On Trans Ally-ship and the Ethics of Visibility: a conversation

Tyler is a lot of things: brilliant set designer and master carpenter, comrade-in-arms in various D&D campaigns, athlete and mentor-coach-athlete for the Special Olympics, dedicated employee and fiercely loyal friend. But last weekend, we sat down to talk specifically about allyship, his journey as a transman, and his role as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQA people everywhere.

Among the things to admire about Tyler is his iron-clad belief that his openness about his experience as a transman will make future transgender people’s lives a little easier. Two noble beliefs lie at the root of his advocacy strategies: 1) that when given the chance through education and dialogue, people are capable of being kind to and accepting of another and 2) that his willingness to discuss parts of his life outside of the realm of polite conversation will have real, tangible, positive consequences in the world. Tyler carefully considers the ethical dimensions of his decisions about his “outness” as he debates whether or not it’s “right” for him to stealth when he knows that his ability to pass as a man makes him less visible, which he recognizes is an option many transgender people, especially transwomen, don’t have.

Our conversation spanned a variety of topics but continually came back to the central theme of education and communication as ways, not to erase difference, but to render it at once more visible and more celebrated on all levels.

On ally-ship and appropriate questions:

KS: So let’s cut to the chase: what’s an ally to you?

TR: I think for me allyship is about not judging and encouraging others not to judge. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to have been there, just live and let live.

KS: Recently Kurt [my husband] read an article slamming Amy Schumer for an apparently insensitive interview with a transwoman. One summary cited her asking about physical anatomy which the author considered a rude question. But, as you know, cis people have questions about trans people that are not politically correct. Do you think there is any space for those questions in conversation?

TR: I hadn’t heard of that! Well, I would say that if you’re doing an interview with Amy Schumer you should probably know what you’re getting into [i.e., she’d probably ask overly personal questions of anyone]. I just wish that as a society we were more transparent to differences in general [and that it was okay] to ask about cultures, preferences, and misunderstandings without the perception of being racist and sexist. Like, I wish I could walk up to a Muslim and be like “So, Ramadan. Can you explain your holiday a little bit?” without it seeming like a rude question. Being afraid of offending someone and being easily offended closes the door to conversations. Openness leads to being accepted. [Tyler’s Note: After having watched the interview, I think that Schumer does show some of the kind of blind stumbling that a lot of cis people feel when trying to relate to trans people. What it comes down to however, is again, that need to educate. Bailey does just that a number of times. What bothers me more is the author’s problem with the way Bailey is presented, but nothing is mentioned about portrayal of transmen in similar situations. Take this January 2015 interview of Buck Angel, for example. He was asked similar “inappropriate” questions… how does he pee, about his sex life, sexual orientation. Where’s the frustration? Is it because transmen can choose to stealth much easier than transwomen? Is the assumption that all trans people are searching for invisibility or assimilation? Is it because it’s not offensive to ask men about their genitalia? They’re the questions that everyone want to know the answers to, and we’re only doing ourselves favors by being willing to talk.]

KS: How about questions surrounding a transgender person’s past? Off-limits?

TR: So that’s a really personal thing that’s different for every transperson. I will be able to “stealth”, which eventually hides my past [living as a woman]. But you have the opportunity to talk about your past [which can then open up more important conversations]. We can stealth if we want to, but that’s a decision. A lot of trans people don’t like talking about it…what they looked like, their birth name. It can trigger a lot of dysphoria. Simply put, it can make them feel really uncomfortable in their own skin again.

On gyms, bathrooms, and stealthing.

KS: What is “stealthing?”

TR: Stealthing is what some people call passing, but to take it one step further, it’s also the idea of not being out about being trans. Not necessarily closeted, but about not telling people.

KS: Are there places you want to do that more than others?

TR: The gym. I almost blew that the other day by dropping my ID on the floor. But I also recognize we live in a really liberal area and so it would probably be okay. But there was a transgender 17 year old killed in Alabama last week. Florida is considering legislation that makes it illegal to use bathrooms other than the one that corresponds with your birth-assigned gender.

KS: But how do they actually enforce that without violating your privacy?

TR: The short answer is they can’t.  I guess they could check your ID, but that won’t even work in all cases…my ID will reflect my new name and gender in a week. But it often constitutes illegal search and seizure like when Arizona was stopping anyone who looked hispanic to ask for papers. That begs the question….what does “transgender” look like? Being in a bathroom is not a crime until you start to do something creepy. You shouldn’t be able to legislate who can and cannot use a bathroom based on genitalia. On any given Saturday, I’m more likely to see naked coeds running down this street [we’re sitting at one of our old undergrad haunts] than I am in a men’s bathroom or locker room .

KS: Yeah, for some reason we seem to think bathrooms are sexualized spaces.

TR: Yeah, just like breastfeeding a baby is not a sexual act…breastfeeding a 30 year old man, different story. People just want to use the bathroom—not ogle other people.

KS: Though, didn’t you say you got hit on at the gym the other week?

TR: More gay guys hit on me now. This one guy was doing bicep curls in the mirror while looking intensely at me [Tyler demonstrates this amusingly]. I think gay men are the all-knowers of the male body. They both have a male body and are attracted to a male body, so if I can pass for them, I’m doing well.

MJ: Does being hit on make you feeling weird?

TR: I milk it.


On supporting a person as they begin their transition:

KS: So starting from the beginning of the process…

TR: Yes, generally speaking, discussing [a person’s] reasons for transitioning are conversations to be held with close friends and therapists—it’s not an ally’s job. [The other thing to consider] is that if a transperson is coming out to you, it may be sudden for you, but it’s not sudden to them. I remember talking to you for the first time that time we were driving to [one of our college friend’s] house and almost died in the storm.

KS: Yeah, and that was what, [does a bunch of math revolving around which one of our friends has lived in which city for how long] a good two years before you started transitioning?

TR: Yeah, people do not throw themselves out against social norms willy-nilly. For example, for my dad [my transition] seems really sudden, but it’s actually not.

KS: Do you think it’s weird that society kind of expects you to “come out” even though it’s really no one’s business?

TR: Society wants to know when you’re “normal,” and right now cis-hetero behavior is the norm and they want to know when and why you’re doing other things. But I didn’t officially come out everywhere, like work for example. I told a manager and a few close coworkers, but everyone still “knows” (and is remarkably supportive). People will surprise you sometimes. I’m just like “I’m going to talk about my fiance like you talk about yours and the gender doesn’t matter”.

KS: Does coming out “officially” offer you anything [advantages]?

TR: My biggest hang up about it is that people feel like it’s their business [when it’s definitely not]. But I also know that it’s a chance to explain and open up a conversation which will hopefully help future generations avoid the struggles I go through. Also, for trans people, at least at the beginning of the process, it’s how you get called by your chosen name and pronouns. Now I can introduce myself to someone as Tyler and they never bat an eye, but I had to come out so that people knew I wanted to be called Tyler and he.

KS: Like, maybe someday there will be a point where trans people don’t have to come out?

TR: Yeah someday… but we can’t even get racism right [i.e. there’s still institutionalized racism]. There will always be somebody who will be a dick about it.

KS: Ugggh, so true.


Things allies can do to support transgender people:

KS: Okay, so what’s one really important thing that trans allies can do to support transgender people?

TR: With trans people allies need to be good about sticking to pronouns, to try to reinforce and be consistent. At the Special Olympics [Tyler and his fiancee are both volunteers], all of our team had a lot of issues with pronouns (probably also related to their own cognitive issues, to be fair.) Our regional team coordinator told the team (who had known me pre-transition) about what to call me and which pronouns to use. One of our players responded “So she’s transgender, so what?” and then did not get names or pronouns right the entire season [laughs]. Yeah, they messed up pronouns and messed up names—but they were really trying, and [regional coordinator and Tyler’s fiancee] were really consistent to try to reinforce it. But my players were higher functioning so they had some fear that I was going to get mad if they messed up my name. Melissa [Tyler’s fiancee] assured them that,  No I would not be mad about that.

KS: What should you do if you don’t know about someone’s pronouns?

TR: Ask! What are your preferred pronouns? One of the reasons I chose a really non-neutral name like Tyler when I could have been Chris is because I don’t want there to be the potential for ambiguity. Some people do. Also, the kind of things people will do when your name doesn’t match your voice [Tyler works at a place that requires him to answer the phone using his legal name which is in process of being changed, so luckily this is a temporary issue!] I answer [in my now deep voice] Christina and people say back Kevin, Tristan, Ricky, “you mean Christian,” or sometimes just “bud.” There’s one guy who will treat me completely differently when I answer and he catches that my name is Christina—he’s a lot more formal and his pleasantries are different. But if he doesn’t catch my name he just talks to me about sports and guy stuff and is less formal. And he wishes me happy father’s day. [A guy walks by with a fantastically well groomed beard]. Wait, I want my beard to look like that guy’s beard. Classy beard.

KS: That’s a great beard. [discussion of Tyler’s impending beard, transitioning into a conversation of Halloween costumes for this year].


KS: What’s one issue that affects the trans community that cis people may not consider?

TR: [immediately] Healthcare. If you [indicating K.S.] bust your femoral artery, you’re probably going to expect to drop trou when you go to the doctor’s. Everyone in the operating room will cut off your clothes, expecting a vagina, and then seeing a vagina continue on with care. But for transpeople, [there’s a fear] that the doctor will be concerned about what’s between your legs [and whether or not it matches the expectation] rather than your femoral artery bleeding out. Like, I know of someone who identifies outside of the binary who had heart attack-like symptoms but delayed seeking care because they were worried about how they would be treated in the hospital [they were treated well]. Someone else I know who prefers male pronouns and is on the male end of androgynous went to the hospital and had no problems whatsoever after discussing his preferred name and pronouns.

KS: But stories about positive health care experiences aren’t the ones that are coming out in the trans community?

TR: No, people are just hearing about being denied care. Like, as a transgender person, or as a homosexual, or even as Puerto Rican, I understand that I can be denied service at certain places. But then I can choose not to buy the goods and services of those places and hopefully all of my friends will also refuse to go to those places. Those business have the right to not cater my wedding, but I have the right to lambast them. Medical professionals should not have the right to deny me care under their oath, and most understand that. I worry a little that we’re telling businesses that they can’t refuse our business through legislation.

KS: Because if we can legislate “morality” in one direction, we could also legislate it in another direction?

TR: Let’s be realistic: at some point I need to go back to my orthopedist. I haven’t been to him since I started testosterone, and he seems like a cool guy, but it is a concern that he won’t treat you again because of your change. We are lucky enough to live in a liberal area and I feel like if I had a medical emergency in Alabama, Texas….I’d probably venture somewhere above the mason-dixon [line] to get care because of concerns about quality.

The ethics of visibility (or how transgender people can be their own allies):

KS: You’ve told me that you’ve written about Caitlyn Jenner… [see Tyler’s post here]

TR: Caitlyn has done nothing to help other trans people. She was like “This is my Vanity Fair Cover. Deuces.” Aydian Dowling could have gone totally stealth and no one would have to know, but look what he’s done to stand up, draw us some positive attention and try to get things done for us.

KS: So do you think that celebrities who are transgender people have an ethical obligation to be advocates for the trans community?

TR: Caitlin has an ethical obligation to be aware of the way that her image affects other people. By putting themselves out there as celebrities, they accept a social responsibility. By putting herself out there, she’s got a social obligation not to make the rest of the community look worse. She makes it seem like [being transgender] is all about the attention and she has not addressed any [issue affecting the trans community] since her coming out. She makes it seem like it’s all about the attention: “hey everybody look at me,” [perpetuating the myth] that we all just want to be looked at. Also, she perpetuates an image of a transwoman that’s stealth, whereas transwomen have a lot more of a problem passing.

KS: So part of the problem is that she has not addressed the fact that her privilege, like her ability to get surgery to “feminize” her face is what allows her to stealth?

TR: And then it’s like “I guess if transwomen look like that it’s okay.”

KS: And the media just runs with that. Off topic, but apparently Rachel Dolezal came out as bisexual—which is fine—but it doesn’t excuse her from wearing tanning-salon blackface.

TR: What’s really interesting about that case is that people think about that in the same terms as trans people. If people can identify as a different gender than what they were born with, then people can identify with a different race than what they were born with. But to some extent, the LGBTQA and ally community has kind of brought that on itself by also refusing to recognize nuance and difference when they say things like “50 years ago it was illegal for a black man to marry a white man” as an argument for gay marriage. [Dolezal’s situation] raises a lot of interesting questions about feeling “what isn’t right.” I feel like I can’t say that she is wrong to feel like that [i.e. that she is actually black], but I can see where a lot of people are upset about that. We need to look as society at how we treat people different than us, instead of trying to say who can or cannot be different. Because, “Don’t shoot I identify white” isn’t going to work.


TR: I haven’t made a decision whether or not I want to be out for the rest of my life or eventually go completely stealth. I will be more privileged and less visible [as a transman] as I continue to transition.

KS: Have you noticed any differences in the way you are treated yet?

TR: I’m gaining white male privilege: People stop talking when I talk, expect me to pick up checks, hold doors. I’m trying really hard to not take advantage of this, especially because many transgender people, especially transwomen who tend to be more visible experience the opposite, a denial of privileges once had.

KS: Oh my gosh, you can now be accused of mansplaining!

TR: What’s mansplaining?

KS: Remember that time when [name omitted] corrected me about my views on high heels?

TR: Oh yeah. As a transguy I have experiences with women things. But if I were to be a stealth transguy—[my opinions/advice] will still be my experience, but it will come off to some people as if I were mansplaining.


TR: What it boils down to is…stop judging. Stop judging transpeople, or feminists, or gay people, or even white middle class dudes. Just stop. Different does not equal wrong. Right now, I’m really caught up in the moral element of stealthing—is it fair for me to go back and forth between being out and being stealth. For example, there are some situations [like an upcoming wedding that we are going to]. It’s probably the best option and there will only be a couple people [at the event] who knew me before. Maybe that’s a bad example—weddings are a special circumstance and it’s rude to draw attention away from the couple, but I’m still thinking it through. Like, is it ethical for me to stealth when I know that others can’t?


Tyler can be found blogging at https://chivalrysundead.wordpress.com/.


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