Visibility fatigue

There’s a concept that I want to introduce here: visibility fatigue. It’s something I’ve been noticing in relation to trans issues, and I’ll make those connections in future blog posts.

I have a T-shirt that says, “MIND THE GAP” with the logo of the London Underground. I bought it on a trip to London in 2001, when a recording of that phrase was played every fifteen seconds or so in stations that had a particularly large gap. Back home in New York, one day I was out walking and a guy gave me a knowing look, smiled and said, “Nice shirt.”

It seemed like he wanted to talk more, like we shared some great secret, but I was on my way somewhere else and didn’t really want to chat about it. I realized at that moment that there’s probably thousands and thousands of people here in New York who’ve been to London, ridden the Underground and heard that phrase. Did we really share that much that separated us from other New Yorkers? At that moment I realized that I didn’t really want everyone I ran into on the street knowing I’d been to London.

I have another T-shirt that’s one of my prized possessions. I got it at the 1996 Pride Rally, one of the first times I ever went out in public presenting as a woman. One day I wore it to the gym around the block, and on the way there I happened to be walking alongside my neighbor Jim. Jim asked me why I was wearing a big pink triangle if I’m married to a woman and we have a kid together. I explained that I was a transvestite and answered a few more questions, and everything was cool.

Most of the time, though, the shirt just sits on the shelf. It’s not that I don’t want to be out, proud and visible. It’s that I want some measure of control over it. It was work explaining this stuff to Jim, and there was no guarantee that he would be as understanding as he was about it. Sometimes I’m not up for that.

At the Lavender Languages conference this year I attended a talk by the Moroccan-French-Canadian artist 2fik who does amazing and very provocative things with gender and identity. He described some very hostile reactions he’s gotten – including death threats in at least one instance. But as I remarked to him, at the end of the day he can take off his clothes. He can have a break from being provocative.

I’ve always wanted to keep that ability to have a break. I grew up a long-haired boy in the seventies, and I remember that visibility fatigue – just wanting to blend in once in a while. It figured into my decision not to transition: I had succeeded in being seen as a pretty young woman, and enjoyed that visibility in small doses, but understood why so many women find it frustrating. I had also had the experience of not passing, and attracting attention that way. I knew that most people have times during a transition when they don’t pass, and some never pass. I didn’t want to be that visible all the time, with no rest in anonymity.

My tolerance for visibility has also varied over the course of my life. When I was younger I often felt a desire to be provocative. Now I favor more subtle approaches. I think that’s natural and good. But I’m glad that I didn’t make choices when I was young that don’t work for me now.

Some people have a lower tolerance for visibility and attention than I do. Others, like my neighbor “La Loca,” have a greater tolerance. If they want to use that visibility to teach people or just express their gender in a way that feels more comfortable, more power to them. Especially if they don’t wind up committing to a level of visibility that they can’t sustain with comfort later on.

In future posts I’ll show why I think visibility fatigue is important when talking about transgender lives.

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  1. I think you may find that “visibility fatigue” wanes with age, because visibility does. As a woman of a certain age, I find it’s easier to blend into a crowd. And I recently spent time with my transgendered friend Deirdre McCloskey, who’s now roughly 70. (Check out her book Crossing if you haven’t read it.) At this point, I don’t think anyone bats an eye at her. She just looks like a very tall, slightly eccentric, oldish lady professor.

  2. Yes, thanks for tweeting when McCloskey’s book was on sale for Kindle!

    I’ve heard from a lot of women, trans and otherwise, that they attract a lot less attention once they get older. For me, attracting attention has always been part of the point – that if I’m cute enough people will want to be around me and listen to what I say (a glamorous fantasy, needless to say). That’s not the kind of attention that you usually attract by violating gender norms.

    I’m thinking that this visibility fatigue is more of an issue for people who aim to be genderqueer or genderfluid, or any other kind of “middle way.”

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