After years of distance between myself and my hometown of Amityville, Long Island, I returned in the spring for my cousin’s birthday. But this time, I had a new look.
I was a month post-op top surgery, a gender-affirming procedure for transgender men and non-binary individuals, which results in a flat chest. My beard had finally begun to grow bushier on my face, and my shoulders were much broader than before. In 2018, I started taking testosterone to aid my gender transition. Then, 23 years old, hormones slowly helped the world see the Black man I saw in myself.
As I entered the party, high school classmates and family members dapped me up and embraced me as “boss,” “brother,” and “young man.” When things needed to be moved, a family member casually grouped me in with other guys, saying, “You have all these young men here who can help.”
Then, when I joined a game of Uno, an ex-fling from high school said, “What’s up, player?” Later that weekend, another family member said, “Nice meeting you.”
It was no surprise that some of my family members and high school classmates did not recognize that I transitioned to male. It was all part of my plan. I left my hometown in 2017 for New York City and decided not to return when I started my transition. My cousin vowed not to disclose my trans identity during the trip so that I could remain “stealth,” a term used in the trans community for keeping your transness private rather than sharing it with others.
This year, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an advocacy group, reported that 48 trans and gender-non-conforming people were murdered in 2021, marking the highest level of violence since they began tracking the data in 2013. Due to anti-trans sentiment, I’ve decided that being out as trans in all parts of my life is not worth the risk. As transphobes continue to operate unchecked, living partially as a “cis man” has become my method of survival.
Dee Dee Watters, a trans advocate and publisher of TransGriot, a blog chronicling the experiences of trans people of color launched by late trans activist Monica Roberts, said some trans people are stealth due to safety.
“For many folks being stealth is a requirement for their lived experience,” Watters said. “Transmasculine folks have been in situations where they have been raped, beaten, all because one of the people in the group that they were in found out that they are trans and then they were put in danger.”
Stealth is a controversial term in the trans community. Watters said this is buoyed by the pressure trans people face to use their identity as a form of activism.
“Sometimes it helps when you can go into a situation and be stealth. Far too often you find yourself gaining the benefits from within that, but at the same token, you have others who feel that when there’s someone that’s stealth they are not giving back to the [trans] community,” she said.
Watters says some individuals who are stealth purposely exclude themselves from other trans folks due to fears of being outed to others. The publisher says it’s important not to judge the person’s decision.
“You have some people that are stealth that say, ‘I don’t want to be around certain [trans] people I don’t want to be seen with certain people that’s not my community because I’m stealth,’” she said. “At some point, you respect that too because, yeah, they are stealth.”
Eight percent of trans folks reported being out to all people in their lives, whether in work, with family, doctors, or in school, while 48 percent were out to most, 43 percent were out to some, and 2 percent were out to no one in their lives, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the most recent data available.
Nearly 62 percent of respondents said they were out to all or most of their immediate family, while 22 percent of individuals did not disclose their trans status. The report further states that approximately 38 percent of individuals were out as trans to all or most of their extended family, while 39 percent did not disclose this part of their identity.
“Stealth” is a slang term that has been used for years interchangeably with the word “passing,” which describes a person that is not always perceived as transgender. Toby Beauchamp, author of Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices, defines the term “stealth” as “nondisclosure of trans identity.”
“Those living stealth are unknown as transgender to almost everyone in their lives,” writes Beauchamp. “The term itself invokes a sense of going undercover, of willful secrecy and concealment, perhaps even of conscious deception.”
He added, “The resonance of militarism in this term suggests the extent to which going stealth entails a certain complicity with state agencies, which demand compliance with specific legal and medical procedures and ostensibly offer in return official documentation that help makes stealth status possible.”
Style guides for LGBTQ media monitoring groups GLAAD and the Trans Journalist Association (TJA) condemn the use of the term stealth due to its implied message that transgender people are deceiving others. Instead, the organizations recommend writers use words that carry less stigma, such as “visibly trans,” “not visibly trans,” “out as trans,” or “not out as trans.”
Tuck Woodstock, a style guide co-author and TJA co-founder, said the term “stealth” is often associated with transphobic violence.
“The word ‘stealth’ implies a level of subterfuge—namely, that trans people are somehow ‘deceiving’ cis people by not disclosing the fact that they’re transgender,” Woodstock said. “Since anti-trans violence is often predicated on the concept of trans people being ‘evil deceivers’ (as TM Bettcher famously puts it in Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion), words like ‘stealth’ reinforce the dangerous notion that cis people have moral grounds to feel aggrieved and deceived—and perhaps to even respond with righteous violence—when trans people simply exist as themselves.”
“Stealth is often a choice made out of a desire for safety and personal preference.”
The musician Billy Tipton, who rose to fame for his jazz songs in the 1930s, is one of the earliest pop culture examples of a transgender person who did not disclose their trans status to everyone in their lives. Tipton’s life, which plays out in the film No Ordinary Man, shows that the artist lived most of his adult life as a male but was outed as trans after his death in 1989.
Chase Joynt and Amos Mac, the transgender co-directors of No Ordinary Man, told The Daily Beast that Tipton’s story highlights the complicated nature of the term. However, they emphasized that Tipton was living authentically as a trans person, and it’s up for debate whether Tipton identified with the phrase “stealth” or even knew it existed.
“Was he even stealth? Was it a word Billy would gravitate towards and say, ‘this is so me'?” Mac said. “As far as we know, he was simply living his life as he saw fit, then we placed that identification marker upon him.”
Mac, who is also the creator of Original Plumbing, a quarterly magazine for transgender men, added Tipton was not always perceived as a cis man by the public.
“In our research for the film, there were apparently people who knew Billy from his earlier years—or people at shows who would assume he was not a cis man and heckle, and his bandmates would stick up for him and kick out the hecklers,” Mac told The Daily Beast. “Billy seemed to take those moments in stride. Stealth is often a choice made out of a desire for safety and personal preference.”
The revelation by friends and family members that Tipton was assigned female at birth triggered a media frenzy. That year, reporters at People wrote a transphobic and sensationalist obituary about his life headlined, “Death Discloses Billy Tipton’s Strange Secret: He Was a She.”
In the 2000s, the Seattle Times reported that two of Tipton’s children changed their name after they discovered their dad was not a cisgender man—and, in fact, transgender. While the film’s producers explain that some family members did defend Tipton, the chaos that ensued publicly indicates a much larger matter.
“What we witness through the story and treatment of Tipton—and others like him—is non-trans people reckoning with differences that threaten the convenient binary containers of their lives,” Joynt said.
The producers hope others can understand the importance of supporting transgender people.
“For me, the takeaway is quite simple: We should believe people when they tell us who they are,” Joynt said. “Tipton identified as a father, a friend, and a husband, and thus it is easy to follow his lead when talking about or representing his life and legacy.”
Throughout pop culture, movies have shown the upsides, struggles, and tragic deaths of trans people who try to live a stealth life. In 1999, Boys Don’t Cry dramatized the life, and transphobic murder of a young trans man Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), who flees his hometown after his ex-girlfriend’s brother discovers he is transgender. However, Brandon is outed again in his new hometown and is a victim of a deadly hate crime.
In 2006, the lifetime film, A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story depicted the life and 2002 murder of a Latina trans woman who was murdered after men discovered she was transgender. Last year, Sandra Caldwell, who played the drama teacher Drinka in The Cheetah Girls, opened up about being trans in the Netflix film Disclosure. The 69-year-old actress said she did not disclose her trans identity for years due to fears of transphobia, including losing job opportunities in the field.
Although living stealth can protect people from transphobia, the threat of being outed is always there.
“Not many people make the decision to live a stealth life because not many people have the ability to be stealth,” Watters added.
In Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices, Beauchamp voiced similar concerns that society treats transness as a secret that is ultimately revealed.
“The interplay of medical, legal, and cultural representations of trans populations helps associate trans identity with secrecy,” wrote Beauchamp. “The constant repetition of this narrative locates violence not in the institutional practices of media, medicine, or law, or in the rigidly gender normative behaviors and relationships, they uphold, but instead in individual transgender people’s fraudulent bodies and identities.”
Updating my legal documents has helped me navigate the cis society without sounding alarms about my trans status.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve legally transitioned, which means all my documents from my security card to birth certificate carry a male gender marker and an updated name. For most of my papers, I had to show a doctor’s note stating that I’ve had the appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria. Last year, in an essay for Business Insider, I wrote about how doctors required that I lose weight to meet BMI requirements for bottom surgery.
For many transgender people, accessing the correct I.D.s remain a barrier to living stealth.
Tyler Greene, a 20-year-old Black trans man of Queens, said he is partially stealth. However, he is outed when he has to show identity documents.
“The moment they find out [that I am trans], it will be a slip-up. It will be a ‘she’ that will pop in there,” Greene said, adding that when people are aware of his trans status, they begin to question his identity.
Experts believe this is a response to counter feelings of deception.
“There always this assumption that stealth is in some ways hiding the truth,” said Marshall Green, a Black transgender man and Women’s Gender and Sexuality professor at Williams College. “Prior to that moment living in that stealth phase, people believed that they knew the truth about that person’s gender. You’re a man or a woman—presumably cisgender, presumably heterosexual as well.”
Transphobia is one of the main reasons why a trans person is misgendered after they come out as trans. Green said this is based on the transphobic belief that trans people do not genuinely identify with a gender that differs from their assigned sex.
“When someone announces, ‘I’m transgender’ and then people start to switch pronouns or somehow have this cognitive dissonance kind of slip up, it’s because they now believe that they know something more true than what the person had given them before,” Green said.
I am open about my trans identity in some parts of my life, but in other parts, I am not.
During my cousin’s birthday bash, people who knew that I am transgender would say I look handsome but also use “she.” However, others who assumed I’m a cis man did not misgender me.
As some people interacted with me as a cis man, I felt pressure to omit details of my life. During a car ride, the women started talking about their first wig. I wanted to chime in about how my mother bought me a “Freetress Synthetic Blend” wig when I was a teenager. But, I felt saying this would raise questions about the Black cis boyhood that I never had. A flurry of anxiety hit me because the veil of cis manhood could be removed in seconds.
According to C. Riley Snorton, the author of Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity and professor at the University of Chicago said being stealth is a social role that can easily be removed.
While Snorton describes being “stealth” as not permanent, it also helps trans people navigate a transphobic society.
“Stealth is part of the trans toolbox,” Snorton told The Daily Beast. “What if [gender] was a tool that people were using to move from one place to the other.”
He added, “I don’t want it to be that the only way to be radical about being trans is to be out and not concerned about being protected."
For transgender people who are stealth due to safety, Snorton is pushing for systems to move away from the gender binary and strict gender norms.
“The way that a colonial mode of gender was imposed was to suggest that there were two [genders],” he said. “If not, simply different but supposedly opposing or opposite forms of gender that could exist. It structures so much of our social, material, and political world.”
Earlier in my transition, I was hyper-visible, so much so that I became known as the “trans student” in graduate school. I fantasized about moving to a different state and never thinking about my past in my old form. Now, I consider myself partially stealth, meaning that I am open about my trans identity in some parts of my life, but in other parts, I am not.
When people casually use “he” for me, it feels like my hard work is being recognized—from every weekly injection stabbed into my stomach to overcoming anti-trans harassment. Being recognized as a man is a big middle finger to cis society despite what I was assigned at birth. It not only feels good and is affirming to my soul but makes me feel like I’m in control of how people see me.
Marcié Kumah, a Muslim trans woman in New York, said she does not identify with the term stealth because it reinforces the belief that transgender people are deceiving others.
“Those are negative words for me as someone who has always seen themselves as a girl,” Kumah told The Daily Beast, adding that when people find out that she is transgender, “All of these believable points of my self-affirmation [are] discredited because I’m no longer a real human being that they knew. In their mind, there’s some kind of trickery or foolery.”
Kumah said it took years for her to feel comfortable with her trans identity. She said being out and proud is a testament to her journey.
“Having come so far to deny my whole embodiment is a disservice to me,” Kumah recalls. “If people think labeling myself as a transgender person, a transgender woman, is something negative to be associated with, then well, thank you for not associating with me.”
My family members and friends agree with my decision to live stealth, although I’m not sure they understand the weight it holds on me. Over the summer, I did not take off my shirt at a pool party because I feared being clocked as trans due to my top surgery scars. While I love the freedom that comes with people assuming my gender correctly, it’s isolating when people believe I was raised as a cis man. It’s not an accurate reflection of my life or how I thoroughly move through the world as a trans person who is also gender non-conforming.
While I’m proud of my trans identity and openly write about my transition, I also value my privacy. As a transgender person, I know what it is like to be a spectacle, so being stealth is another way I retain control over my identity. I’ve been living partially stealth for more than a year, and I don’t see myself shedding this old-school label anytime soon.