What Is Trans “Visibility” in 2021?

On vision, visibility, and what I’m doing here.

Low trains visibility.
PICTURED: Low trains visibility. (Photo by Jaime Dantas on Unsplash.)

The Day of Trans Visibility came and went while I was drafting this post. It was my first as an openly trans person. I wasn’t happy about it.

The day of Visibility, March 31, arrived this year on the week that Arkansas criminalized healthcare for trans minors. It came on the same week that Substack, a media corporation which was making headlines for its transphobia, received $65 million in venture capital funding. I want to be seen; I want a reason to celebrate. But at this moment, visibility is not enough.

We can see trans children now. Fictional trans kids appear on TV shows like The Baby-Sitters Club and Good Girls. The real ones appear in newspapers, on magazine covers, in viral Twitter threads. Parents know words like “trans” and “non-binary;” good parents know enough to let kids choose their own names and outfits and pronouns.

If visibility were a cure-all, these kids would be thriving. Instead, they’re highly visible targets — flashpoints in a culture war, barraged with state and local bills intended to restrict or criminalize their healthcare, segregate them from extracurricular activities, and drive them into the margins. There are more openly trans teenagers than at any point in history, and between one-third and one-half have attempted suicide.

Trans adults are more visible, too. When I walked into Barnes & Noble this weekend, A.E. Osworth’s debut novel was on a big, glorious display rack in front of the doors, right next to a table full of Torrey Peters. Elliot Page’s ludicrously handsome face was still taking up space on the magazine stands. Television and streaming services overflow with options that are trans-scripted or trans-produced or which star trans people: Pose or Euphoria or The L-Word: Generation Q or Work in Progress or The Politician and yes, the last two are only on the list because Theo Germaine is in them, but I like Theo Germaine. They and Elliot Page are the cool jocks in the trans high school of my mind, and their existence allows me to sit here in a Battlestar Galactica T-shirt and read my comics in peace.

There are more openly trans artists than ever; so many I can pick favorites. I just wish I could tell you that the money and fame from was flowing only, or even mostly, to those people. But there are other people making bank off “trans visibility,” and they do not have trans people’s interests at heart.

Even as it becomes easier than ever to find and hire trans talent, corporations are handing platforms to cis, mostly-white, mostly-male writers who fulminate endlessly against “identity politics” and their cast trans people as inherently unreasonable and censorious and scary, the blood-drunk warriors of “cancel culture.” Newspapers run photo editorials gawking at the supposed horror of transitioned bodies; the same bookstores that carry those new trans novels also sell books arguing that trans children are the victims of “peer contagion.” Nice feminist liberal J.K. Rowling divides her time between writing transphobic screeds on the Internet and publishing best-selling mysteries about scary men in women’s clothing. Trans people are certainly visible in all of these works. We’re talked about. But we’re never talked about fairly, or accurately, or well.

I know the good visibility can do. I remember the odd, painful tug I felt in my chest on last year’s Visibility day, scrolling trans selfies on my timeline, thinking why can’t I be that happy? I know how important it’s been to see other trans people succeed, and to believe that transition could be a step toward a better life rather than a worse one. That pull toward a life where joy was possible, that craving for the light and ease I swore I saw on every trans person’s face, still matters, even in a scary historical moment. It may matter more.

Yet it’s increasingly clear that visibility also entails backlash and outrage and hatred. It allows for the sort of sustained, concentrated fury at trans existence and “gender ideology” that has come to define gender politics in the U.K. and is increasingly coming to define U.S. conservatism as well. Visibility can be a curse in the wrong context. In hunting season, deer had better not be visible to men with guns.

What matters more than trans visibility, I think, is trans vision: Seeing the world around us as clearly as possible, and asking the right questions about where it’s headed, before we skid right off the cliff. Cis people need to look at trans people less than they need to understand what the world looks like from a trans perspective.

So this will be my new weekly column. Medium, as you may have heard, is going through a restructuring, and it’s not clear where GEN, the magazine where I’ve worked for the past few years, will end up. But I’ve been with Medium a long time, through several restructurings, and this one provided an opportunity to do the kind of writing I enjoy most: direct, personal, off-the-cuff, probably a little strange. I can take risks and write pieces that would be hard to pitch as op-eds. I have an editor — every writer needs one, especially the ones who think they don’t — and it’s still a job, so my performance is measured on metrics like engagement. (Go ahead and click that “clap” button.) At the end of the day, though, the person who decides what I write is me.

I can communicate with you in my natural voice here, and that matters. I can be visible in the ways I choose, which counteracts all the visibility I can’t control. Hopefully something I write will make life easier for a teenager in Arkansas, or an adult scrolling his timeline with dawning self-awareness and a weird tug in his chest. But for those of you who aren’t trans — which is most of you; which will probably always be most of you — I’m glad you’re here, too. This is where you can come see me, if you want to see me. This is where you can learn what I’m learning.

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