If you had asked me, when I first came out as transgender, if I wanted to be seen, I would have said yes. I wanted people to really see me—the way I saw myself: as male. But, in truth, what I really wanted was to be so ordinary that I completely blended into a crowd of men. I wanted a beard, a deep voice, a flat chest, a driver’s license and birth certificate and passport that declared me male. I wanted to be invisible.
I’ve spent five years working toward that goal: injecting testosterone, legally changing my name and gender, carefully cultivating my facial hair until even some cisgender men are jealous. In most ways, I’ve done it. I haven’t yet saved the six grand I’ll need to have a surgically altered chest, but a $30 cloth binder I bought on Amazon works well enough for now. My birth certificate still says female, but I can typically use my passport instead. My voice is a little higher than I’d like—I still get “ma’am”-ed on the phone and in the drive-thru a significant percentage of the time—but I can reach the low notes when I sing Garth Brooks at karaoke and my voice doesn’t really catch anyone’s attention. If you ran into me at the bar, at the grocery store, at the bank, wearing my usual uniform of jeans and a flannel shirt and work boots, you’d have no idea that I was anything other than an ordinary guy in his late twenties. And that’s exactly what I want—what I’ve always wanted.
When I first started my transition, I was twenty-four years old and about to begin my second year of graduate school. Everyone I interacted with on a daily basis—my friends, my classmates, my professors, my students, even the baristas at my favorite coffee shop and the bartenders at the drive bar where we sang karaoke every Tuesday night—all knew me both before and after the transition. Even when I met new people, after I began to be seen as male, I knew they would, eventually, find out. For a city with 850,000 people, Columbus, Ohio can feel incredibly small and it was practically guaranteed that anyone I met was also friends with one of my good friends, or would be within weeks. Even if I didn’t address it directly with them (I didn’t, for example, explain to Karen the bartender why I suddenly had facial hair), everyone knew who I was: that I was male, but also that it wasn’t quite that simple. I didn’t have—and therefore didn’t have to make—a choice.
Then, a couple months after I turned twenty-seven, I moved to a new city for a new job at a new university. While most of my colleagues know, having read my CV and listened to me talk about my writing during the campus visit, I don’t think I’ve had to tell anyone since my first week in town, when I met the other new faculty members and they asked, “So, what do you write about?” I had to decide, pretty quickly, who needed to know and who didn’t—and who I wanted to know. I went from having a 90/10 split between my friends and colleagues and acquaintances who did and didn’t know to something more like 20/80. Although Muncie, where I now live, is much smaller than Columbus, there’s a much bigger divide between my friends who know and my friends who don’t. It’s easier to remain invisible.
I essentially live two lives here: the first is the guy who writes personal essays about his gender identity and who, if prompted, tells his colleagues (and occasionally his students) what he writes about. That’s who I am in faculty meetings, in classrooms, in my office hours, at writers’ conferences.
But then there’s my second life, where the most out-of-the-ordinary thing about me is that I use the phrase “to be” (i.e., this needs to be cleaned—instead of this needs cleaned, the favored sentence construction among Muncie natives). That’s who watches football on Sunday afternoons and plays bar trivia on Tuesday nights and grades essays on Saturday at Starbucks. In this second life, I question everything I post on Facebook and Twitter because I’m friends with the other trivia night regulars and the guys who talk to me about football at the bar. I’m always afraid they’ll figure it out. I’m careful to change the details when I talk about my childhood—girl scouts becomes boy scouts, softball becomes baseball, gym teachers become men, the crushes I had on girls in high school caused angst for boring teenage boy reasons.
I’m not sure why I’m so afraid they might find out. While there are a handful of people who might look at me differently, who might not want to hang out with me anymore, I’m sure the vast majority of my friends wouldn’t care. My friends Craig and Dylan, both bartenders at the bar where I spend most evenings, would probably say, “Oh, okay. You want another beer?” They give me shit about many things—my bike helmet that lights up, the way I act after a couple too many glasses of wine, my love of the Buffalo Bills in Colts country—but I don’t think they’d ever even mention it again if they knew. I think what would bother me most is that I would know that they knew.
Sometimes, on Wednesday nights, it’s just me and Craig and our friend Andy at the bar late at night, and the three of us end up sitting there for a couple hours, watching whatever game is on TV, and talking. All of a sudden Andy’ll ask, “You have to take a road trip from Muncie to Jacksonville, Florida,” and Craig will make a joke about Jacksonville and then Andy will say, “And you have to go with either a white guy with dreads or a born-again Christian. Who do you choose?” There’s nothing about this conversation that’s gendered, nothing about it that is unique to three guys talking to each other, and yet there’s something about the way they act around me—the way they all act around me, the other men who hang out there in the evenings—that makes me feel like I’m part of the club, like I belong, like I’m just like them.
I’m not afraid that they’ll treat me differently. They’re nice guys, good guys, who wouldn’t do that. But I’m afraid that I’ll believe they’re only treating me that way to be nice, and good—that they will see me differently and just won’t ever say anything.
I wonder, sometimes, if I have an obligation to be visible.
I’ve been lucky: my family, even my great-uncle Bill, now in his 80s, accepted me for who I am. My friends, almost without exception, supported me. While the National Center for Transgender Equality found that the transgender community’s unemployment rate is twice the general population’s and nearly a quarter of their survey respondents had been or currently were homeless, I am—despite my six-digit student loan debt—solidly middle class. I have a good, stable job with health insurance. I’m not rolling in dough, but I’m able to afford my mortgage, car, student loan, credit card, and utility payments every month and still have enough left over to buy groceries and put gas in my car and eat out a couple nights per week.
I worry, sometimes, that when I stay silent, I’m privileging my own comfort over the lives of transgender kids. I know that may seem like a stretch, but I’m not sure that it is. Trans kids and teenagers and even adults who come out later in life struggle to see the success stories. Now we have Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner, but even that is such a limiting view. What happens when you aren’t already rich and famous? There’s Laverne Cox, sure, but what about the kids who look at her and say “I’m not that pretty or that talented or that lucky” and end up believing that the lives they’ve imagined are impossible? What about the kids who don’t want to be famous? Where are their role models—the teachers, the police officers, the mechanics, the farmers—who have gone before? Many feel hopeless, unable to see a future for themselves where they are seen how they see themselves—hopeless to the point where over 40% of transgender people attempt suicide compared to just 4.6% of the general population.
A few days after Christmas 2014, a few months after I started my job, a 17-year-old transgender teenager named Leelah Alcorn scheduled a suicide note to post to Tumblr and then, around 2:30 in the morning, walked onto Interstate 71 on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio and was struck and killed by a semi. In the aftermath of her suicide, it was revealed that she had come out to her parents as transgender at 14 and, after refusing to accept her gender identity, they sent her to conversion therapy and removed her from school.
I read about Leelah’s death in my office, during a break from working on my syllabi for my spring semester classes. I didn’t know her, but it felt like I did. There’s a picture of her that accompanied all of the articles I read, and which is now on the Wikipedia page describing her life and death. In it, she’s in a dressing room, trying on a black and white dress that falls just above her knees; she holds her cell phone in her left hand to take a picture in the mirror and rests her right on her hip. She doesn’t look up at the mirror. Instead, she’s looking at her cell phone, at herself reflected back. Her delight in seeing herself, the way she wanted to be seen, is obvious; she’s not smiling, really, but she seems like she is. She’s happy. I’m sure, in those early days when I’d go to Walmart in my small college town and try on men’s jeans and dress shirts and ties, just to see, that my expression was nearly identical.
In the weeks after her suicide, activists started the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult on Twitter. There, transgender adults—who had struggled, too, and managed to create a life for themselves—made themselves visible. They posted encouraging tweets for teenagers, for young adults, for the people who were struggling to understand how they could create the lives they wanted. I read them all. I wrote my own, so many times, and then deleted them all before anyone could see. It’s been over two years and I still feel guilty.
I know that my tweets wouldn’t have changed anything for Leelah, and I doubt that my tweets would have had much of an impact overall, but I wonder if there’s one kid—just one—who wants the kind of ordinary, boring life I’ve created. He hears from other trans people about moving to New York City or San Francisco and being part of a queer community, and he sees Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars and Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, and none of it makes him feel any better because that’s not the kind of life he wants. He wants to live in the Midwest, maybe, and he wants to be a teacher, and he wants to grow a beard and wear work boots and go to the grocery store. I worry that that kid needed me to speak up—needed someone to tell him that the life he imagines for himself is possible, that someone else has already done it, that I see him—and instead, I stayed silent, invisible.
A few months ago, I told two of my closest friends, Mel and Aaron. I met them at the bar, through a friend, and they’re part of my second life where no one really knows. I’ve been friends with them for nearly a year and they’ve quickly become like family. I spend Friday nights with them at high school football games and Mel’s family—her sisters, her parents—have welcomed me as if I’m one of them. I felt bad not telling them, felt like there was this huge secret between us that I couldn’t let sit any longer. I also just wanted someone from my second life, someone who wouldn’t care and wouldn’t treat me any differently, to know. It was exhausting to live these two lives simultaneously, to be these two separate people at once, and I wanted them to overlap, just a little.
And so, one night, after one too many beers, I leaned across the table in the crowded bar and told them. Neither one of them had known (I had been afraid that they might say, “Oh, we’ve known for months. Everyone does.”), hadn’t even suspected, but they weren’t shocked—or even surprised, really. Mel’s brother-in-law, another good friend, had asked her a few weeks before if I was. He has transgender friends and had started to suspect that I might be, too. It didn’t matter, really, because Mel and Aaron—and Mel’s sister and brother-in-law—didn’t care, didn’t look at me differently, didn’t think it was a big deal at all. It was as if I’d told them I like pepperoni on my pizza, or that I preferred Coke Zero to Diet Coke.
For weeks, though, I wondered: was it the outline of my binder under my shirt? My distinct lack of an Adam’s apple? Is it something about the way I talk or hold my body or dress? Every time I looked in the mirror, I worried that there was something I couldn’t see that was giving me away. When I finally asked him how he’d known, Jarrod shrugged. “I saw some of your old pictures on Facebook.”
I know that this is unsustainable. Eventually, people—the ones who haven’t, like Jarrod, flipped through my old pictures on Facebook and noticed the way my facial structure has changed, the way my hips used to be more pronounced—will know, whether or not I want them to. I would someday like to publish a collection of my essays and, if it happens, I doubt I’ll be able to keep it a secret. Eventually, someone is going to find the essay I wrote about changing my name—which is currently the second result when you Google me—if someone hasn’t already. Eventually I will have to either tell people or deal with the aftermath when they figure it out on their own. I will have to accept whatever happens. I will have to get over my anxiety about how others see me. I will have to let them see me. But for now, I want to remain invisible—as invisible as I can be—for just a little bit longer.
Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Normal School, Slate, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.