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Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 02 2018

6 min read


In trans circles, the concept of "stealth" is used to refer to trans folks who, whether through timing or good genes, are able to so completely pass for their gender, and not the one they were assigned at birth, that they can effectively walk among you without you knowing. It is considered very hard, though not impossible, to make one's way to stealth past 25 or so, and even past 15 or 16, puberty does its thing and makes the body what the genes insist. The brain rebels. It's a whole fucking thing, let me assure you.

Thus, for a lot of older trans folk (and by that I mean, like, late 20s and up) -- but by no means all -- the goal is to "pass," to look enough like yourself that people have to work harder to clock you, and most won't do so without staring long and hard. There's a lot of grey area there, especially because a lot of cisgender people don't quite realize that they don't pass if you keep staring at them. Look at anybody long enough, and you'll find something to furrow your brow over. But if you're not constantly thinking about your gender, you don't realize this. You're just a woman with a slightly too lumpy neck, or a man with a slighter jawline than usual. But you don't think about this (I'm assured) because why would you?

(Necessary caveat: Everything I know about being trans, I learned from reading things on the internet and also, existing in my head. I have a couple of trans... I wouldn't call them friends, but would call them acquaintances, but I have never talked with them about any of this. Maybe I should.)

Anyway, today, on my way to the drug store to buy nail polish, because I'm newly out enough where buying nail polish feels like walking on a tightrope over an abyss, I realized that I'm stealth right now. If you looked at me, you wouldn't think, "Oh, she's trans." You would think, "That large man is in my way. I wonder if he's going to realize the cashier is ready for him." So when the woman behind me in line said, "Sir," I just went on ahead, because, hey, I'm used to "sir." I get "sir." I know "sir." But for the first time in my life, I kinda bristled.

So, you see, I'm stealth, because I pass really well for cis. I have years of training. You'd never know.

The thing about it is, I'm assured by my therapist, is that I can explore all of this and walk right up to the edge of transitioning, whether physically or socially, and then just stop short. And this would probably be a good idea, if I thought it were at all possible. I could just let the people I love most know who I really am, and we could muddle through together, while I reap all the benefits of male privilege on the side and in public. I can feel the places in my brain where the "DO NOT DISTURB" signs used to be up. I could re-erect the guardrails. I could cram everything back inside the closet. I could be a facsimile of myself for the rest of my life. I'm really, really good at being that person. You'd never know I wasn't.

And if enough people I cared about knew the real me, maybe that would even be fine.

But I opened the door, and I let everything out, and now I have to buy fingernail polish in a Walgreen's. I know the cashier is thinking I'm buying it for my wife or girlfriend, or maybe he's thinking I'm buying it for myself, but this is a large city, and a neighborhood with a healthy LGBT presence, so he doesn't care. In fact, he's not thinking about me at all, probably. He probably does this automatically, like anybody who gets good enough at a job. He's thinking about his break or his next paycheck or when he gets off work. Nobody is looking at me and wondering if I'm trans, except for me, and I already know. But it feels like everybody can tell nonetheless.

And this is the way I know there's no stopping this, no walking right up to the edge. It's only been about two weeks since the therapy session where I was, like, "Hm, maybe I should think about transitioning, just talk about it," and there are times when I can't remember the name I've had for 30-plus years, because my brain keeps throwing out, "Emily," which is not a name anybody but me would recognize. Open the door a crack, and you open it a mile, and then, boom, you're colonized.

I keep thinking about a scene at the end of the movie Annihilation (good movie!) in which Natalie Portman's character, Lena, reaches the heart of a strange, alien landscape, where a strange, alien creature starts mirror her every movement, because it's trying to turn itself into a perfect double of her. Since seeing the movie, I'm never sure if I'm me or a copy of me. But the weird thing is that it's maybe not as scary as it should be. It's a little exhilarating, to open the door and see yourself there, and know you can finally fall.


I don't know what this is! I'm mostly writing it as a journal to myself, but you can read it if you want, because I feel like radical honesty is sometimes the best policy, and if I ever come out, I can just, like, point my family to these mad ramblings. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? but I am pretty sure my name is Emily now. I still get a little giddy typing that, and I don't want to stop. Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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