Decisions on Disclosure

I walk into a deli, and no one cares. “What can I get you Boss?” The man behind the counter has a thick New York Italian accent, a smile on his face. I ask for a bagel with cream cheese and sprouts, lettuce too. “No problem Boss, what kind of bagel?”

I’m just some guy who wants a bagel. Okay, maybe I’ve got long hair and some tattoos, but I’m just some guy who wants a bagel.

In the world of transgender experience, including in the class/discussion I led at the Tickle Trunk on Thursday, the notion of “passing” gets bantered about. Do you “pass” in the eyes of the person who sees you as the gender of your transition? Do you get “read” as a real guy? Do folks read you as the gender you experience yourself as?

On the phone, I don’t always pass. In the world of customer service, folks say on the other end of the line “How can I help you Ms. Harrington?” I used to get angry, frustrated, pointing out every time they did it. Sometimes I did it without kindness. Now I either let it roll by and just not correct what they perceive they hear at the other end of the phone, or I modify my behavior before we begin. I drop my voice down, exaggerate the deep tones, and hope they will “read” me the right way, that I will “pass” as the dude I want to be on the other end of the phone.

Though, in all honesty, sometimes I let my voice come up on the phone. Because in our society, even in the current wave of post-3rd-wave-feminist-thought, if folks think I am female, they will help me more. Poor woman, she doesn’t understand the issue. We’ll give her more time, give her more things free, help her however we can. My sensibilities are offended, but my budget appreciates it.

But the question is, on my lips and those of many trans* people I encounter is… do I pass. Do you see me how I see me? Can I see myself reflected back in your eyes? Do you see me? Or am I someone else to you? Will you treat me differently? Am I me, or am I my history, or some monster?

And if I pass, what do I pass as?

which-one-is-a-trans-manIn recent years, as I pass more, as I am read as a guy, I have found that I disclose my gender experience less often. When I first began medical transition I did not pass. Oh, I thought I did. I bound my chest as tight as I could and wore mens clothes. I dropped my voice and cut my hair. But to the world at large they read me as a butch woman, likely a butch dyke. They saw me most of the time in that framework, and treated me that way.

They saw my 38DD chest under a binder and saw me strapped down, not chest-less. Even when I “packed” my cock underneath my underwear, a bulge in my pants of almost comic proportions I realize as I look back, I was still read, still seen, as either a woman or perhaps something other. Something we-have-no-idea-what-box-to-put-you-in.

I got strange looks. I tried so far to have patience and grace, but did not always succeed. My chest would sigh as I dropped my head, but other times I got verbally responsive in negative ways. I said “really, do chicks grow beards?” “Why are you calling me Ms.?” “Can’t you see who is before you?”

Women do grow beards. They called me Ms. because customer services asks folks to speed-gender for sake of showing deference to the customer’s needs, to infer power dynamic. And no, they could only see me through the filters of their own experience and assumptions.

They did not know how to say “what pronoun do you prefer?” It’s just not part of daily experience, for each person on the planet. And funny enough… even in gender-radical and trans* populations, we only seem to ask this question on folks we don’t know how to speed-gender-assume, instead of asking everyone we meet.

At that time, I had to disclose my gender journey to everyone I met. I had to educate, explain, try so hard to speak a language they could hear. Perhaps if I could explain it, they might see me. Please see me. I don’t want you to see my projection, I want you to see me how I see me. I want to look in the mirror of your eyes and not be alone.

The challenge with having to do it all the time was that it was exhausting. I wore my gender journey on my shoulder, my face, across my tits. I wore it in peach fuzz and a jaw that tried to stop smiling as much because when I was stoic I got properly gendered more often. The world said that men don’t cry, men don’t laugh, men are imprisoned behind a wall of blank faces. I feel for the pain of men.

But now, when people do “discover” my gender journey, a new story emerges. It is not in my day to day. I am some dude, and out of the blue comes the information. I lived my life as a woman for a long time. I used to be Bridgett. I have a different body reality. I was born as my mother’s daughter.

Sometimes they hear it from me. I become the educator in that moment, and get to tease out how to educate and help based on the looks on their faces. If there is curiosity, I get to gently share my past, in their language of understanding. If they get rude and offensive, I get to help normalize me as me still being the me they knew fifteen minutes ago. If they get scared, I get to breathe deep and hold space for them.

But I’m not always seen the same way afterwards. Even for people who have called me “he” for years, when they find out about my journey, they sometimes start “she”ing me. Now, sometimes this becomes comedic. We are out for dinner and they “she” me. The waiter looks at me and looks at them, very confused. I usually laugh and say that I do stuff as a drag queen sometimes. The waiter laughs. Outing myself as queer is easier for me it seems. But the waiter, looking at the dude with the beard before them, just doesn’t understand. And at least social decorum stops the person across from me from saying “he has different genitals and was a girl and and and” to the waiter.

However, sometimes folks read the experience of the unveiling new information concerning is as finding out I was a liar. I lied about being a guy. Lee is not a real guy and never was. They go back and re-write the stories they know about me and try to make sense about them. They take the story of my former husband and re-write it as me being a heterosexual woman rather than being a gay man, even though for me the truth is far more complicated.

They reframe their experiences of me sharing a locker room with them. Wait, was I changing with a chick, or maybe some not-guy? If Lee was someone I was attracted to, and he isn’t “a real guy,” does that mean I am attracted to women, and that I’m not actually a gay man, not really a straight woman? What does their gender say about me? Say about what he and I did together? It is Crying Game, it becomes Boys Don’t Cry – if I find out she has a penis and used to live as a man, must I destroy her/him/them/it to be okay about myself?

Afterwards, life might just go forward. They know about a new piece of my life experience, and we move forward. Sometimes they ask questions about my specific journey, about what something was like for me, how my gender journey felt.

But sometimes, it goes uncomfortable… or for myself, less uncomfortable, and more odd. They ask about my genitals, about how I have sex, about the bloody details of surgeries. I have now come to ask, after years of this, different questions. When someone asks if I have a cock, a cunt, how I fuck, I now say “are you asking because you are curious about the variety of genital reconstruction surgeries out there for trans* people, or are you asking because you are wanting to have sex with me?” Because really, unless you want to have sex with me, why do you want details about my genitals? You probably wouldn’t ask that question of other people, so why are you asking me?

However – there are a lot of times when things just aren’t the same. I’m not treated like “one of the guys” any more. I have been discovered as being “not one of us,” and thus there is a shift. They may say there is not, and perhaps there isn’t meant to be. Perhaps I even read into it sometimes that something has shifted when it has not. But I have seen other times when it has, and I feel sorrow from it.

Disclosure is not something that only comes up around gender though.

I am standing in Nordstrom’s (it’s like Macy’s with better mint truffles that used to be based in Seattle) wearing black buckle pants and a goth tee shirt. My hair is long and black, and my lipstick matches the ensemble. I’m looking at dresses for homecoming.

The women in the department ignore me, until one woman finally winds her way to me. She looks me up and down as I flip through potential gowns. She sneers, and informs me that they don’t have anything for me, staring at my clothing as she does so.

I begin to leave. I turn around and pull a stack of money out of my pocket, more than enough for anything I had wanted, informing them that it was a shame that they did not want my money. The woman asks me to come back, that they have something – but I am already on my way out.

I disclosed my financial reality, which did not match their assumptions of me.

We each make choices around what to disclose about ourselves to others. When I am at the grocery store, will I let the man behind the register see whatever he sees of me, or will I tell him information beyond his assumptions about me? He may be seeing my skin color, my wardrobe, my haircut, my piercings, the fold-out shopping bag I brought with me. He may hear my voice or the comments I am making to my friends.

He may be projecting beliefs about me based on those points, or he may not even care about me. But in that moment I get to choose what else I might want to disclose about myself. And each thing I share about me? It will shift his experience of me.

If I pause and say “hi, I am a transsexual man who works as an author and educator focusing on erotic and spiritual authenticity,” he may blink. He may wonder why the hell this person just told me this. He may be blown away and say “oh my gods, I’m a trans guy too!”

There are a lot of people who I personally don’t think I need to disclose my gender experience to. I don’t think the awesome barista on 8th avenue at 16th really needs to know I am trans. But I do think it helps create a functional relationship with my doctor to have him know, because without knowing that about me, he won’t be able to do his job right. My barista can do his job of making my oh-so-tasty Mocha Light Frappacino with two pumps of vanilla and one pump of pumpkin, without knowing I happen to have a trans experience or history.

And as I disclose with different people, I get to choose what I disclose, and why. I don’t get to just choose about my gender. I get to make decisions about what to disclose about my biological family I want to share. I choose what to share about my financial reality, my personal health, my career, my ethnic background, my university experience (and whether I had any), my world travels, my favorite meals, my politics, my favorite movies, my fetishes, and my sexual proclivities.

If someone chooses to wear t-shirt that speaks well of a favored politician, for example, it discloses immediately their general interest in politics, as well as their political leanings. That same person may choose to wear something else, which does not share that same detail. That may not, for example, disclose them as being a Tea Party member. If that same person strikes up a great conversation with another individual about their favorite restaurants and their shared travels, there might not be any reason that their political leanings would come up.

Flashing forward to the next date, and the next, it just doesn’t come up. The two folks talk about their pets, and go out to the movies together. They enjoy a concert together, enjoy romantic moments walking down the pier, and laugh at the same youtube video of the Jimmy Fallon lip synch competition.

Many things can come up for this individual concerning their politics. They might hear their sweetie say that everyone in the Tea Party is an idiot, and they choose to leave the relationship before they ever disclose. They might hear the comment, but then ask the person whether they’ve ever actually talked with someone who has that political leaning. They might have it randomly come up and have their partner be hurt that they could ever have such leanings, or even scream horrible words about how much of an idiot they must be to ever believe such things. They might bring it up themselves in a conversation, and find out their partner agrees with some of their politics, but would love to dialogue about those that they don’t share views on… and these are just a few possibilities.

Russia-homphobiaThere are people that I know who would be far more hurt to find out that their sweetie is of a different political affiliation than finding out that the person they are dating is transsexual. It’s fascinating to me to find out what really hits the core of folks. I know of a family members disclosure of “not really being white” destroy her relationship, because she was half-Lakota but “passed” as being white. For some it is money, or class at birth, or if they were “really gay.”

The question though becomes whether, by not disclosing, we are “lying.” Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? When does it become vital to share details?

The flip side is also fascinating to me – not sharing details because we ourselves think they are a big deal, but a friend could care less. Er, okay, you served a ten year sentence for armed assault. Does that affect us? The pain from not sharing their history gnawing in their gut. For good reason in some cases from fear of rejection. But when does having fear rule us help?

Sometimes – it helps! Fear is not useless. It can keep us alive and kicking. If I disclose my gender reality in some countries where I have been immersed in men’s spiritual culture, I run the risk of legal retribution or being attacked, or far worse. The frighteningly high number of trans* murders speaks of these fears being reasonable to have.

Each day I look at each moment and make choices around what to disclose around my gender experience and history. I have profound privilege in that, compared to my experience 6 years ago. I pass. This is privilege.

But I get to choose if I tell my bank teller. I get to choose if I tell my partner’s friends. I get to choose if I tell students at a class I teach at a local sex shop.

Now, this all can get tricky. I can choose not to tell someone that I am trans – but then I get to gender neutralize my stories, my past. I was no longer a female fetish model. I now used to work in the adult film industry. I was no longer a pagan priestess. I now used to be a pagan priest. I was no longer a young woman who sold more Camp Fire candies because I unbuttoned my blouse… I now either had a friend who did so – or I no longer have that story.

Sometimes I choose not to disclose, I choose not to “out” myself in this manner, because I don’t think folks need to know. Sometimes it is because I am tired of educating. Sometimes because it just never occurred to me. Sometimes because it doesn’t matter. Sometimes because it will be detrimental to the conversation. Sometimes because it will affect the group of people around me or cause ripples. Sometimes because just being one of the dudes makes it easier to get a bagel.

He wraps up the bagel, thick with shmear and vegis. He throws it in a paper bag, curls up the top, and takes my money. Handing back change, and then the paper bag, he says “Thanks Boss,” and I head out onto the sidewalk. Because I was just some guy who wanted a bagel.


If so moved…



Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.

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