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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Transitioning, Passing and Stealth

Most of us have thought at one time or another that when we transitioned we could live in stealth, living our lives without others knowing of our transgender past. When I was in second grade, I had a fantasy after reading The Box Car Children that I would run away to another town where no one knew me.  The Box Car Children had lost their parents and had been in an orphanage. They learned that they were going to go live with their grandfather who they had erroneously decided was a mean old man who didn't care about them. So they ran away and found a railroad box car on an abandoned spur off a railroad track in the woods that they came across in their travels. This turned out to become a wonderful home for them! They fixed it up nicely so that it was homey and comfy. There was a creek close by that they dammed up and had a nice place to play and swim. And of course, they went to school and had everything they needed. Eventually, their grandfather did arrive on the scene and turned out to be kind and loving, so they went to live with him. If I remember correctly, he was pretty wealthy too. He had the box car moved to his home so they would have that forever.
 I decided this was a pretty good plan for me to become the girl I knew myself to be! I would live in a cave and go to school as the girl I really was! PERFECT!! (Only I hadn't thought about where I was going to get an adult to enroll me in this new school in this new town, or buy me all these new clothes, and I wasn't particularly mindful about where my meals would come from or who would take care of me when I got sick or was afraid, or had a nightmare.....).
I thought that when I finally would run away, I would have all the clothes I could want or need to be the perfect little girl! To that end, I poured over the Sears and J.C. Penney catalogues looking at the clothes a 2nd grade or 3rd grade girl would wear and picked out the pretty dresses I liked. I would draw pictures of pretty girls wearing the clothes in the catalogue with my colored pencils. I wonder if my mama ever saw those pictures that I drew? I was careful when I did this that she was elsewhere in the house doing mama things while I was doing Michelle things. That was my first name I picked for myself and that was the name my BFF Christina Lang knew me as when she met me in an IRC chat room in either 1996 or 1997. At some point I decided that Michelle was way too close to my male name and really didn't reflect my personality anyway! Thus, Sherri Lynne was born (already all grown up)!
I don't know why I never ran away but I guess as I got a bit older, I realized that there was no way I could, as a child, make this plan work. I mean, really, how was I going to afford ALLLL those clothes?? I didn't get more than about a quarter a week allowance back in the day (NO, I'm STILL not going to tell you how old I am!!). Even into my adolescence and young adulthood, I held out the thought I would finish college and transition, go to graduate school and transition, graduate from graduate school and disappear as I transitioned. In those days there were no resources available where I lived or where I eventually moved to in order to accomplish this thing I wanted so badly, so it never happened. I knew there were others like me. By this time I had read literally dozens of books and hundreds of journal articles, but where could I find the help I needed within a reasonable distance? I couldn't. I knew that if I did move somewhere where no one knew me that I would have to break off my relationship with my family to accomplish becoming the person on the outside that I was on the inside. I would disappear and my friends would never know what happened to me. I would start life all over again and that this would be the price to be paid in order to live my life in stealth.
So for one reason (or was it an excuse?) and another and another, I chose not to transition until three years ago. As time goes on, my transition picks up the pace. I've come to the realization over this period of time that there is no perfect stealth for the vast majority of us. I'm sure some people have been able to establish perfect stealth, but I think they are far and few between. Given that we are such rare people to begin with according to best estimates, the numbers of us who have achieved perfect stealth are even infinitely rarer.
For instance, if I were to achieve perfect stealth, I would have to lose all of the following things: my family; all my present friends; my career; my home; my community; ties to the college and universities I attended. In other words, I would have to move somewhere where I have never been, have no contact with those I left behind, and likely give up a career in which I have been very successful in and not be able to claim all the years of experience that I have in my career. That would be a very steep price to pay for a chance at something that might be successful for a while, but I would always be looking over my shoulder in fear that I would run into someone who knew my past or knew someone I knew who had a story about someone they knew who...  You understand what I'm saying here. Is it farfetched that it could happen after all that sacrifice?

Consider this experience I had one time. I was flying back from Kansas City after taking part in a substance abuse treatment conference. The first interesting thing was that Richard Petty of NASCAR fame was on the same plane, but then something even more amazing occurred. The flight was bound for Charlotte where I had to make a connection. I became engaged in a conversation with a man from Florida seated next to me. He had been out west on a business trip and was on his way home, also changing planes in Charlotte. We got to talking and I told him I was on my way to Charlottesville. He told me that he grew up there and of course my curiosity was piqued. I asked him where he went to elementary school as I had gone to school there and it turned out that not only had he gone to the same school, we were in the same class in first and second grade, were playmates, and later were in Scouts together. Small world, huh? That's an example of why I don't think perfect stealth will ever be an option for most of us and certainly not for me.
Rather, I think that stealth exists in degrees or like layers of an onion. There will be people who will always know that you once lived in a different gender you are today. I wonder if any of them can really see me as a woman and not quickly think of the person I used to be in my former gender. My guess is that at some times that will happen and others they will remember who I used to be. That isn't my ideal, but I can accept that reality, as long as I am treated with dignity and respect and as the woman I am. I think the younger a person transitions, the degrees of stealth increase. My reasoning on this is that there is much more life to be lived and many more new people coming into one's life who never knew the young person in a differently gendered life.
 For some people this will be important to them, for others not at all. When I think of those who it is unimportant to, I think of those folks who identify themselves as "gender queer". Perhaps it is a function of the times I grew up in, but I can't relate to that identity, personally. I have always had a clear identity as being female, and view my male body as a birth defect. I don't loathe the body I was born in as the stereotype of transsexuals that exists, I just have always known it wasn't the one I was supposed to have.
It would be really difficult to continue in my chosen profession if I were to disavow my past professional life in order to live in stealth. I have too many years in my profession, too many accomplishments that I would have to leave behind, and with that decision the prospect for a job that is commensurate with my knowledge skills and abilities and with my salary requirements would all but be impossible to obtain. I wouldn't have any references and wouldn't be able to list prior work experiences because the person I am interviewing with may possibly know another professional I used to work with. Any google of my name would also lead to my prior identity because of the types of psychotherapy I practice as well as my true identity. Instantly, my illusion of stealth would be shattered. For most of us in the age of the internet, stealth is becoming more and more of an illusion.
When one considers stealth and what it means, we are often talking about our transition and passing. In the first few years before I seriously considered transitioning, I did go out as myself, with generally unhappy outcomes. Though I dressed nicely, I didn't pass. So at that time, stealth wasn't even on the table as something possible. I would catch funny looks out of the corner of my eye or people frankly staring and that was really painful for me, to feel that something that seemed so right to me, made me at best a curiosity and at worst the target of derision or being seen as a freak.
Eventually though, with enough experience in being out and about, and as the hormones changed the way I looked, the way I carried myself publicly, and the more comfortable I became in social interactions, people stopped staring and I became able to go about my business and became comfortable interacting with people, I realized that I was "passing", even in situations with close contact, such as shopping in the Bare Escentuals store for makeup or dining out by myself or with my friends. Even in the most difficult tests of all, being in proximity with teenage girls (notorious for being able to scope us out) and in the ladies room.
Now if it is the case that I am passing well, then I have accomplished a level of stealth that in many ways is the only stealth most of us will ever experience. Even if I am being read as a transsexual woman, the fact that I am being treated with dignity and respect as a woman is really all that is necessary for me to live my life in a manner that allows me to be who I am.
I also have a new church that is welcoming to transgender people, though to my knowledge I am their only trans woman. I don't mind it because they have all been so nice to me, made me feel at home and wanted as part of the congregation. They treat me as a woman and I don't have to think about being a trans woman at this point there which is always a nice way to live. I've spent way more time than I ever wanted to thinking about my gender as it is.
To continue to work in my career at the same health care system, means that there will be no stealth for me whatsoever, as I interact with nearly every clinical service that is available there. However, the important thing to me, again, is that I be treated respectfully and with dignity. To me it’s that people get the name and the pronouns right when they speak to me or about me. I certainly have no thought " they won't know". Indeed, it is the colleagues closest to me where I work who will have the most difficult time with the transition. Patience on my part will be required as they will not get it right 100% of the time in the beginning. As long as they are making the effort to try to get it right and are improving, then I can roll with it during the learning curve.
 I would hope that new professionals who join us as others leave will only know me as a woman. I also know that it would be unusual if there weren't one or two who know me and said to the new coworker, "Yeah, and you won't believe this but Sherri used to be a guy!!" Such is human nature. I'm sure in most cases it wouldn't be meant maliciously either, knowing the people I work with. I wouldn't be happy if it occurred, but in the grand scheme of things I could handle it. I would be assertive in asking the person involved not to do that again. I think I know my coworkers well enough that if that were the case they would stop after being asked.
Dealing with family is an entirely different subject. It is my hope when I engage a patient for therapy who is transgendered if problems within the family system over a family member's transgender status develop that I have an opportunity to intervene. My hope would be to prevent people becoming estranged with their family of origin. I'm almost certain that almost no family member will ever think of their relative other than their birth gender, even if they are loved and accepting of that relative. It's almost impossible to forget all that shared history. But it is possible to accept and embrace their relative. More and more often, even if there is a period of estrangement, families are staying close to their transitioned family member. The bonds of family are very strong. Even in the cases I've worked with where children are abused or neglected, they more often do remain close to their families, even after having been removed and placed into foster care until the age of majority.
I think that in more public situations is where stealth exists and perhaps in business situations when dealing with other businesses and perhaps even in the place of employment if different from the place of employment where one transitions. As relationships become closer, the degrees of stealth diminish. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I think not. I want the people who are closest to me to really know me for who I am. Even this most painful part of my life (my prior male existence) after my transition is complete. After transition, I believe that I will simply see myself as a woman; being in a "trans" state will be over. I could very well be wrong about that though.  This is not to say I think that when my transition is complete I have arrived at the destination. Life is a voyage, a journey. The arrival is when we reach the end of our time here and go on to what’s next. I'm rather thankful that life is that way too.


  1. Your blog has me very emotional. It makes me feel like we could be sisters. i plan to read your blog over and over. i am still in stealth but more and more i know i have to move forward.

  2. Hello Sherry / I never worried about being "Stealth" - except during the time I was stradling a double life - I was quite worried someone from work might see me, and I could have lost my job, at that time / For myself - I found money & finances to be the right answer for myself / There is no better insulator against the cruelty and sarcasim of most people - To reach a level of "Independance" on all levels of life - So that in my case - I dont give a damn !! - My mummy still love me - LOL !! / Love ya Kid - Stay happy & well - Shirley

  3. Kevin, My own fear was the single most difficult to overcome. I am glad that I was able to face my own fear and not allow that to hold me back. I cant say I have mastered it perfectly, but as the saying goes, "Progress, not perfection".

  4. Hiya Shirley! Thanks for weighing in! I agree with you, being comfortable financially will not take care of all of the unpleasant things and sad circumstances we face in life, but it does minimize much of the unhappy things we have to deal with!

  5. Sherri, when I told mom about me being TS, I finally told her that my desire to live as a woman was so strong, even when in college, that I would have been willing to give up my dream of becoming an engineer. I didn't transition because in 1971 I did not see it as being practical.

    (BTW, I do know how old you are)

    The funny thing about stealth for me is that when my book is done, my life of stealth, which I have lived for 59 years, will be gone - whether I transition fully or not. There's no way I would want to go from one life of stealth to another - it takes way too much energy! Hugs

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  7. Nikkicole! YOU DO?!! (horrors!!!!!) ;)

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  9. All I ever ask for is to be treated with respect as the woman that I am. You don't have to pretend you never knew me before, or that I was never identified as a male anytime in my life... just that this who I am now. I have never hidden who I am from anyone (in fact a police officer pulled me over today for speeding and when he asked if I was actually female... even after seeing the "F" on my license, I told him that yes I am.. but I was not always). Unlike many, I am not ashamed of who I was, and feel that all those years of misery and self-hate are what ultimately lead to the woman I am today. Why would I ever want to hide that?

  10. I admire that, Katherinem and I really like your response to the police officer. Instead of a long debate about what is gender and who is gendered, a succinct and concise statement!