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Coming Out Again: The Politics of Shame, Silence and Story

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It's 1 a.m. I've just left the Human Rights Campaign's National Dinner with my partner, Georgie. We've seen Gloria Steinem, Jennifer Lopez and others take to the stage in support of LGBTQ rights. We've listened to HRC President Chad Griffin and others recount recent victories and detail the work ahead. And -- most meaningfully to Georgie and me -- we've watched Sarah McBride, a 23-year-old trans woman, share her story with more than 3,500 attendees. It's been an amazing night.

After events like these, Georgie's favorite thing to do is put on PJs, eat ice cream and watch bad TV. So I drop her off at home and run to 7-Eleven to pick up some Phish Food.

As a relatively young trans guy, I've learned that it's best to pay close attention to my surroundings at all times, whether it's making a point to register the closest gender-neutral restroom to avoid an awkward and potentially dangerous situation later on, or nonchalantly scanning a hundred yards down the street to see who might be likely to make a comment, or, worse, the moment Georgie reaches out to hold my hand.

So I'm already paying attention when two drunken men stumble out of an apartment and onto the street just steps behind me. I register their voices and the sounds of shoes stagger-stepping across the pavement and the pop of beer cans. "This is not good," I think.

"Yeah, we're going to black town," one of them stammers.

"Where the blacks live," the other laughs.

Their casual racism infuriates me and exacerbates my concern. Long before I learned the language -- "intersection of multiple oppressions" -- I knew that racism, homophobia, transphobia and other "-isms" are more often than not tightly and inextricably bound. So I reach for my phone and step far to the side, pretending to check my email. I keep my head bowed. With my short hair and my face turned, I think they'll pass and I might go unnoticed. I strive for invisibility. But the tux stands out, and they pause to stare. They are now so close that I can smell the alcohol that seems to be emanating from their pores.

"You, hey, you, you want a beer?"

My head is bowed, so I can't see their faces. "Nah, I'm good. Thanks, though," I say, grateful that my voice doesn't break as it so often does from the hormones.

"I don't think he's old enough to drink," one laughs.

And then, for some reason, maybe because I annoy them by not acknowledging them with eye contact, they both step closer to me.

"He? She? He? What are they?" jeers one.

"What is that?" asks the other.

My heart sinks out of habit, and the memory of the first time I felt that way, as I watched my older brother yell out "he-she!" at a stranger on the street, flashes through my mind. My mouth opens before I can really think about it. "Isn't it a little late for you boys to be out? Maybe your parents extended your curfew?" I find myself saying. I register my own words: defiant, below my usual register of irreverence, and, most importantly, likely to escalate the situation.

One of the two men immediately steps even closer. I can feel the heat from his body and hear his breathing. My stomach tightens as I imagine their fists. I visualize the emergency room and Georgie's face. The image kills me.

And then, just as quickly, it's over. They walk away.

I'm still staring at my email when I hear their laughter fading as they turn the corner up ahead. I start breathing again. I go to get the ice cream.

I wonder whether this might have ended differently for me without the unearned privilege that race, class and a masculine-of-center gender identity grant me, and I think about how this sort of fear and danger, which poises a daily risk for many, especially trans women of color, is still the exception for me. I think about how lucky I am to be standing here unharmed.

2013-10-10-hayden_huffpo.jpgI begin to consider how to tell Georgie when I get home. But then I remember a photo we took just a few hours ago. She's beautiful in her dress, smiling as I lean over to kiss her on the cheek. I'm wearing my first real tux. I think it's the first picture of us in which my "not quite male, not quite female" image doesn't somehow ruin the photo for me. The photo -- and the night it represents -- is a keeper. I want to hold on to the memory of the night without the unwelcome epilogue of the last few moments. Georgie endures a lot for us, for being in love with a trans man: the public, overt comments and stares, and the private, subtler lack of approval from family. I just want her, and us, to have this one simple night. "Besides," I tell myself, "nothing really happened anyway."

Then I remember how, just a week ago, I sat with 55 fellow transgender organizers from across the country at a training, hosted by the New Organizing Institute, on the power of personal story. HRC was one of the sponsors, and many of our volunteers from across the country were there too, learning how our stories can change hearts and minds. I remember a feeling of belonging as I told my story, about the first time I learned to be ashamed of my difference, and about how, after 25 years, I'd learned to love and accept myself and am working now so that others can do the same. I challenged the room to use National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, as an opportunity to tell our stories.

But standing there outside the 7-Eleven, pint of ice cream in hand, I realize that I hadn't told my fellow organizers everything, that although I had offered a tight narrative arc -- from self-hatred to self-acceptance -- I had left out how often and easily I am rendered powerless and in danger just three blocks from my own home. I had left out the part about how, when this happens, there remains a small but powerful voice inside me that insists that this is somehow my fault, that it's me and not the bigots who are wrong, that somehow my difference invites danger, that I am a burden to my partner and the people who love me. I had left out the part about how, even today, I still carry with me pieces of the lies that I learned very young.

I know that isolation is the thing that keeps these lies in place and grants them power. I know that telling our stories, breaking that isolation, is the only way to transform that dynamic. I know the message of the NOI training was not just that we must tell our stories to change the minds of strangers who might do us harm, so that one day we'll be safe to walk down our streets, but that we must keep telling our stories, wholly and completely, to those who love us, so that they can hold and support us and sustain us today.

So on National Coming Out Day I want to ask not only that you tell your story to someone you hope will change but to someone who can appreciate and support you right now, just as you are today.

Today marks the 26th annual National Coming Out Day. This year's theme is "Coming Out Still Matters." For more information and coming-out resources, visit hrc.org/ncod.