Are Trans* People Obligated to Come Out?

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My opinion on this is pretty straightforward: it’s an unequivocal “no.” There are no qualifiers, no exceptions, it’s simply “no.” Here’s my logic: it is terrific when people who are living with marginalized identities (including but certainly not limited to trans*) decide to come out, celebrate their differences, and show the world that they are unapologetic about who they are. It’s brave and it leads to progress that changes minds and makes life better for others who have similar or related identities. However, there is a very real risk of violence and harassment that can come to anyone who decides to make that leap. No one, and I mean no one, is obligated to compromise his or her personal safety for the sake of a cause. Coming out into a violent world can be an act of literal martyrdom and as such should be chosen by the individual, not forced or pressured by the group. Trans* people have no special obligation to promote the group they were born into, especially considering the amount of suffering so many of them have to face either way. It is wildly unfair to pretend that “you have this problem” means “you need to fix this problem” while everyone else gets to continue with their merry lives. When trans* people make the choice to come out, they should be supported and acknowledged. When they choose not to, they need to be respected and understood.

There is one group of people who I think do, under most circumstances, with few qualifiers, have an obligation to “come out” as supporters and advocates of trans* rights: cis people. The exception is when that support would cause risk of physical harm because of the simple association, which I’m sure is the case in particularly regressive communities and spaces. People have the right to assess whether or not a space is safe for advocacy and act accordingly. For the rest of us, on the other hand? We need to say something. Even when we’re the only people in the room saying something. Even when it makes us awkward at parties. Even when we think no one will take us seriously. That “something” should not be our personal opinions about what trans* people are doing right or wrong or how they can “fix” their movement.

This is how I think we should do it: we need to read things that have been written by trans* people. While we should be open to talking to trans* friends and family members about their experiences if they choose to share them, we should not feel entitled to their emotional labor. They have no obligation to educate us. We need to do the legwork to find out what’s already been written and get answers to our questions. This includes reading blogs and books and websites that are authored by trans* people, in a high enough volume that we can get a diversity of first-person accounts. Then we need to do what we can to amplify their voices: by repeating, by sharing, by re-blogging, by quoting, by whatever means necessary. Their perspectives are the most important as they are the experts of their own oppression.

In the absence of immediately available trans* voices, as is often the case in person, there is more we can do. When we hear a trans* person being misgendered in coversation, we need to correct it. When we hear offensive cissexist or transphobic jokes being made, we need to tell the joker to knock it off. We need to inform them of the destructive power of their words. We need to talk about the high rates of suicide and homelessness in trans* youths. We need to explain the toxic culture that leads to hate-based beatings and murders. We need to criticize the media, write letters, and sign petitions. We need to make transphobic people feel as ignorant as they are and as outnumbered as they should be. Because cis people don’t have anything to lose by doing this, while trans* people may have everything to lose. This is our job. This is my job.