The Unbearable (In)visibility of Being Trans

04/03/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

During an internship in my second year of law school, I quickly realized that my trans-ness made me both hyper-visible and completely invisible.

I am noticed.

Innocuously, that visibility is a second glance when I use the bathroom, when I am walking down the street with my toddler, when I speak and my voice does not quite match up with people's expectations. But more insidiously that visibility is the older gentleman coming up behind me while I wait for a train at Penn Station, grabbing my crotch and asking, "how much?"; it is the receptionist at the gynecologist's office telling me I don't belong there, delaying my needed medical care for dangerous lengths of time; it is the unconsented to questions and declarations about my body.

At that internship in law school, where I first really felt this paradox of hyper-visibility and invisibility, there was something about the liminal gender space I occupied that invited attention. I didn't look quite right but no one could figure out what was "wrong." Everyone in the office knew my name and had their own way of asking (without asking) -- "what are you?" Frequently this was in the form of unwanted and sexualized attention. I spent much of the internship managing questions about my body, how I had sex and from one staff member in the office, relentless requests to satisfy his own curiosity about both things.

At the same time, I walked into court every day -- with relative ease because of my suit, my masculinity, my whiteness -- through the separate security entrance for attorneys and law students. But once inside the courthouse, there was the constant suggestion that I was a young child accompanying my father to work every day. I would be yelled at if I didn't wear a tie -- "young man, don't you understand professionalism" -- but mocked if I did -- "ties are not appropriate for women." One Judge joked flippantly that I was "Doogie Howser" and laughed in front of a courtroom full of people. This certainly didn't help me develop confidence in myself as a person and a lawyer but it paled in comparison to the humiliation and erasure levied upon those mostly black and brown bodies who sat in court awaiting sentencing or trial or more and endless court dates.

Make no mistake; none of these experiences are unique to trans-ness. Tragically few people go through the world without being surveilled and erased by the powerful and their power systems. And those who do -- those who feel empowered and safe in powerful spaces -- are disproportionately (if not exclusively) white, cis-, able-bodied, citizens with access to significant financial and social capital. They are the judges making jokes from the bench as they send young black men to prison for life.

Nor are the costs and consequences of this visibility evenly distributed and felt. Imagine what the cost is to those trans people who don't carry the powerful shield from systemic violence that comes with whiteness, masculinity, a legal education, a job doing LGBT work, at an organization with resources and cultural respect and recognition. If I can be erased and attacked, what about my friends and colleagues who are exposed to relentless surveillance, erasure and violence without such protection? What about the trans women of color for whom visibility does not lead to discomfort but to arrest or death?

There is unbearableness to being trans; so much visibility and so much invisibility.

I think of Ashley Arnold, a 32 year-old white trans woman in federal prison in Virginia. She was hyper-visible to the officers who allegedly tormented and harassed her daily. But she was invisible to the prison system and to the courts that systemically withheld her medical care. On February 25, Ashley died by suicide in her cell. When her trans sisters at FCI Petersburg tried to tell her story, make her visible on her own terms, they were punished by the prison. Disciplined for "acting as journalists."

I think of Islan Nettles, a black trans woman, just 21 years old, who was brutally murdered for daring to exist in the world. When Islan walked down the street with her friends, the fact that she was trans evoked so much rage that a group of people beat her to death.

I think of CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman, just 21 years old, when she almost suffered the same fate as Islan. Walking down the street in Minneapolis, her blackness and transness, prompted a group of white people to attack her and beat her. She fought back and survived. And what did she get for surviving against all odds -- a manslaughter conviction and years in prison.

There is unbearableness but that unbearableness also binds us together. Amidst the scrutiny, the savage violence, the systemic discrimination, there are communities of resistance and resilience that hold each other up, that send letters and love to people in prison like Ashley's friends who are mourning her death, that organized for CeCe's release from prison, that tell stories of trans histories and leadership.

I am always struck by how many amazing trans people there are -- mostly trans women of color -- who don't work at big name organizations or appear in magazines or on television, but who make sure that other trans people are housed, fed, supported, and surviving.

Lorena Borjas, Bamby Salcedo, Ruby Corado, Miss Major, Reina Gossett, and so many more. They are the connective tissue, the supportive framework, the breath that gives so many life and that makes trans survival beautiful and possible. Read about them, support them, donate to them.