The Cost of Visibility

Listening to an interview yesterday with Susan Striker, Associate Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and author of the (recently updated) book Transgender History, I was struck by the core of her argument:

Transgender people have always been around, it’s just that now they are more visible than they used to be.

And they are visible – just last week, five openly transgender candidates won local or state elections. But such recently visibility shouldn’t be confused with “newness.” This isn’t some hot modern trend, but an intrinsic element of human nature that can be traced back throughout western civilization.

And perhaps paradoxically, at a time when advocacy for gay and lesbian rights has come so far, when the same-sex marriage is universally legal – transphobia and transmisogyny are on the rise.

Striker argues that this is the result of visibility – being out has serious costs in a world that prefers you stay hidden.

It’s a double-bind, really – there is well documented evidence that staying closeted results in real psychological and physical damage, yet the costs of being open – individually and collectively – are high.

This week is Transgender Awareness Week, an opportunity, as GLAAD says, to “raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces.”

Yet, it’s no accident that this week culminates with Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day to recognize and morn those who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence.

Visibility has its costs.

And that, perhaps, is what make some of the critiques of the transgender community seem so laughably strange to me. Transgender people are harassed, harmed, and go through a whole lot of difficult stuff in the process of becoming themselves. Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that if the costs of remaining hidden weren’t higher than the costs of being seen?

Visibility has it’s costs, yes, but it’s also critically important.

It’s important for individuals because of the real harm caused by staying hidden, and it’s important for communities because this is how things change. Because as long as the norm continues to go unchallenged, more people will have to remain hidden; more harm will be done.

I am so impressed by the work of my transgender brothers and sisters. I don’t know where they find the strength to engage in this difficult work, to face such tremendous hate, every day.

Transgender Awareness Week is an opportunity for the transgender community to be visible, yes, but it’s also an opportunity for all us cisgender allies to ask ourselves, seriously and critically, what we have done to make a difference. What have we done to elevate the voices of transgender people, and what have we done to lower the cost of visibility; to educate and inform ourselves and those around us.

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