBT+ organisations who’ve been asked to “provide balance”. We’re news when we’re a threat, but when you pull in the focus and allow us to speak the threat vanishes. Anyone with a marginalised identity knows how this works. We’re not special – it just happens to be our turn this time.

Why does this matter? Visibility is how trans people find and support each other – particularly important when historically doctors have pushed us to become invisible and pass for cis – and how we make the world aware of the discrimination we face. But of course, the cost of visibility is that it makes us targets for the small minority of bigots who’d prefer us not to exist. And when those bigots are able to dominate the public conversation, this is what we see – visibility that gives maximum cost for minimum benefit.

The solution is for trans people to speak up and the majority of cis people who aren’t bigots to amplify them. But speaking up carries a cost – harassment, online or offline, endless exhausting “debates” over our right to exist in public, or increasingly just the fear of being targeted. I’m seeing a groundswell of cynicism about visibility among my trans friends as they get tired and burn out. They just want to be able to live their lives in peace, and who can blame them?

If You’re Cis, Here’s How You Can Help

So if you’re cis and you’d like to help then keep an eye on the news and ask yourself: where are the trans voices? What would that article have been like if a trans person had written the opening paragraphs and the bigots got one sentence for “balance”?

Carry that thinking into conversations you have about the news, especially when there are no trans people around (that you know of, anyway. Maybe someone’s afraid to out themself). Shut down the bigots when they speak up, to make space for trans voices. And consider the gestures my friends are cynical about: give your pronouns when you introduce yourself, say “pregnant person” and “all genders”, show a discreet Progress Pride flag (the one with trans colours in the chevron). It doesn’t help us directly, but every small gesture of inclusion is a pushback against the discourse of “controversy” and “debate” and makes us a little safer.

Sophie Dodsworth works in the SOAS IT Department, and as an advocate for trans inclusion at SOAS.

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