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  • Writer's pictureHarley Preston

To Stealth or Not to Stealth

Wrestling with the personal debate of visibility as a tenet of the trans identity.

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In this past year, I’ve been compelled to keep more things private than I have in the past. This is a very different tune to how I felt when I first started my transition three years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that sharing our experiences as trans people is important in debunking the mysticism and fallacy around who we are. But for me, I hit a point of feeling incredibly exposed and almost too vulnerable. I began to feel as though I needed to protect the integrity of my experience and shut off from the world to limit the outside noise.

At the beginning of my journey, I never understood those trans people who preferred to live in stealth. To be stealth is to conceal one’s trans identity and pass in a cisnormative society, only sharing your truth with a select few—leaving no traces of your transness, living in secret. To me, being visible felt as if it was a duty and a responsibility to the larger community. This feeling of responsibility only grew as I started to pass in the world, and my transness was not inherently recognized. The responsibility stemmed from the reality that not all trans people pass or will ever pass. My ability to assimilate was (and is) a coveted privilege in the community, and I felt guilty about it. The guilt almost began to feel like an obligation. It’s as if living in stealth felt as though it centered the shame around being trans; a shame that the outside world places upon us and one that I refused to make my own.

Now, to be visible isn’t all bad. And maybe I should take the time to define what “visibility” means to me. To be visible is not simply about “looking trans” (whatever that means) but rather about proudly owning transness as a central part of your identity and your experience in the world. I was motivated to share deeply intimate posts, videos, and writings about my transition and the trans experience to thousands of people online every week with the belief that, in doing so, it would help others. With this, I was introduced to our vast trans community. I made friends with fellow trans women from halfway across the world, bonding online over our shared experiences. I was able to find and connect with people just like me, and it was what I needed at the time.

Then the vitriol rolled in. Yes, there is a level of negativity and criticism that is to be expected as a trans person. It’s an unfortunate reality. And the truth is many trans people, myself included, are intimately aware of what that hate feels like and how to deal with it. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily surprised by the nasty messages, hateful comments, and the occasional death threat, but what got to me was the volume of hate. For every positive comment, there were a slew of people negating my existence or right to be alive. At the beginning, I felt a pressure to resist, so I continued sharing in spite of the hate. I mean, you aren’t doing things right if people don’t hate you for no reason, right?

Simultaneously, the news cycles centered on the “trans debate.” Suddenly, we were waking up every day to horrid headlines or news of another anti-trans bill. My community and I sat and watched as states began to rip our rights away. Fear had become pervasive and spread like wildfire. At the same time, having been so open about my transition and trans issues in the past, I felt a pressure to engage in the political hellhole or, at the very least, become a part of the larger conversation. My writing became political, my posts less personal, and the opportunities I received during this time felt disingenuous.

I think, as trans people, we sometimes assume the baggage that the world puts on our community is our own to carry. I mean, it’s hard not to. We carry this, and there is a growing feeling that we must champion each other. And, reversely, a lot of the world, especially allies, look to us as “inspiring” content. That we must be symbols of strength and resistance in spite of insurmountable odds at all times. It’s this condition that we must show up, even in our weakest moment, and become a spectacle of strength. This resistance is not sustainable.

And the truth is, I don’t aspire to be a “spokesperson” for the trans community, nor do I want to be the token trans woman who is given opportunities solely for being trans. I simply aspire to be me. Harley. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Ironically, being trans began to feel like a job. Pumping out content in response to hate, pleading for people to listen, only to do it again the next day.

I’ll tell you right now, I was not put on this earth to always be “strong.” We are not designed to be in a constant state of fight or flight, so living in stealth started to look really good to me. I would flirt with the idea of “falling off” and starting anew. I’d dream of scrubbing the internet of any evidence, move to a new city where no one knows me, and have the fresh start that I think every trans person dreams of at some point. While seemingly dramatic, it appeared to be a solution to what I was feeling at the time.

And while I didn’t move to a new city or scrub my internet presence, I decided to take a break. This past year, I focused solely on me and living my life instead of existing in a space of constant defense. I put the pen and pad down, made my social media profiles private, and deactivated my website. I needed to take a moment to just exist.

In the past year, I focused on my personal experience in the world as a trans woman instead of the collective. I took a step back from some of the issues plaguing our community, and I centered my needs instead of taking on those problems as my responsibility. I took the time to explore myself and what I want for this next phase of my life. Looking back, I laugh at the arrogance I had at the beginning of my transition three years ago. I thought I was so certain about what it meant to be trans and what the trans experience was about. I thought I had this definitive understanding of who I was, who I’d always be, and the right way to do it. Little did I know that taking a step back from who I knew myself to be, or who I should be, allowed me to rediscover and redefine. While some of that guilt still existed at times, this last year was essential for me to reflect on the years I’ve had and the speed at which my life had changed.

While it wasn’t necessarily living life in true “stealth” but rather in my own version of it, I came to discover that the responsibility I once felt to be visible began to seem silly. I came to realize that while I love my community and I’d do what I can to help, my only responsibility I have is to myself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about trans issues or that I wouldn’t try to champion them. At the same time, understanding that coming from a community that is often underserved and discriminated against, my main responsibility is to be happy in spite of that. My and every trans person’s only necessity is to live and to live happily, not having to be strong all the time. I learned that being trans, while I’m proud of it, does not have to be a central part of my identity. I learned that being trans, while influential to my lived experience, is simply a small piece of who Harley is. I am dynamic, as every trans person is. I don’t need to wear my transness as a badge of honor for it to be valid or respected. There is no shame in choosing just to exist, in choosing not to be “visible” or existing in stealth. For our community, just existing is enough. That is our resistance.

To my trans family, if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening in the world and what is happening to our community, if the weight of it all feels too much, it is okay to take a step back. It is okay to center yourself. This is not selfish but rather self-preservation. And whenever you’re ready, if you’re ever ready, the trans community is always here to catch you, to welcome you back. That is the beauty of being transgender. We owe it to ourselves and to our ancestors to be happy, however that looks, visible or not.


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