In a world where some legislators are working to completely erase transgender and nonbinary people, visibility can be a radical act. (With Idaho having passed two discriminatory, anti-trans bills just last night, such radical acts are more urgent than ever.) As Laverne Cox said in 2014, “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.” Cox’s statement was a rallying cry for me six years ago, as a nonbinary person who was just beginning to find the words to define and express myself to the world.
Since that “tipping point,” transgender and nonbinary people are more visible in media and public affairs than ever before, which can have an incredibly positive impact. As a social media manager for The Trevor Project, I hear from LGBTQ+ young people regularly who say that supportive celebrities, media personalities, and even favorite characters have helped them feel seen. Simply having a trans role model to look up to can send a message to trans youth that a future is possible. And positive representation can work to humanize the transgender community, normalizing our experiences and making them relatable to outsiders.
Visibility matters, but visibility alone is not equality. The slew of anti-transgender legislation we’ve seen in the last three years is a reaction to the gains in visibility and awareness made by the trans community. Our progress has spurred intense backlash and ongoing campaigns of fear-mongering and disinformation to restrict transgender people’s rights across the board, from access to medical care, athletics, the bathroom, and more. Legislators who are not transgender and who often have very little understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation are rushing to pass bills to erase, invalidate, or harm a community that they think popped up out of nowhere only a few years ago. But trans people were always here, we were just invisible.
Increased visibility has also come with increased expectations about what it means to be trans. For example, there can be the expectation that all trans people want to abide by binary gender roles. However, for some trans and nonbinary people, being seen outside the gender binary may be the goal. Visibility brings up complications for both nonbinary people breaking down gender roles and for binary transgender people conforming to gender roles. What does it actually mean to be visible in a gender, and how is our perception of gender informed by body shapes and sizes, our assigned sex at birth, our race, and more?
Our visibility has come at a higher cost to some and can be a liability for many transgender people, who may face myriad reasons for not wanting to disclose their gender identity or be labeled as “trans.” Being “visible” may actually mean having one’s gender identity align with how one is perceived in the world: as a woman or a man, a girl or a boy. This is commonly referred to as “passing,” or being correctly gendered after transition. The term “passing” can be problematic because it implies that a person has to “convince” others of their gender, rather than being able to simply express their true self. Nonetheless, for many transgender people, being able to “pass” as the gender they align with is important to their own sense of self, and the privilege to “pass” can allow one to move safely through environments where being perceived as transgender is a danger. Visibility can be harmful if it undermines a trans person’s sense of safety or acceptance. Transgender and nonbinary people do not owe it to us to disclose, and they also don’t need to present their gender in a certain way to be afforded the same rights and respect as everyone else.
The pressure to perform gender in a particular way is unique to different people, depending on assigned sex, race, access to healthcare, and income to afford clothes, makeup, or other ways of expressing oneself. Gender identity is not the same as gender expression and people should be able to express themselves however they want, but we live in a gendered world. Women may be able to wear pants, but as Jia Tolentino writes in a Guardian piece titled “Athleisure, Barre and Kale: the Tyranny of the Ideal Woman,” “Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier.” Men are usually not expected or encouraged to wear skirts and dresses — just one of the many ways in which we enforce what manhood is and how it should be expressed. Nonbinary people bear the responsibility of having to continually educate those around them in order to be recognized at all.