Challenging notions of authenticity: Is trans survival not authentic?

I just want to be my authentic self.

Most people would agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this statement. I’d argue that most of us are trying our hardest to be ourselves with the people around us or in society.

But what happens when moralizing about authenticity becomes an accusation? When anyone who chooses not to disclose their truest gender expression is seen as a fake, sellout, or impostor, even if they have valid reasons to hold the lines between their private and public selves?

Is the need for survival not authentic? How are desires to stay alive or connected not real?

Authenticity should be a right, but it’s not. It’s a privilege.

This world doesn’t make it safe for all of us to be our fullest selves. For those of who have marginalized identities, we have to make choices every moment, every day, between showing our authentic selves to the world — including our partners, family members, employers, and strangers on the street — and maintaining any safety or security that we might have access to. Disclosing trans identity or a gender different from the one that is expected based on sex assigned at birth can have serious consequences. Trans people who disclose to employers run the risk of discrimination or losing their jobs. Trans people who disclose to loved ones risk rejection and exile from important social communities. Black trans people, particularly Black trans women, have significantly elevated risks of experiencing assault and violence. When the risks of anti-trans discrimination are so high, it makes sense that those who are most marginalized — namely, those who are impacted by racism, transphobia, transmisogyny, and poverty — would face the most barriers to disclosure. This underscores the idea that the expectation of “coming out” is embedded in whiteness and privilege.

For most of my adult life, I took pride in my code-switching skills. I thought of it as a source of resilience, even a superpower that I had gained as a bicultural person. I told myself that I was good at “playing the game” (e.g.., capitalism), so I should use that skill. What I didn’t see was that code-switching was killing me while simultaneously aiding in my survival. It kept me colonized while believing that I was truly outside of the system, a double-agent of sorts. I have valued the term “dismantling from within” and martyred myself for years thinking that this was necessary in order to fight for changes in the world for myself and my communities. It allowed me to work too long for a mental health startup with highly questionable practices that were severely out of line with my personal and political values. After leaving that job, I vowed to quit code-switching. That’s something to celebrate! And…I am enormously privileged in being able to truly (and let’s be real can we ever under capitalism truly) unplug myself from the matrix.

As a nonbinary person who has worked within trans health spaces for over 15 years, I know that trans and nonbinary people are accused of being deceitful on a regular basis. Words like “stealth” suggest that transness is flying under the radar so that we can assimilate in a cisnormative, ciscentric binary world. We are interrogated by cis people, forced to come up with our origin stories, and jump through endless hoops to access gender-affirming medical care or legal recognition. We have to provide “evidence” to access authenticity. We are met with disapproval or life-threatening barriers to care when we haven’t performed what is expected of us. And that expectation is typically steeped in colonialist notions of a universal trans experience.

Sometimes, a lot of the time, being our “true” selves means making choices for self-preservation: accessing or maintaining jobs, housing, relationships, and physical safety. Not disclosing trans status or identity at work isn’t deceptive or cowardly; sometimes it’s our own wisdom and resilience telling us it’s not the time or place. I’m not advocating for people to keep their identities or authentic genders hidden; I’m saying that it’s more complicated than that in a world that is deeply racist, transphobic, transmisogynist, classist, and ableist. Rather than placing the burden or blame on individuals, we need to eradicate the systems that make being who we are dangerous in the first place.

References

[1] James, S., Herman, J., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. A. (2016). The report of the 2015 US transgender survey.

[2] Sanchez, A. A. (2017). The whiteness of ‘coming out’: culture and identity in the disclosure narrative. Archer, July, 7.