Possibly precipitated by my friend Andrea‘s recent switch to living full-time as a woman, I have been giving a great deal of thought to the question of what it means to be “out” as transgender. Specifically, I’m wondering if I am in the closet or out of it, or perhaps a foot on either side of the closet door. It’s not that I’m thinking I absolutely need to make some change in my “outness” status, but I think that it is always good to be able to understand where you stand in life.
I think it was my friend Ruth Martina who introduced me to the idea of the “bigger closet”. This was in relation to making contact with our respective local support groups. In doing this, it would be possible to simply swap the closet of your own home for the bigger closet of a support group, which neither of us wanted to do. Hence we both go out and about in the wide world. But does that really make me “out of the closet”? I don’t think so. In fact, I am firmly in the closet. Just a different closet to what I have been in before. Let me elaborate…
To my mind the isn’t just one closet which you are either inside or out of. There aren’t even two closets, the little one and the big one. There are multiple closets, each containing the previous one, like a series of Russian dolls. As a trans* person, every time we go further than we have done before, we are crossing a threshold into a new closet. But until the point arrives when we leave the closets behind and begin to live fully and permanently in our true gender, we remain in a closet, even if it’s not the closet.
The first closet is the smallest one of all. Keeping it all to yourself, telling nobody, dressing in secret and in private. Then we step into a slightly larger tiny closet by sharing this with a loved one, partner or spouse, but still keeping our feelings secret from the outside world. Gradually we move into new closets, but the precise nature of each closet is defined by the limits we impose on ourselves. There are many variations on these graduated closets that we inhabit; behind closed doors in our own homes, support groups, sticking to the trans* community, telling work colleagues, friends, extended family, going out in public, compartmentalising our lives between male and female existences. There are as many variations on these themes as there are trans* people.
I have been trying to understand the nature of the closet in which I currently find myself. I generally think of myself as being fairly “out”, but in many ways I am still buried in the closet. I have trans* friends who only know me as Kirsty and have never met our seen me as Bob (and never will). I have friends and colleagues who think I am a man and know no different. But only five people from Bob’s world, including Mrs K, know that Kirsty exists, and one of those five (my work friend Lauren) has never met Kirsty. But at least those five people know that I am TS and that my “ideal world” scenario is to live as the woman I believe myself to be in spirit. Beyond those five, I can think of maybe two other people that I would trust with this information, and that they wouldn’t gossip about me.
So what is my closet? Well I’m happy to be out in public presenting in my preferred, true gender. I have told a very restricted set of friends how I feel about my gender. But there are apparently uncrossable barriers forming the closet walls, and I’m not sure if I will every emerge from this current closet. My closet walls are my kids, my family, my work and my neighbourhood.
Children: My kids are the obvious one here, although I have recently been unable to shake the notion that it might be advisable to tell the elder of my two daughters sooner rather than later. Even Mrs K didn’t give a flat “No” last time I floated the subject with her, she was asking just how I would tell her and what I would say. Daughter No1 is 12, growing up fast and seems to have a strong pro-equality and anti-discrimination streak. This is reflective of the values of both parents, but it’s pleasing to see it in her too. Just last week she misheard something I said as a homophobic comment (it wasn’t, obviously) and she took great offence until I explained myself. She is also friendly with a boy at schools whom she says she thinks of more as a girl, and indeed he has asked their little group of friends to call him by a female name from time to time. I don’t know if this is a symptom of GD or if he’s just playing up to his non-alpha-male image, but my daughter clearly has no issue with it. Add this to the fact that she’s a smart girl and is going to find my stuff eventually despite my best efforts to hide it. She does wonder where I keep going and who all these new friends are so it would be nice to not have to lie to her again. And if she knew, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for her little sister to know. At age 5, she is hopefully still young enough to accept things as they are without having prejudice imposed on her by society.
Extended Family: Although both my parents passed away in the mid-1990s, I still remain quite close with my siblings and some of their kids. I am the youngest of five, and when I say youngest I mean youngest. The next youngest to me is two weeks short of 15 years older. My two sisters and two brothers are products of a different time than me, and don’t necessarily have the same outlook as me. With the exception of my eldest brother, whose girlfriend/partner is the same age as me, they have spouses who are also in that age group and who have been part of my life since I was a very young child, and they have children who are closer to my age than they themselves are. At times it feels like I have seven extra parents including brothers-in-law and sister-in-law. I couldn’t possibly tell one of them in isolation. If I came out to one, I would have to come out to all, because it wouldn’t be fair to ask one of them to keep this a secret from the other three. And if my siblings knew, their spouses would know, their kids would know and their kids’ spouses would know. And that’s 25 people in one fell swoop. Too many for me to be in control any more. It could easily leak out further. So I don’t think I’m able to come out to a brother or sister without coming out to everybody. And I’m not ready for that. At least, not yet.
Work: I have written about my work situation here before, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say that I don’t have enough close friends in work to come out to them. If I told people in work, it could only be as a prelude to going full time. And going full time would bring its own issues in my work as I am in a client-facing role in financial services. I wouldn’t just be coming out to colleagues, who are subject to my employer’s admirably strong equality policy, but also to my clients who are bound by no such thing. Northern Ireland is a conservative place, and if I lost business as a result of going full time, or even as a result of clients discovering I currently spend part of my time presenting as female, then my job could be in jeopardy, not because I’m TS but because I would have potentially lost business. Not that any client would be idiotic enough to say they’re refusing to work with a trans woman, but if they had those feelings, they will be a lot more susceptible to a competing offer from another provider. And ultimately my results would suffer, and so would my employment prospects. So no coming out at work for the foreseeable future.
Neighbourhood: One of the things of which I am most envious in my full-time TS friends is their ability to walk out their own front door as their true selves. Mrs K is of the unshakeable belief that if I did such a thing, our kids would be bullied for the rest of their lives, other parents would refuse to allow their kids to play with our kids, or to come into our house; we would have paint thrown at the house, transphobic slogans daubed on the walls and bricks thrown through the windows. And that’s just on the first day. Obviously I don’t agree, but I can’t just tell her “sod you” and walk out the door regardless of what she thinks. For better or worse we are still married and I have to respect her feelings. And while I think her fears are largely unfounded, I would be foolish to just expect everything to be plain sailing too. And being out in the neighbourhood would be another way of losing control of the situation, and would effectively mean being out to everyone.
These are the four walls of my particular closet, and they are self-imposed walls. I would love to have no walls and no closet, but I have to be aware of the consequences of that. So on balance, the weakest of the four walls is my children, and if I’m going to do something significant in my ongoing outing process, it will most likely be with them. But I’m not holding my breath.
I hope this hasn’t come across as negative or self-pitying, because I’m actually in quite a positive mood. It’s more a question of self-awareness, understanding the position I am in and the reason for it. It’s all very well me getting all upset about being unable to be full-time, but I need to understand why this is the case – the reason I’m not full-time is not down to Mrs K, or to my kids, or to my work, or to my neighbours. It’s down to me. My choice. Not an irreversible choice by any means, but where I have chosen to be for now taking everything into consideration.