Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Stealth Was A Mistake

One of the ongoing arguments in the transgender community that's guaranteed to generate heated debate one way or the other is the stealth vs out one.

Basically, stealth is the transgender equivalent of what we call in the African-American community 'passing'. Back during the bad old days African-Americans who had features and skin tones light enough to be mistaken for white would just cut ties with the African-American community and fade away into white society so they could access opportunities for a better life. It's how Anita Hemmings in 1897 became the first African-American graduate of Vassar College 40 years before they even began admitting African-Americans.

Even though they became part of white society, they always lived in fear that someone, someday and somehow would discover their Black heritage.

The late FBI head J. Edgar Hoover's legendary hatred of African-Americans was fueled by the fact that he was himself Black and hated his African roots.

Hmm, the self-hatred part of that sounds like Clarence Thomas and a certain group of Caucasian transwomen I've had run ins with.

Basically, that's a snapshot of what living as a stealth transperson is like. They cut ties to the transgender community. If they don't return home they'll sometimes move hundreds or thousands of miles from their hometown to start a new life where nobody knew them in their old gender role.

Up until the early 90's, as part of the Standards of Care, HBIGDA (the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association now called WPATH (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) used to require that after surgery, a transgender person go stealth and fade into the background never to emerge.

Many did, but recent cases like Christie Lee Littleton's illustrate, like Anita Hemmings some of the unpleasant complications that can arise when your secret is discovered.

Contrary to the misguided opinions of some stealth peeps we out and proud folks would love nothing better than for transpeople of all stripes to simply be considered as men or women irregardless of the genitalia we arrived with on our birthday.

The reality is that we still have a long road to travel to get to that day. To get to that point requires us to educate the public on transgender issues. Some of that education comes from simply openly living our lives.

But you can't do that education effectively if you're hiding from the general public or won't step up and claim that you are.

I believe that the old WPATH, then HBIGDA requirement that transgender people fade away into society is a major factor in causing many of the acceptance problems that we are grappling with now.

Those acceptance problems are especially acute in the African-American transgender community. We have to overcome not only shame and guilt issues but intolerance and transphobia from inside and outside the African-American community while also grappling with the issues that African-Americans face just living our lives.

To illustrate my belief that stealth was a hindrance to the African-American community, time to drop some more knowledge on you.

The first patient of the now closed Johns Hopkins gender program back in 1966 was an African-American transwoman from New York named Avon Wilson.

Now, instead of her fading into the woodwork and being accidentally discovered by a New York Daily News gossip columnist in October 1966, what if she had become our Christine Jorgenson instead?

Avon Wilson would have probably been covered in JET and EBONY. It's not as far fetched as you think. EBONY until 1953 covered Chicago's Finnie's ball and similar events in New York. JET respectfully covered Justina Williams' story 20 years before the AP Stylebook rules on covering transgender people were written.

We'd have a record of her existence beyond a small mention in a gossip column and she could have become the role model and icon for the next generation of African-American transpeople.

Most importantly, it would have also begun the education and discussion about transgender issues in the African-American community in the more politically friendly climate of the late 60's-70s instead of us having to do the education in the more conservative 90's and 2000's.

Also, the urban legend that African-American transpeople didn't exist would have never gained credibility because we'd have irrefutable proof we do decades earlier.

An Avon Wilson or someone else to point to as an African-American transkid would have helped me sort through some of the issues I had as a 70's era teen and given me the courage to transition early, with the corresponding improvement in my life.

Instead, I didn't find out that African-American transpeople existed and wasn't a white only thang until this JET story on Justina Williams appeared in 1979.

I believe that earlier out role models would have resulted in and facilitated the earlier building of an African-American transgender community and more people would have had the incentive and courage to come out. You would have not only had the core group of transgender elders kicking knowledge to us younglings, we'd also have a better grasp of our history as well with more out transgender people of African descent telling their stories.

We also would have had a community that could have survived the initial onslaught of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80's instead of nearly being eviscerated by it.

Now, just because I believe that being stealth in an Internet age is a futile stress inducing endeavor doesn't mean that I have personal animosity or contempt for people who attempt it.

While I personally believe we need more equivalents to actress Fredi Washington in the African-American transgender community or people exhibiting the courage that Isis has shown while competing on this current cycle of America's Next Top Model, I understand and have no problem accepting the fact that some people do it for security or various reasons.

Just as I ask that you respect myself and others for being out and proud, I respect the decision that you've made for your life.

I have classy girlfriends who are stealth transwomen of African descent who are beautiful inside and out, are proud of being transgender and unlike some of the WWBT's, want all transgender people to have civil rights coverage.

But at the same time I get a little sick of the shade that comes from some stealth transpeople (predominately WWBT's) who are quick to holler that their exclusionary, racist, surgery-only mantra is the only true path to manhood or womanhood if your body doesn't match your gender identity. They also erroneously assert that anyone who proudly embraces their transgender status isn't in their eyes a man or woman, or their bullshit lie reminiscent of the nasty crap radical feminists say about transwomen, that we're 'oppressing' them.

Yes, you can claim both. You can have degrees of disclosure up to and including keeping your T-business and surgical status to yourself. You can be proud of being a transperson. Being transgender doesn't make you any less a man or woman.

But looking at my people's history in terms of passing, I still think pushing stealth was a mistake.


Renee said...

Thank God your blog is not a drug, I am so hooked. I had no idea about Hoover, made me say an expletive when I read that.
I am not sure where I stand on the whole in/out of the closet thing simply because I deplore the idea that people must confess. It turns their existence into some kind of sin and I don't like that. I really do wish we could just accept people as they are and learn to mind our own business. I realize that what I am saying is simplistic but it really is heartfelt.

Monica Roberts said...

Same here. But I'm struck by the eerily historical parallels between 'passing' and transpeople living in stealth.

Mercedes said...

I do agree with the spirit of your comment. However, it is hard to say if Avon Wilson being out would have had the exact effect that you propose.

Where I live, we're contending with a neo-nazi group that is trying to pitch a whole lot of BS about minorities being responsible for the existence of poverty, the drug problem and all the other evils of existence. Most rational human beings can see through it, but it's working with the kids they are trying to recruit. I'm sure they'd love an opportunity to blame transsexuality on miscegenation.

That's a pretty fringe example, but by seeing how these things can be twisted, I wonder if having Wilson as the first known transsexual would have caused transsexuality to be spun as a "Black issue," both to further marginalize transsexuals and to foist more shame on an African-American population at the time?

We don't know for certain how it would have went, and again, I agree with the spirit of what you're saying, but we can't always be certain that the grass would have been greener.

Monica Roberts said...

With all due respect, I was speaking strictly in terms of the effects of more publicity of Avon Wilson on the African-American community.

When you are part of a minority community who is told by prevailing culture that you can't do things, you are less intelligent, and less talented by others simply because of your skin color, role models take on an added importance.

White transpeople have always had that media spotlight since 1953 and tons of positive role models to point to.

Conversely, we transpeople of African descent haven't, and one of the major factors in why we haven't is because of stealth and the news blackout.

I stand by what I said that Avon Wilson would have had that effect for transkids of my ethnicity and jumpstarted the discussion of these issues earlier.

crys said...

goodness, your depth of knowledge on just about everything blows me AWAY. is all of this information really in your head - all the time?
my gosh woman - i mean i am always amazed, and educated and just leave with this feeling like 'man, i'm so glad i found her blog' every time i lurk - lol, i don't ALWAYS comment.

umm what does WWBT stand for? i couldn't find anything - and i read a few of the posts you linked here.

so this blog just underscores the fact that YOU are a role model - you need a youtube channel or something forreal....

Lisa Harney said...

Monica, I'm with you on all of your more general statements about stealth and the effects it's had on trans people and the perceptions cis people have on us.

I don't agree at all that an out black trans woman in the 60s would've made things harder on white trans people, and if I had a nickel for all the times I've heard that trans people are mostly or entirely white... I'd have a few dollars, but even a few dollars of that is ridiculous and shouldn't happen.

I don't believe that Avon being out instead of outed as the first trans woman to be treated at Johns Hopkins (not the first known trans woman - Christine Jorgensen was famous 15 years earlier) would've hurt white people at all.

I don't believe that the first known trans woman being black would've hurt either.

I'm also really uncomfortable with the implication that the needs of white trans people make it somehow more okay that black trans people are marginalized in their own communities.

Lisa Harney said...


I meant to say that I also agree regarding Avon Wilson, but wanted to add all that other stuff as well.

Monica Roberts said...

It's actually supposed to be WBT, for Women Born Transsexual. It's a direct ripoff of the radical feminist 'womyn born womyn'.

The WWBT's regurgitate the same hate speech at their fellow transpeople spewed at us by radfems. I call the the WWBT's for White Women Born Transsexual.

Long story short, they are a segment of peeps that selfishly only wants civil rights for transwomen who have genital surgery and frack 'errbody' else.

They claim that we folks who use the inclusive transgender label, one BTW they pushed for the community to adopt in the mid 90's because they 'didn't want to be labeled with a medical term' are 'oppressing them'.

They are predominately white, upper middle class and transitioned during the more restrictive HBIDA/WPATH era in the 60s-80's.

femme said...

I remember Ebony Magazine very well. I doubt very much her story would have appeared in it back then.

I do understand your points about the idea of having role models of the same/smiler skin colour or culture one is from.
I remember growing up with only the idea that women, in the movies were prostitutes and the men pimps. Or singers and boxers/ sports people.

In history class no mention of the many accomplishments in medical science.

But back to Ebony, this magazine relied on it's readers and true some would have been ok with the idea of a positive article showing up about a woman who is transexual, but mostly not.

The Hover thing has been something which has been spoken abou on and off for many years, yet no proof either way has ever come up. Least I have never heard of any which stated beyond a doubt. Just lots of high possibilities.

Should there be positive role models out there for the youth, hell yes. I just don't see the idea of having to be out or hiding in fear as the only choices.

Where I live there are good mentoring programs for queer youth. I think it's places like that which we need those role models even more.

In many ways I guess I fall under your living stealth comments. But that doesn't mean I don't associate with other people who are transexual or who are transgender. But it's not my whole life.

Instead I just live my life as any other person out there. I get by, struggle, pay bills etc.

My job in life is to live my life the best I can while not hurting others in the process.That's the only way I have to be a role model. And if people know of my medical history, so be it, if they don't again the same.

In the end I want people to say, she was a nice person, not she was a nice transexual.

I learned growing up that just because school didn't teach me about the rich history that I was part of, that television didn't show the reality of my life and the lives of so many, it wasn't the end of the world because instead I had a brain. With that brain I could go to libraries, no internet back then, and find it all out for myself, if I really wanted to.

Much like the big commotion a few years ago about Dennis Rodman not being a good enough role model for other children and youth of colour, his answer to that was he isn't a role model he's a ball player.

His point was that it all begins at home.

Yes not all of us have / had great family lives but it seems that goes for so many other people in society. We, as a society, can either use that as an excuse or can use that as a motivator.

Monica Roberts said...

As I pointed out, Ebony covered the Finnie's ball up until 1953.

I doubt that they would have passed on the opportunity to cover a African-American transwoman, especially in light of that fiact and the fact that in 1979 their sister publication JET respectfully covered Justina Williams' battle with GM over her termination.

rioTgirl said...


I loved this and couldn't agree more. As one who lived as a gay man for some time and was very out and politically active, I can't help but to draw personal and social comparisons between living as an "out" vs. "closeted" gay man and an "Out" vs. "stealth Transwoman. History is showing us that the more people know folks like us the more they accept and support folks like us.

I don't wear my status as a badge, but I don't hide it either. Disclosure as an organic part of any type of relationship has served me well in terms of personal safety and educating others.

Cheers, and thank you for this blog!

rioTgirl said...

eep!! forgot to add.. I'm actually surprised to hear that within the larger African-American communities there is the idea that trans is a "white" thing.

When I came out both as "gay" and as "trans" it was the large active vibrant community of queer black and latin@ folks who supported, embraced, and taught me.

Much respect for my sisters of color!

Monica Roberts said...

Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the post.

I agree with you. I have degrees of disclosure depending o the situation.

It's not like I'm wearing an 'I'm Transgender' t-shirt in the middle of the 'hood, but I'm not going to deny I am either if you respectfully ask me the question

But yep, the lack of visibility for Black transgender people actually created that urban myth that we are still fighting to dispel even in the 2K's


Hey Monica! {waves}

This is an interesting because I am trying to have more discussions at my blog with black women about the transcommunity and I want to have an open environment where women can discuss their feelings about transmen and transwomen and sort through whatever it is that we do NOT talk about openly.

The belief that "stealth" is justified because of the level of rejection that is inherent in society with anyone who isn't cut from the accepted mold (whatever that mold may be - race, class, etc.) - is very flawed because most people are discriminatory towards others due to fear and ignorance.

There are people who are discriminatory because of their choice to hate others.

The segment of society that is discriminatory due to their own ignorance would probably change their thinking with more exposure and more engagement with whatever group or segment of society that they are ignorant about. This is why staying "hidden" does not raise social consciousness...it only allows the ignorant to remain ignorant...and in comfort zones.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!


@ Monica

You mentioned that if you are asked the question, you would not deny being transgender...but MANY biowomen would be insulted if someone asked them if they were a transgendered woman. They would be sooo through! This "offense" they would feel is tied to their view of what being transgender means.

If someone asked ME the question, I would not be insulted but I would wonder what in the world made them ask whether I was born a girl.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Monica Roberts said...

It also depends on the situation as well. I was at work on day when a brother hesitatingly wanted to ask me 'The Question'.

I was going to flip the script on him ask him in turn why he felt like he needed to ask me that question.

saffo said...


first off, your blog is awesome. i've been reading it for a coule weeks now and i really enjoy it.

anyway, i wanted to say that the question of passing is a really interesting one. i was assigned male at birth and recently came out as trans, although i think i identify primarily as third gender.

i currently appear male-bodied and am frustrated by the fact that i pass for male. i am not sure about the extent to which i want to alter my appearance to pass for female, however. i'd rather not pass for anything!

but i also understand that for some transpeople, passing is really important in order to feel safe and to secure their ability to be identified with the gender they identify as. while many trans people identify within the gender binary, however, i do not. and so the extent to which i want to conform to definitions of femininity is very confusing.

also, on the notion of trans and queer being seen as a white thing... this concept actually goes back over a century. as early as 1885 Richard Burton (who wrote Arabian Nights) wrote the theory of the "Sotadic Zone", basically claiming that there was no homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa, and that homosexuality was a result of European influence. this notion was actually used to legitimate european imperialism, by arguing that the British needed to colonize Africa in order to "protect" Africans from the influence of the Arabs and the Portuguese.

the same imperialist notion that homosexuality was a white thing would then be used by African nationalists more recently.

anyway, just a side thought.

much love,

Monica Roberts said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Ah, the old all-purpose 'homosexuality/transsexuality is un-African' BS the wingers spout on the Mother Continent.

Just a long-winded way of blaming the colonial rulers for what's going on there.

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