Curing the Stockholm syndrome of “stealth”: ending sympathetic responses toward cis gatekeeping

Over at the Transadvocate, a commentary series is re-examining “stealth” as a way to exist as trans within structural cisnormativity. “Stealth” is a relic in which as a trans person, one must never mention their being trans to another person, including (implicitly heterosexual) cis partners. As “stealth”, one must be placed consistently as cis by cis people. As “stealth”, one must also be commissionable in producing a narrative which would be implausible for many trans people. “Stealth” is treated as a lifelong pact. As a prescriptive approach, “stealth” owes its long shelf life to women who are trans — that is, relative to others who are trans and gender non-conforming (GNC). Of those women, the staunchest advocates of “stealth” have tended to share both white and middle class intersectional experiences. It was not uncommon for these women to begin their transition during the 1960s, the 1980s, and even the 1990s.

How “stealth” is being addressed by the Transadvocate series predictably overlooks the core causes why the practice even gained traction in the first place. The first to promote “stealth” as a way to live were clinical gatekeepers. That is, the gatekeepers were disproportionately white cis men who developed gender clinics with procedural systems to make access to trans medicine a prohibitive, intimidating ordeal for even the most determined of trans people. The staunchest evangelists of “stealth” were the beneficiaries of those clinics.

What is predictably bothersome about Suzan Cooke’s essay, “The many shades of stealth,” is its conspicuous absence of intersectional consciousness. What is equally bothersome about Cristan Williams’s piece, “A rant about MTF stealth,” is its propensity for victim-blaming those who consented, some under institutional duress, to a “stealth” existence for their own lives as trans people, as a precondition for their welfare. It also blames by association any trans person who lacks the situational affordance to live openly as trans, where forcible disclosure can be extremely hazardous, and where involuntary disclosure can jeopardize other basic securities. Further, one’s personal decision to not live openly as a trans person is not a tacit endorsement of “stealth” prescriptivism — a distinction which isn’t made in Williams’s essay.

However unintended, neither writer tries to challenge the structures laid by cis gatekeepers which made “stealth” a practice in the first place. Neither essay entertains an intersectional lens to critically examine how “stealth” has structurally excluded trans people of colour, poorer trans people, trans people with disabilities, opaquely visible trans people, queer trans people, and trans people who experience several of these concurrently. Neither explores the kyriarchical relationship between the word “stealth” and militarism. Neither recognizes that the word descends from the Old English root for “steal”. When women who are trans use the word “stealth” to describe themselves, they are tacitly admitting a disbelief of themselves as legitimately women or being female. Itself a patriarchal idea, “stealth” proposes how being placed by anyone as a trans person implies some kind of failure as, say, a woman. In militaristic terms, compromising “stealth” means being spotted, then shot down (and either punished, interned, or killed) by a cissexist enemy who, likewise, is also a product of the same kyriarchy. A life of “living stealth successfully”, should all go well, might then emerge as a paranoid, isolating existence.

Intersectional consciousness is no longer a discursive indulgence. It is now a basic cornerstone when having any critical discussion on which kyriarchical conditions of institutional marginality and structural impediments are implicated in one’s social welfare (and the quality of one’s life experiences).

The absence of Cooke’s intersectional consciousness is striking. Her essay speaks on experiences of living in a social bell jar, bereft of acknowledging the systemic structures which enabled, even coerced her to frame her experiences as a white, middle-class trans woman who still leans against the word “stealth” seriously, even endearingly. Her classism bleeds through as she refers to service industry labour as “peons working the concrete floors in big box stores.” Consequently, Cooke laments how she fears a social isolation in her twilight years from her own (similarly isolated) peers who are now beginning to pass on. Cooke believes that reaching out and forming meaningful connections with people who share her life experiences as a trans person betrays her being placed by cis people as “ordinary” (read: cis): “We walled ourselves off from people who provide support networks of friends.” In so doing, she and her peers left in the dark many more trans people who would later find the path of transition, themselves often spatially and temporally isolated by the experience. Cooke sympathizes more deeply with the old gatekeepers who coerced her to divorce herself from her own experiences as a precondition for being a cisnormative participant. Cooke is struggling with her own internalized cissexism — a world view in which cis people are valued more than trans people.

Earnestly speaking, the mistrust which a great many trans people have felt for cis gatekeepers of the medical industrial complex (overrepresented by white cis men) is well placed. Our mistrust comes from countless narratives of being impeded, stalled, and even shut out from exercising agency over our own bodies. It’s of little wonder why we are frequently displeased with being clinically reducible by cis people who will never grasp the many obstacles we must endure in order to have our lives on our terms.

That our narratives share a basic theme of fear is also no coincidence. We know our human rights are dissolved when our medical care is withheld. Our quality of life suffers needlessly whenever gatekeepers deny our agency for seeking that care.

Regimes of systemically denying people from access to trans health care have come with a body count, too. Innumerable suicides have been completed after learning that one “failed” to clear the bar which was stacked as deeply misogynistic, racist, and ableist to begin with — not to mention kept arbitrarily in constant motion by a gatekeeper’s own cissexist capriciousness. This is what many trans and GNC people have come to know as “the gatekeepers moving the goalposts.”

And for those who are granted conditional access to health care, many trans people must still sacrifice some of their human rights as they are coerced to appease their gatekeepers by whatever means necessary. They know their gatekeepers have the power to suddenly revoke trans health access and do so without compunction. Trans people who have adopted a semblance of “stealth” living have learnt to manage these threats through preemptive means. Four tactics are stand-outs. One, they develop an acceptable boilerplate of a narrative to satisfy gatekeepers (at the sacrifice of one’s own lived narrative). Two, as proxies for gatekeepers, they learn to condemn other trans people who aren’t functioning under the same set of cissexist, misogynistic rules. Three, they live in fear of deviating from gatekeeper expectations of gender which could have their own continued care revoked without notice (such as a woman arriving to a clinical appointment in trousers or sans makeup). And four, they are discouraged from commingling with other trans and GNC people in all but clinically-controlled circumstances. Each is rooted in kyriarchical tactics for invoking fear, conquering by division, and quashing civil unrest by proxy.

Needing to excise such basic parts of oneself to win approval (or even an illusion of respect) from cis gatekeepers means learning to conform to normative expectations inside the examination or therapy room. It’s a compromise. This capture-bonding between cis gatekeepers and trans people who are “stealth advocates” has also meant having the latter “patrol” and voluntarily browbeat those antisocial conditions into people who are trans and GNC. Any trans person who rejects this browbeating, as “stealth” rationalizing goes, probably wouldn’t have much of a chance inside the cis gatekeeping culture anyway. They would be failures of the “real” thing — in which “real” amounts to a gatekeeper-certified, bona fide transsexual person, “person of transsexual history”, or “post-transsexual.” Anything less than that means they must not be very serious about being trans. Consequently, as intersectional life experiences are brought into the fold, each becomes substantive barriers to access when that experience is valued as non-normative — being fat, experiencing physical disability, having a limited education, being a victim of economic injustice, experiencing mental health issues, being a person of colour, and so on. Each of these experiences has been known as real barriers to trans health care when cis gatekeepers are given the power to control the welfare of trans and GNC people.

Sometimes compromise means one’s own sexuality as a trans person must be compartmentalized or suppressed if one hopes to obtain access to trans medical care. The history of lesbian women, gay men, and asexual people[1] having to feign heterosexuality as a precondition for access to EEI, or support for surgical intervention, dates back to Lili Elbe during the 1930s, and in the U.S., Avon Wilson during the 1960s. When adherence to heteronormative behaviour has meant putting one’s life into potential danger — even when a trans person is heterosexual — outcomes have (disproportionately greater than for cis people) spanned from assault and rape to murder.

Place all of these conditions together, and it becomes easier to understand how “stealth” emerged as a kind of Stockholm syndrome — in which trans people, held as captives of deeply cissexist gatekeepers, had to learn to sympathize with (and even respect) their cis clinicians if they ever hoped to obtain what they sought from the arrangement. They learnt to echo what their gatekeepers advocated and proscribed. They believed that criticism of the cis gatekeeping model by trans people was more of a threat to their welfare than anything cis people could do to them — even when cis people, not other trans people, were the ones who disproportionately did the most harm to people who were trans.

Eventually, “stealth” as a concept is destined to an ignominious fate, a historical dark age for our collective history as trans and GNC people. What Cooke called the “trailblazers” will probably be remembered for being early victims of this capture-bonding with cissexist clinicians. The dissolution of “stealth” does not amount to disclosing oneself as trans in all social transactions. Rather, as trans and GNC people continue working together toward building care-giving policy models built around informed consent and dignity in doctor-patient relationships, the fear of cis people lording that health care over our heads will continue to wane — especially as cis people themselves continue maturing with their understanding and compassion of trans people’s life experiences.

Ostensibly “stealth” trans people who are still around now will continue to uphold their social isolation from other peers. This is unfortunate, even a bit tragic. Practitioners of “stealth” impressed the idea that once clinical oversight of transition was over with, trans people who went “stealth” were to never have interactions with other trans people, as it would foil their effort to stay perfectly silent about their narrative of being trans. As we come to recognize how cis gatekeeping methodologies have advocated a kind of divide-and-conquer over trans people, we can begin undoing its social harm and cultural impoverishment from within the community.

Perhaps Cooke could reconsider how her intersectionally oblivious remark hurts also herself: “Mandatory political correctness has rankled, especially given the awareness of how wonderfully politically incorrect so many of my sisters and brothers are.” An admission of political correctness means that one does not feel obliged to assume responsibility for her racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, cissexism, transphobia, ableism, and so on. It means that Cooke doesn’t pay mind to how her behaviour upholds the structural oppressions which keep her isolated from her senescing contemporaries.

Learning to let go of the word “stealth” as a community cannot arrive soon enough. Learning to dissociate what Williams calls “lying” from institutional brainwashing by cis gatekeepers means hastening the end of victim-blaming for trans people. By relegating the use of “stealth” to a historical artefact, we may accelerate the healing of each other by learning to respect the individual life choices we make for ourselves — choices we make without institutional coercion. Our greatest strength becomes our ability to share our narratives and experiential knowledge with one another as trans and GNC people.

Empowering, emboldening, and enriching each other will undo our social isolation.


[1] This means lesbian women who are trans (not cis), gay men who are trans (not cis), and asexual people — women, men, and otherwise — who are trans (not cis). As if this needs to be spelled out — unfortunately for many, it probably still does.

How to turn a living woman into disposable social sludge: the banal afterdeath of Cemia “Ci Ci” Dove

Cemia Dove

Yesterday morning, I read the story of a woman in Cleveland who was murdered in the most violent of ways.

She was stabbed multiple times.

The man who murdered her stripped her body naked below her waist as an act to humiliate her. He tied her body to a block of concrete to make sure she sank to the bottom of an artificial pond next to a rural highway. Her body was badly decomposed, which means she had been dead for some time before she was found.

Her name was Cemia “Ci Ci” Dove

Cemia “Ci Ci” Dove, a 20-year-old trans woman of colour from Cleveland, Ohio, was reported missing March 27th. Her body was found April 17th. Her body was identified by Cleveland police on April 29th.

Beyond these facts, everything about her struggles, the social obstructions she faced, and the loved ones she was forced to leave behind, were erased in a tacit act of complicity by not only her murderer, but also by police and local news reporters.

These three parties share the responsibility for the desecrating conditions which, postmortem, defiled a human being, a young personality, and a long life ahead — foibles, gifts, and all. It wasn’t enough to murder Ci Ci. It was important enough to both police and press to engineer a public argument of criminalizing her existence as a trans woman of colour and turning her into something else entirely.

The local newspaper, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, didn’t write on the savage murder of a mother’s child. They didn’t write on the problems of systemic violence toward women, gender and sexual minorities, or persons of colour (particularly with a visibly sub-Sahara African heritage).

At the very least, we’re talking about three intersectional barriers which the Plain-Dealer ignored. Four, if you count how she was living in poverty, agitated no doubt by the previous three barriers. Five, if you count her limited access to education. I could keep going.

Defiling a woman: John Caniglia of the Plain-Dealer & Cleveland police

The Plain-Dealer journalist on the beat, John Caniglia, didn’t bother to report on leads, tips, or profiles which the police might have on the man who killed her. This is because Caniglia and the police acknowledge implicitly through their actions a mutual understanding that Ci Ci’s murderer disposed of somebody considered socially worthless. This is what cisnormativity looks like.

Caniglia reported the story as, crudely put, a dead black man with a police record, wearing women’s clothing and impersonating a woman. His core message was “how pathetic.” Quite the deliverance.

After police and the Plain-Dealer found Ci Ci’s assigned-at-birth name (the dead name which she no longer used except when legally coerced), Caniglia didn’t interview people who knew her well, like friends, family, or peers. He didn’t investigate why she was found in a humiliating, semi-naked state which revealed unambiguously how she voiced herself as a woman, punished as a trans woman, attacked violently as a woman, and murdered as a woman.

In fact, there wasn’t any investigative reporting by the Plain-Dealer.

Instead, Caniglia, a white cis man, did to Ci Ci what cis journalists have done with murdered trans people for generations: he manufactured a cisnormative fiction to calm down an uneasiness which he, as a cis person, regards for people who are trans.

He’s not a special flower for behaving this way. His professional misconduct, under the watch of his desk editor, Chris Quinn, was compounded by a complicity which reduced a woman to an object — not owing her the respect of being the human subject she was in life.

In case any doubt lingers, Ci Ci Dove was a woman. No amount of legal paperwork or resistance by cisnormative institutions could paint over that. That’s why this conversation is happening in the first place.

Caniglia reported on a rap sheet provided by Cleveland police highlighting Ci Ci’s own struggles with systemic cisnormativity — things like being arrested for possessing oestrogen, for voicing herself as a woman, for using mace on a city bus against physical assailants who endangered her safety. She was audacious because she was a black trans woman, and this needlessly cost her her life.

Caniglia didn’t go online to find her digital footprint on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, for a photo which Ci Ci would probably have been OK with sharing. Instead, he dug up humiliating mug shots from the Cleveland police from her past arrests — arrests indexical to her poverty and placement as a deeply marginalized young woman with a trans body.

Acquiring police mug shots took Caniglia more work than finding her Facebook photo album.

Caniglia’s story didn’t chase leads on the murder suspect or Ci Ci’s whereabouts on the day she was last seen alive. His story didn’t provide a police phone number for the public to report tips. Caniglia filed an open-and-shut case for what he treated as a disposable object. The salary he was paid by his employer to file the story helped to pay for his living expenses this week.

Caniglia described Ci Ci not as a woman, a trans woman, or even with feminine pronouns. He prescribed her as a man dressed in “odd” clothing. Caniglia expanded needlessly on what this “odd” meant with a passage which would never have appeared were the murdered body cis, white, or wearing clothes which showed that the victim voiced themselves as masculine. Caniglia detailed all the irrelevant elements of what it means to be a trans woman — the very banal elements which cis people time and again pay especial notice to.

(After some social media pressure, either Caniglia or his editors altered his story, revising Ci Ci as “sometimes self-identified as a transgender woman.” This was also not the case. Ci Ci’s recorded history and her digital footprint agree that she was a woman with a trans body. There is no room for debate about this history, either.)

Caniglia committed a journalistic malpractice, but he faces no jury of peers to explain his lack of professionalism. For Caniglia and the other reporters who abrogated their journalistic duty to report on a story of a murder victim’s life and to write a story which could help to find her killer, tomorrow will be another day to chase another story and have another lede with his byline on it.

Journalists like Caniglia are numbed from the human condition. They walk a slippery slope along a path to sociopathy.

Structural cisnormativity: how to make human subjects into banal objects

Caniglia was complicit in reducing Ci Ci’s life to a disposable and toxic thing. He wrote of her like she was a sludge — not a young mind with ideas, dreams, talents, and hopes for things to get better, despite the cisnormative barriers punishing her at every turn.

Contrary to the Dan Savage campaign, it doesn’t get better when you’re murdered as a trans woman.

Caniglia’s story reported on a name Ci Ci had all but legally abandoned. Were barriers to changing one’s legal identification in Ohio as a trans person not so punitive, much less impossible, then Ci Ci could have had this barrier out of the way a long time ago.

Ohio is a state in which a trans person’s birth certificate cannot be changed under any circumstance. Ohio is also a state where the procedure and cost for changing one’s name as a trans person are reasonably difficult for trans people living in poverty, as an attorney is needed for the probate court hearing on the name change.

Getting money for an attorney is pretty hard when having obsolete paperwork makes finding an over-the-table job prohibitive for even the well-educated and experienced. It’s nearly impossible when you have no more than a high school education, if even that. Add, of course, that overarching problem of applying for work while black which never goes away, presenting yet another systemic barrier.

What kind of odds remain that working within the law would have kept her alive, safe, and kosher with the state? Is it any wonder that working within the system doesn’t work when that system penalizes your intersectional experiences? Who voluntarily chooses to live on the hard setting?

No one. That’s why we are all responsible to eliminate the social conditions which keep the hard settings in place.

The banality of a dead trans woman of colour

Ci Ci was one woman of hundreds murdered violently every year for having a trans body of colour.

This entire discussion is a banal one, because how we treat the victims of systemic violence should be so much better than this. The attention which all women — cis, white, and heterosexual especially — should be paying toward this co-ordinated epidemic simply isn’t there.

That we see, over and over, murdered trans women of colour being forgotten by nearly everyone but socially aware trans people speaks to how devalued one’s life becomes with each intersectional barrier she is forced to endure in life (and burdened to obscurity in premature death).

At its core, though, to be forgotten (or far worse, to be remembered with a dead name and a narrative which isn’t valid at all) is a stirring fear which grips nearly every trans person I’ve ever known. We mortally fear being buried and memorialized (or denigrated) as something we never were. We fear that what we leave behind will be cisnormatively undermined, our work judged against our being trans — rather than our work being judged on its merits, full-stop. These are real fears which no cis person I’ve ever known has ever has to reckon.

In death, social media is undoubtedly trying to restore Cemia Ci Ci Dove’s name and her memory.

Support from Cleveland city councillor Joe Cimperman, who is pushing the Ohio attorney general to investigate Ci Ci’s murder as a probable bias crime, is helping to restore her name in ways which should have happened when she was living.

But a root cause remedy means overhauling the way legal paperwork for trans people is managed in Ohio. This must change as a precondition to empower and respect trans people as valued citizens. Fixing such simple, but fundamental civil dysfunction can count a long way toward ennobling a civil society in which systemic violence is reduced, as are systemic barriers which wastefully impede a living trans person’s quality of life, potential for making a livelihood, and ability to enrich the world.

When the banal becomes the omnipresence of trans women of colour as leaders, spokespeople, mentors, innovators, teachers, mothers, and pioneers, then this discussion will no longer matter. I’ll also die a happy woman.

Ci Ci, I’m sorry we all let you down. We’ll try harder. We must.

Posted in LiveJournal in 2002: The other side of the mirror.

|||| Patience Newbury

[Background note: I wrote this piece back on 30 June 2002, during the first year I stopped attending Pride. Even with ten years in between, some of the content still feels as relevant in 2012. I'm not sure I feel about pride now the same way I did then, since I tend to downplay the word "pride" in pretty much every context of the word (too much internal association between "pride" and the word "hubris"). I'm not as pessimistic in 2012. I am a lot more pragmatic in 2012. But whatever. Onward to the younger-me retro-piece from 2002.]


2002-06-30 20:41:00

I’ve never experienced a Pride like this before, like my friend did today:


Pride 2002

This year has been the first year I felt like Pride is for me. Everyone in my circle wishes everyone else a “Happy Pride.” Like it’s New Year’s or something. It’s charming.

The process of coming out has been circuitous for me. I’ve joked about my attraction to women since high school. In college, I said “I’ll never find another man that good, I’ll just have to switch to women.”

And I started noticing the women I was attracted to. But they were straight. Or at least I thought so.

I didn’t really put my life in that framework. I was busy having relationships so I could avoid my pain and growth.

Then I moved here. And got single. And met Patience. And learned a whole mess of things about life.

I looked back at my teen years and college and could see every single person I had ever been attracted to. I could tell that what I had felt for Jane in High School was NOT just a deep desire to be her friend.

I was scared that the queer community wouldn’t accept me. Because I identify as bi. Because I hadn’t had sexual relationships with women. Because I wanted to be part of the community so badly and, in my life till now, that has almost always meant I would be excluded.

This weekend I went to Pride. And found more of my community. And took ownership for building the kind of community I want.

Happy Pride!

At Pride, it’s never about the people whom I choose to be attracted. It’s always about what I look like or represent to the other pride attendees, since I’m really just some kind of errant asexual being, of course.

At Pride, I am never an object of affection. Except for chasers. And chasers aren’t people. They are predators.

At Pride, it’s always about resting upon the laurels of the few and privileged and never about realising just how little has been accomplished in the big scheme of community harmony or civil and criminal justice since a big riot went down on Christopher Street.

At Pride, I am an oddity, an oddity to every G-person, every L-person, every B-person and every T-person. It’s because I’m far more complex than a mere container will allow.

At Pride, it’s always about typecasting and political correctness. It’s never about plurality.

At Pride, I feel like i have to prove to boundless sceptics that I’m even a human being.

At Pride, it’s no longer a march by the whole community, which, of course, might come across as too powerful and symbolically unified (which might even teach the community itself a thing or two) by those whom freak out at the thought of a “Queer Agenda”. The riot police would ensue for sure.

At Pride, I am not a part of “The Movement”. I never have been. Unless I play by the master’s rules, I am not welcome to “The Movement”.

At Pride, it’s all about exclusion, bread crumbs, hierarchy, judgmentality and who has the money, the Lexus and the Subaru.

At Pride, I am an alien. an illegal alien.

At Pride, it’s all about the cliquishness of the high skool lunch table brought into the macrocosm of the “real world”. People know when they’re “in”, and people know when they’re “out”.

At Pride, I get to sit at the misfits and troublemakers lunch table, next to the artists, the musicians and the future anarchists, if I’m even that lucky.

At Pride, it’s always about head count. Never about strength in numbers.

At Pride, I must pretend to be something i’m not — just to be tolerated.

At Pride, it’s all about the price of access. Who has it. And who doesn’t.

At Pride, there is never a central voice for the poor, the non-white or the non-privileged, and anyone making a complaint as such is no better than a cranky whiner. Or a pinko-commie.

And at Pride, I no longer need a complacent, feel-good, upstanding-homo-only-if-you-have-the-right-inherited-tools-and-play-by-our-rules meat market fest sponsored by Bud Light, I.D. lube, and the HRC to know who I am and why I’m proud to call myself a survivor of both the real world and of the community.

I’m proud every day. Not just Pride weekend.

Mood: very hurt
Music: kissing the pink — certain things are likely

How gatekeepers made me hate my body: a narrative (part 1)

[Ed. note: This is the opening instalment of a five-part narrative. Subsequent instalments to come. Monica is preparing this narrative as part of a forthcoming book on her life experiences.]


|||| Monica Maldonado

[WARNING: References to rape, physical violence, clinical gatekeeping, and transphobia.]

Personal note: I’ve chosen to tell this story to confront a larger phenomenon — the wholesale exclusion, isolation, desexualization, and near-universal disgust directed at trans women — strictly and specifically through my individual lens. I chose this not because I felt I couldn’t discuss this in more abstract and universal terms, but because I think in this case it’s actually beneficial and it adds to the conversation a narrative context which I feel is often missing. As a result, this narrative is a bit more involved than usual. Rather than continuing to allow cis people to frame this discussion on their terms and making it about them and their sex, it’s time we told our own stories because this has never really been about cis people.

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