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Is being visibly trans worth it?

"We are told that we are destined for flames, so we throw ourselves onto the pyre." On Trans Day of Visibility, Tommi Bryson considers the risks and rewards of being openly, visibly trans. 

Tommi Bryson
Kala Heatherson

The common conventions of humanity are all very well for common people.

H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man

There exists, for me at least, a sort of duty to the visibility of being trans. There aren't many of us, and when trans people aren't known on a personal level, then we are in a position where “non-personal knowing” informs how we are perceived.

The thought goes that by being public, by being visible, I can help to normalise transness for others and, more importantly, exist as a beacon for my community. To signal safety.

In my experience, a weight is lifted by the knowledge that you aren't the first, or only, trans person in the room.

To be trans is, often, to know a deep and unique isolation. A sense of unbelonging that never quite leaves you. The hope is that with one's visibility comes a new generation that feel like they belong and that, even if they belong just a little bit more, it's worth it.

And therein is the stickiest question: is being visible actually worth it?

Today we face unprecedented visibility. Content about our community, made by members of our community, is, for the most part, accessible. Trans people are on social media, trans stories are on TV, etc.

I wonder if we’re facing a sense of derealisation wherein people who do not know any trans people can over-hype transness; they expect transness to be the first and only aspect of somebody's identity or personhood

I know that I am more than my trans identity, as does anyone who personally knows me. It is my aim to encourage those who don’t personally know me to interrogate their beliefs about trans personhood, and slowly, hopefully, guide the public’s perception away from trans person and towards trans person.

This needle-shifting is done through work, through art, through writing such as this article, but mostly it is done in ordinary and seemingly meaningless everyday interactions. I’m a proud participant in normalisation, but not everybody can be.

The exhaustion of being trans can be consuming, the communal frustration can be debilitating.

The social media news-a-minute cycle means that someone is always talking about trans people: there is always a story, and there is always some level of vitriolic reaction reminding us that if we are too visible, then we become the next target.

“Becoming the target” is a calculable risk of visibility, it’s something I grapple with every time I write or perform or even leave the house.

And if I'm putting myself at risk, it should be worth something.

I was recently asked if I would be happy to be a small part of an International Women’s Day thread on social media. My immediate thoughts were about risk. The chances of something awful happening were low. I know that there are people out there who would have enough of an issue with my inclusion in that social media thread that they would comment with their disgust or disapproval. It’d hurt my feelings, sure, but there’s only a slim chance it’d even happen. And I have techniques for feeling better. And my inclusion on that thread reinforces the safe space. It helps to normalise. Right?

Tommi Bryson
Lucy Smith-Jones

The trans culture of self-sacrifice is a particularly grim topic. The stories of our heroes and leaders are often short. Stories of generosity and selflessness, and of desperate hope for a safer and stronger tomorrow. It is burned into us that we are doomed to be short lived. We are fed outdated and unhelpful statistics about ourselves, about how likely we are to suffer in every conceivable way. We are depicted as either pitiful or monstrous. We are deprived of elders and see no future. So we repeat the cycle of reckless selflessness. We are told that we are destined for flames, so we choose to throw ourselves onto the pyre instead of waiting to be dragged to a stake.

Knowing older trans people brings stability to this part of my life. I have role models. My self-inflicted sort-of-duty to be visible is eased and aided by an intergenerational community that supports me.

There is only so much one can do without good allyship. We can offer ourselves up to be visible, but someone on the platform needs to reach down, help us up, and - most importantly - not abandon us when we’re up there.

The journey of wellbeing to the point where trans people aren’t resigned to suffering is underway. We are not a community of blood, we are one of experience, one forged in fire. And, after being fired, we must be allowed to cool, otherwise we risk shattering.

Encourage us to self-preserve, that we may be not just visible, but comfortable and happy.

Learn more

Some wellbeing and community resources for Sheffield’s trans+ community:

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