I’m a Transgender Woman
My name is Stephanie Sherwood, and I’m a transgender woman. With that said, I am both relieved and terrified of the consequences of publishing these four words on the public Internet at a time of organized eliminationism against transgender people.1 The Internet has a long memory, and with this post, in the month of Pride, June 2022, I irrevocably step from the shadows and I definitively declare myself out of the closet for better, or for worse.
I’ve had the privilege of blending in with and being assumed to be a cisgender woman since 2018, which is a privilege that has been vital for preserving a modicum of economic and physical safety. In fact, it was essential on more than one occasion to preserving my very life when I lived in Oklahoma. As I’ve been able to reflect upon those years after moving to Seattle, WA at the end of the summer of 2020, I now consider myself without hyperbole to be a religious and political refugee of a red state within the USA.
At this point in my transition, being assumed to be cisgender is a privilege I will likely always have in casual interactions with strangers unless I intentionally out myself. I’m still very thankful for this privilege, given that I also know the difficulty of what it is like living as a visibly transgender woman from earlier in my transition.
However, I’ve grown disillusioned with the down sides of what I’ve come to see as re-closeting in less superficial interactions. Moreover, given that I also believe visibility is one key to transgender liberation it’s high time I live my own values. I owe it to myself, to the generations of trans elders that came before me, to my peers, to my partners, and to the transgender youth under eliminationist attack to be visible, vocal, and present in the fight for our collective liberation. This is an impossibility from the confines of the closet.
To not be visible, to not be fully out, has been an exercise of moving from one closet to another. While I’ve been out for years to my friends, loved ones, and family, both of blood, and chosen, in broader spheres I have not been out. Particularly in acquaintance level social, and professional relationships I’ve continued until today, to hide who and what I am.
Interpersonally, I made this choice primarily for reasons of physical and economic safety, but also out of a basic human need for companionship given that I had been outcast by nearly everyone in all aspects of my life with scant few exceptions after coming out as transgender. Those experiences ranged from outright violence to feeling generally unwelcome as the rule and not the exception by cisgender heterosexual people and unfortunately much of the LGBTQIA+ community. This was especially the case in Oklahoma, although it still happens in Seattle to a far lesser degree in severity and frequency.
If you haven’t lived it, it’s hard to understand the creeping and corrosive cost of the closet, and how any amount of being closeted turns you into a shade of a person. I was perceived for most of my adult life by those that knew me as well as they could as a gay man before I came out as a transgender woman.
I’ve also been perceived as nearly every shade of LGBTQ identity and assigned gender. This ever-changing perception by others has been due to the combination of being transgender, queer, bisexual, erasure of those identities, as well the assumptions of my gender and gender assigned at birth from others. It complicates things, but has also afforded me the opportunity to observe various identity groups from the inside. It has allowed me to ascertain where people like me stand within these groups, and it has offered me a perspective that is fairly unique, even among transgender people.
In my experience, there are various levels and negative consequences of the closet when I compare sexuality and gender. Additionally, I’ve dealt with a myriad of prejudices when any number of the aforementioned identities I’ve blended in with are assumed. However, exploring the insights of these experiences and the prejudices associated with such ephemeral assumed identities will have to be saved for another writing.
Yet, on the matter of actual identity, my bisexuality and the consequences of the sexuality closet were bad enough. However, the sexuality closet in no way compared to the extreme consequences of being a knowingly and fully closeted transgender child and adult for three decades.
For me, the transgender closet resulted in a high level of disassociation, and a lack of self-concept, e.g. the inability to honestly answer the question “Who am I?”, or even “What am I?”. Like most of the topics in this post, they are too deep to explain fully in short, but existing without I, that is performing instead living as self is a tortured experience, and a life I came to feel wasn’t worth living. That was the conclusion that I came to as a young teenager, but unfortunately it took me almost another two decades to feel that there was anything I could do about it short of suicide.
The only solution, as it had always been, was transition. It was an endeavor I undertook in 2017 for the third time in my adult life. It was at a moment in which I achieved the zenith of what I could hope for while pretending to be somebody I was not, with the understanding that my fake existence was as good as it would get and wasn’t good enough, at a time that I acknowledged the absolute medical necessity of it, when there was a serendipitous sea change that created an opening to pursue medical and social transition, and at a time when I could also see the likely closing of that opportunity to transition not far off on the horizon.
Given my experiences it has been easy to forgive myself for the partial re-closeting I have done, perhaps too easy, but I can no longer tolerate it. It is painful, even more so as I’ve been partially out, to twist and torture my words by omission, by careful phrasing, and outright lies to hide myself, my past, my present, and my future.
Being re-closeted steals my voice when there are so many things that must be said for my survival and the collective survival and liberation of others. It steals my creativity when I try to write, draw, or paint as I filter my full experience through the narrow lens of cisheteronormativity. I feel invisible, unseen, and filled with a great fear at even the smallest expressions and interactions when I’m closeted.
I never know where I stand with others, and nothing I do feels like I did it. The hit to my self-esteem has been substantial. This is decidedly not a good way to live, even if it has been wildly better than being fully closeted pre-transition and was a necessity when I lived in Oklahoma.
I’ve also dealt with no small amount of workplace harassment, employment, and hiring discrimination for my transgender and other LGBTQIA+ identities. As a result the place I feel this fear the keenest is in professional settings. I feel it strongly when looking for work. I’ve dreaded the screenings, interviews, and background checks, all while wondering who will find out outside of HR, and what impact will it have? I try to figure out how can I take time off for medically necessary gender affirming care without tipping my hand. How can I not come across as secretive and untrustworthy when inevitably people feel that there is something off about me; that I’m hiding something?
Even worse from a connecting to humanity level is all the socialization that goes beyond the transactional day to day interactions with strangers. The mundane friendly encounters that could turn into friendships, romances, partnerships, network building, and professional relationships all come into question when one is always assessing them through the lens of stigma management and the relative safety that being partially closeted brings to you.
Regardless of what else I bring to the table; I ask myself is the positive experience of this interaction with another person or organization conditional on them being unaware of my transgender status? Unfortunately, it’s a valid question that I’ve had to answer yes to all too many times after coming out, being outed, or otherwise being discovered to be transgender.
Yet, despite all of this I’ve come to a different place recently. I’ve worked through a lot of valid fear, and visceral trauma. I’ve moved to and settled into a place that is far more tolerant, and often accepting of transgender people. I’ve come to recognize that the benefits of safety and security in this world are not worth the closet for me, and at present the calculus of being out and surviving is in my favor in my new home of Seattle; a city I’ve come to view as a sanctuary for transgender people.
It’s more than the calculus of survival though. I’ve had a good taste of what an authentic life lived without shame can feel like since I’ve lived here, and I want more. After living for decades fearing for my dignity, safety, and very life I’ve come to the conclusion that E. Zapata captured in his famous quote, “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.”
With the publication of this post, I’m done with the fear!
I’m’ not compromising myself again. I say no more!
Transgender is beautiful! Transgender is divine!
I will defend and die on the hill of transgender liberation.
If need be, I choose death before de-transition.
I’m an out and proud transgender woman,
and in the immortal words of Hedwig Robinson,
I’m never turning back!
cisgender - of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “cisgender,” accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender ↩