What Happens When We Don’t Have To Be Out

Clara Barnhurst

I realise now that I justified my visibility as a transgender woman with politics. It’s easy to do when your existence is a political statement to some. Truth is, much of the time since coming out hasn’t left me with much choice except for being always out. There are too many holes to patch to be invisible. I can’t take on work without showing my identity documents. I can’t get the treatment I need from my doctors without telling them why. I can’t wear the clothes I feel comfortable in without comment if I don’t have breasts and hair, but I briefly played with it anyway. It was too much visibility for me.

I started asking my family not to out me. At this point, the people they come into regular contact all know the story. Anybody new won’t know about me any other way and there’s no need for them to know. I started with my youngest brother and I expect the word is around now — news filters around my family quickly. My request didn’t come as a surprise; my brother just said, “That’s understandable.” End of discussion, he’s on it. I’m lucky to have my family.

This change in attitude isn’t a surprise. It’s a gradual shift; a thing I’ve come to understand over the two years I’ve spent out and transitioning. Acting on it is new, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done it sooner had I the option. Now that I have the option, I’m not sharing as readily.


One phrase that stuck with me was said in a talk given by an out transgender acquaintance, “Visible for those who can’t be.” It’s a noble thing: many places in the world — most places — people aren’t safe being visibly transgender. Visibility is a privilege despite the negative things it brings. It’s an idea I embraced early on: it appealed to my iconoclastic mind.

Maybe the world wore me out. Non conformity issues a challenge to the world; it picks a fight. The world ultimately accepts that challenge, and it’s never a good idea to start a fight you can’t finish. Maybe I can’t quite finish this one. Maybe I’m tired.

When the world answers your challenge, it’s useful to latch on to bigger movements and causes that coincide with your particular brand of nonconformity. I used politics. Figures like Sophie Labelle would say existing is a political act. I existed. I didn’t have any option but to be visible while the official and social transition happened. Activism gave me a space to be.

On reflection, social transition took longer than I thought it did as I was doing it. It’s one thing for people to adopt a name and pronouns. It’s another for that identity to take hold and become how a person thinks and feels about you. Some of this process is better expressed than others, like my mother’s mourning process for my old identity. Parents commonly do that. It’s not that we die or something, but the idea dies. The identity passes, in a way: we integrate the new with the old.

One friend took several months to integrate the new information. She was fine, but there was friction as she took me as I was and tried to resolve this with our shared history. Not everyone can find a way to do that.

Sometimes folks disappear because they can’t. My oldest niece still won’t speak to me, and her mum tells me that it’s just too big a change to integrate for her. It surprised us both, but here we are, two years on, having no real exchange. She’s not a bad person. She’s not hostile, but she’s absent. Socially, she couldn’t make that transition at that time. I hope someday she does.

The thing about visibility in society is it hinges on everyone else. We’re fine. We’re doing our thing and self actualising. It’s everyone else that makes it dangerous or uncomfortable. In a society of one, we wouldn’t have to care about any of this. Course I say that, a society of one wouldn’t have any gender definitions other than our own.


Ultimately, the struggle becomes about other people. It’s about us because they make it about us. I’ve lost my will to be visible all the time basically because I’m tired of everyone making it about me. Even when it’s not an explicit topic, people steer the conversation to gender or human rights. My visibility creates a gestalt formation they can’t quite shake. It’s not that different from a health professional constantly having to deal with random chats with folks about their various bodily complaints.

There’s a thought: how many health professionals go stealth to avoid random requests for a medical opinion? That wouldn’t be seen as reasonable by most, but in the context of gender it was an expectation until recently. It’s still an accepted practice; one we fight for as part of the campaign for transgender rights. As an educator, I occasionally let that side of my professional and academic expertise remain unspoken so I don’t have to talk about education with people. Perhaps other folks do similar things?

It’s likely people go ‘stealth’ about all sorts of characteristics they find frustrating for people to know. I used to out my dad as a former Mormon to watch him squirm at social gatherings before I realised how upsetting he found it. He wasn’t secretive about his Mormon past, but he didn’t want it to be a feature of the party either. Once the gestalt formation is there, it’s hard to move past it. Everything subtly steers towards the topic, like it or not.

I hid behind politics because I had to be visible. Now I don’t have to be visible, and I’m understanding what I did. In the moment I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I don’t regret that. I’m glad to contribute to the political movement for transgender rights. I’ll continue to contribute. But maybe, now that I have options, I’ll take the quiet one now and again.

Comments (3)
No. 1-3

I have experienced that when most people know I am trans, they never quite see me as a woman again. If I keep that information secret they see my gender correctly. Most people can't hold the two concepts in their head at once--that we are trans AND women. This was such a common occurrence as I got to know people that I quit telling most people since I pass well enough not to have to and I'd rather not deal with their inability to think properly. The only problem this creates is that getting to know someone usually involves greater intimacy about one's life and it is almost impossible to talk about my past in a way that will not out me unless I lie, which I would prefer nt to do. The other problem this causes is that it is almost impossible to get close to someone without letting them know, and that can ruin whatever friendship was developing or alter their view of me so significantly that they never treat m ethe right way again. Most of the friends that knew me before couldn't make the leap and vanished anyways leaving me passable and not having to tell people but isolated if I don't. With society as it is, I have no idea how to get out of this Gordian knot. I just found out that a friend who I thought accepted me was only tolerating me for the last 5 years but finally confessed that they don't see me as a woman. I cu them out of my of my life immediately but I'm still sad about it.

Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


Precisely why I’ve taken a few steps back


I’m 100% out and, as it is, quite visible. Everyday is my TDoV. I’m proud and sad that I’m always so noticeably noticed. On the one hand it’s fine. I enjoy many benefits of being a woman and included by them. But I’m also the outlier, the rarity. It gets old at times.

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