Curing the Stockholm syndrome of “stealth”

Ending sympathetic responses toward cis gatekeeping

Over at the Transadvocate, a commentary series is re-examining “stealth” as a way to exist as trans within structural cisnormativity. “Stealth” is a relic in which as a trans person, one must never mention their being trans to another person, including (implicitly heterosexual) cis partners. As “stealth”, one must be placed consistently as cis by cis people. As “stealth”, one must also be commissionable in producing a narrative which would be implausible for many trans people. “Stealth” is treated as a lifelong pact. As a prescriptive approach, “stealth” owes its long shelf life to women who are trans — that is, relative to others who are trans and gender non-conforming (GNC). Of those women, the staunchest advocates of “stealth” have tended to share both white and middle class intersectional experiences. It was not uncommon for these women to begin their transition during the 1960s, the 1980s, and even the 1990s.

How “stealth” is being addressed by the Transadvocate series predictably overlooks the core causes why the practice even gained traction in the first place. The first to promote “stealth” as a way to live were clinical gatekeepers. That is, the gatekeepers were disproportionately white cis men who developed gender clinics with procedural systems to make access to trans medicine a prohibitive, intimidating ordeal for even the most determined of trans people. The staunchest evangelists of “stealth” were the beneficiaries of those clinics.

What is predictably bothersome about Suzan Cooke’s essay, “The many shades of stealth,” is its conspicuous absence of intersectional consciousness. What is equally bothersome about Cristan Williams’s piece, “A rant about MTF stealth,” is its propensity for victim-blaming those who consented, some under institutional duress, to a “stealth” existence for their own lives as trans people, as a precondition for their welfare. It also blames by association any trans person who lacks the situational affordance to live openly as trans, where forcible disclosure can be extremely hazardous, and where involuntary disclosure can jeopardize other basic securities. Further, one’s personal decision to not live openly as a trans person is not a tacit endorsement of “stealth” prescriptivism — a distinction which isn’t made in Williams’s essay.

However unintended, neither writer tries to challenge the structures laid by cis gatekeepers which made “stealth” a practice in the first place. Neither essay entertains an intersectional lens to critically examine how “stealth” has structurally excluded trans people of colour, poorer trans people, trans people with disabilities, opaquely visible trans people, queer trans people, and trans people who experience several of these concurrently. Neither explores the kyriarchical relationship between the word “stealth” and militarism. Neither recognizes that the word descends from the Old English root for “steal”. When women who are trans use the word “stealth” to describe themselves, they are tacitly admitting a disbelief of themselves as legitimately women or being female. Itself a patriarchal idea, “stealth” proposes how being placed by anyone as a trans person implies some kind of failure as, say, a woman. In militaristic terms, compromising “stealth” means being spotted, then shot down (and either punished, interned, or killed) by a cissexist enemy who, likewise, is also a product of the same kyriarchy. A life of “living stealth successfully”, should all go well, might then emerge as a paranoid, isolating existence.

Intersectional consciousness is no longer a discursive indulgence. It is now a basic cornerstone when having any critical discussion on which kyriarchical conditions of institutional marginality and structural impediments are implicated in one’s social welfare (and the quality of one’s life experiences).

The absence of Cooke’s intersectional consciousness is striking. Her essay speaks on experiences of living in a social bell jar, bereft of acknowledging the systemic structures which enabled, even coerced her to frame her experiences as a white, middle-class trans woman who still leans against the word “stealth” seriously, even endearingly. Her classism bleeds through as she refers to service industry labour as “peons working the concrete floors in big box stores.” Consequently, Cooke laments how she fears a social isolation in her twilight years from her own (similarly isolated) peers who are now beginning to pass on. Cooke believes that reaching out and forming meaningful connections with people who share her life experiences as a trans person betrays her being placed by cis people as “ordinary” (read: cis): “We walled ourselves off from people who provide support networks of friends.” In so doing, she and her peers left in the dark many more trans people who would later find the path of transition, themselves often spatially and temporally isolated by the experience. Cooke sympathizes more deeply with the old gatekeepers who coerced her to divorce herself from her own experiences as a precondition for being a cisnormative participant. Cooke is struggling with her own internalized cissexism — a world view in which cis people are valued more than trans people.

Earnestly speaking, the mistrust which a great many trans people have felt for cis gatekeepers of the medical industrial complex (overrepresented by white cis men) is well placed. Our mistrust comes from countless narratives of being impeded, stalled, and even shut out from exercising agency over our own bodies. It’s of little wonder why we are frequently displeased with being clinically reducible by cis people who will never grasp the many obstacles we must endure in order to have our lives on our terms.

That our narratives share a basic theme of fear is also no coincidence. We know our human rights are dissolved when our medical care is withheld. Our quality of life suffers needlessly whenever gatekeepers deny our agency for seeking that care.

Regimes of systemically denying people from access to trans health care have come with a body count, too. Innumerable suicides have been completed after learning that one “failed” to clear the bar which was stacked as deeply misogynistic, racist, and ableist to begin with — not to mention kept arbitrarily in constant motion by a gatekeeper’s own cissexist capriciousness. This is what many trans and GNC people have come to know as “the gatekeepers moving the goalposts.”

And for those who are granted conditional access to health care, many trans people must still sacrifice some of their human rights as they are coerced to appease their gatekeepers by whatever means necessary. They know their gatekeepers have the power to suddenly revoke trans health access and do so without compunction. Trans people who have adopted a semblance of “stealth” living have learnt to manage these threats through preemptive means. Four tactics are stand-outs. One, they develop an acceptable boilerplate of a narrative to satisfy gatekeepers (at the sacrifice of one’s own lived narrative). Two, as proxies for gatekeepers, they learn to condemn other trans people who aren’t functioning under the same set of cissexist, misogynistic rules. Three, they live in fear of deviating from gatekeeper expectations of gender which could have their own continued care revoked without notice (such as a woman arriving to a clinical appointment in trousers or sans makeup). And four, they are discouraged from commingling with other trans and GNC people in all but clinically-controlled circumstances. Each is rooted in kyriarchical tactics for invoking fear, conquering by division, and quashing civil unrest by proxy.

Needing to excise such basic parts of oneself to win approval (or even an illusion of respect) from cis gatekeepers means learning to conform to normative expectations inside the examination or therapy room. It’s a compromise. This capture-bonding between cis gatekeepers and trans people who are “stealth advocates” has also meant having the latter “patrol” and voluntarily browbeat those antisocial conditions into people who are trans and GNC. Any trans person who rejects this browbeating, as “stealth” rationalizing goes, probably wouldn’t have much of a chance inside the cis gatekeeping culture anyway. They would be failures of the “real” thing — in which “real” amounts to a gatekeeper-certified, bona fide transsexual person, “person of transsexual history”, or “post-transsexual.” Anything less than that means they must not be very serious about being trans. Consequently, as intersectional life experiences are brought into the fold, each becomes substantive barriers to access when that experience is valued as non-normative — being fat, experiencing physical disability, having a limited education, being a victim of economic injustice, experiencing mental health issues, being a person of colour, and so on. Each of these experiences has been known as real barriers to trans health care when cis gatekeepers are given the power to control the welfare of trans and GNC people.

Sometimes compromise means one’s own sexuality as a trans person must be compartmentalized or suppressed if one hopes to obtain access to trans medical care. The history of lesbian women, gay men, and asexual people[1] having to feign heterosexuality as a precondition for access to EEI, or support for surgical intervention, dates back to Lili Elbe during the 1930s, and in the U.S., Avon Wilson during the 1960s. When adherence to heteronormative behaviour has meant putting one’s life into potential danger — even when a trans person is heterosexual — outcomes have (disproportionately greater than for cis people) spanned from assault and rape to murder.

Place all of these conditions together, and it becomes easier to understand how “stealth” emerged as a kind of Stockholm syndrome — in which trans people, held as captives of deeply cissexist gatekeepers, had to learn to sympathize with (and even respect) their cis clinicians if they ever hoped to obtain what they sought from the arrangement. They learnt to echo what their gatekeepers advocated and proscribed. They believed that criticism of the cis gatekeeping model by trans people was more of a threat to their welfare than anything cis people could do to them — even when cis people, not other trans people, were the ones who disproportionately did the most harm to people who were trans.

Eventually, “stealth” as a concept is destined to an ignominious fate, a historical dark age for our collective history as trans and GNC people. What Cooke called the “trailblazers” will probably be remembered for being early victims of this capture-bonding with cissexist clinicians. The dissolution of “stealth” does not amount to disclosing oneself as trans in all social transactions. Rather, as trans and GNC people continue working together toward building care-giving policy models built around informed consent and dignity in doctor-patient relationships, the fear of cis people lording that health care over our heads will continue to wane — especially as cis people themselves continue maturing with their understanding and compassion of trans people’s life experiences.

Ostensibly “stealth” trans people who are still around now will continue to uphold their social isolation from other peers. This is unfortunate, even a bit tragic. Practitioners of “stealth” impressed the idea that once clinical oversight of transition was over with, trans people who went “stealth” were to never have interactions with other trans people, as it would foil their effort to stay perfectly silent about their narrative of being trans. As we come to recognize how cis gatekeeping methodologies have advocated a kind of divide-and-conquer over trans people, we can begin undoing its social harm and cultural impoverishment from within the community.

Perhaps Cooke could reconsider how her intersectionally oblivious remark hurts also herself: “Mandatory political correctness has rankled, especially given the awareness of how wonderfully politically incorrect so many of my sisters and brothers are.” An admission of political correctness means that one does not feel obliged to assume responsibility for her racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, cissexism, transphobia, ableism, and so on. It means that Cooke doesn’t pay mind to how her behaviour upholds the structural oppressions which keep her isolated from her senescing contemporaries.

Learning to let go of the word “stealth” as a community cannot arrive soon enough. Learning to dissociate what Williams calls “lying” from institutional brainwashing by cis gatekeepers means hastening the end of victim-blaming for trans people. By relegating the use of “stealth” to a historical artefact, we may accelerate the healing of each other by learning to respect the individual life choices we make for ourselves — choices we make without institutional coercion. Our greatest strength becomes our ability to share our narratives and experiential knowledge with one another as trans and GNC people.

Empowering, emboldening, and enriching each other will undo our social isolation.

[1] This means lesbian women who are trans (not cis), gay men who are trans (not cis), and asexual people — women, men, and otherwise — who are trans (not cis). As if this needs to be spelled out — unfortunately for many, it probably still does.

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