A Rant About MTF “Stealth”
July 23, 2013
That time a TERF trolled the TransAdvocate & GLAAD
July 24, 2013

Passing and Stealth: Two Words to Lose? Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on “stealth.” The goal of this series to examine the nuanced ways trans opinion leaders conceptualize stealth and how they feel about it. Suzan Cooke kicked off the series with her article, The Many Shades of Stealth. It should be noted that TA is not endorsing any one view, definition or conceptualization. As with the elephant parable, each perception presented in this series represents one representation of the truth; taken together, it’s hoped that this series will provide a more comprehensive conceptualization of stealth and what it means to an oppressed community.

Articles in this series: The Many Shades of Stealth | A Rant About MTF “Stealth” | Passing and Stealth: Two Words We Should Lose? | Stealth Doesn’t Help The Trans Community | You’re Only as Transitioned and Stealth as the Next Person Says You Aren’t | Not Against Stealth But For Being Out

Stealth bomberStealth has always reminded me of military aircraft (stealth bombers), trailing someone at a distance, or peeking around corners, dressed in a black overcoat and sunglasses.

I know the word has a long history in the trans community, and in that context, I take it to mean not being out (at least not to most people), and simply living in mainstream male or female culture as the man or woman that a person is.

It makes sense, but while the word doesn’t offend me, and almost every trans person I know uses the word as a descriptor, even if they are not “living stealth” themselves, I’m not fond of it. To my mind, it represents a secret — not the “I have a secret, bet you’ll never guess what it is, hah hah” kind of secret, but the “black overcoat and sunglasses” kind of secret … the “I’m in disguise” kind of secret. But we’re not in disguise.

A person who believes himself to be a man and who lives as a man is a man, regardless of the body he has. If he was born with a female body (or, to be PC, assigned female at birth), that does not make him a “disguised woman.”

Now there have been people who were disguised women, such as those women in history who dressed as men to fight in wars or to hold down certain jobs that they were not allowed to have as women. But if they identified as women and dressed and presented as men for a specific purpose only, such as a job, then, in my mind, they were not trans (I know I’ll get some arguments on this — that’s fine; that’s the point of having comments), although they weretransgressing gender norms — but only because they had to.

They were women in disguise for a purpose. When the war ended or they changed jobs or they went home at night, they were women — they were, in fact, always women. They simply dressed and presented as men to escape some confine of their gender.

But transsexual men are not women in disguise, regardless of what is under their clothes (this goes for transsexual women as well, in reverse). Transsexual men are men. They can choose to identify as trans or not, they can be out or not, but if they identify as men, then they are men.

And this long diatribe brings me back to the reason I don’t like the word stealth — because, like passing, it indicates some measure of secrecy or deception. It indicates a disguise.

As I said in my post about passing, it is my opinion that if I am “passing” for a man, then I am not a man. The same thing holds true for me with the word “stealth.” If I am “living stealth,” then I am living in secret. I’m secretly a woman living as a man — and I don’t think that’s true.

I also don’t think that’s what stealth means to those trans people who use the term to describe themselves. But that’s how the term comes across to me, and possibly to non-trans people, and that’s why I don’t like it.

Everyone has secrets. Maybe the woman with a mastectomy who uses a prosthetic breast, or the man with a colostomy bag who doesn’t show it to everyone he meets, or the person with a prosthetic leg who doesn’t wear shorts is living stealth as well — as is the person with clinical depression or with cancer who doesn’t reveal it to all.

But the truth is that they are not really “living stealth” — they are simply maintaining a level of privacy to which everyone is entitled, including trans people. They are not living “in disguise,” and neither are we. We are who we are, whether we are public about it or not.

We are not sneaking around restrooms, peeking around corners, or even flying under somebody’s radar. We are just living our natural-born lives (and they are natural-born, no matter what body we had or have).

My biggest concern about the word “stealth” is not how it might come across to non-trans people, although I certainly don’t think it comes across favorably — my biggest concern is how, like “passing,” it comes across psychologically to us.

If we think we are “passing” every day as something we’re not, or if we think that we are “living stealth,” or living a secret, it can make integrating our identity as the men and women that we are more difficult. It can make us feel as if we are, or should be, hiding. It can make us feel as if we are “in disguise” all the time — and that is not a good way to feel.

In the comments for my “passing” post, a reader suggested “blending in,” which I like a lot better. I have used “assimilation” to describe the situation of those people who live as men and women without the “trans” label or without being out about it. That word has its own problems, but it is the closest that I have been able to come so far to the concept represented by “stealth.”

But I would be fine with both “passing” and “stealth” going by the wayside and just “man” or “woman” taking their place.


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  • I can’t help but feel this is nit picking words. These two words “passing” and “stealth” can have many different meanings for every one. There is no way I would call “living stealth” a lie because I do not walk in every trans persons shoes. Living “stealth” just may be saving a persons life. Living “stealth” may be how a person needs to live because emotionally and psychologically they are not ready to live any other way.

    Individualism, I will say it again “individualism” live your life the way that works best for you not what some else thinks is best for you. Every person learns and grows at different rates and going around calling people liars because they consider themselves to be living “stealth” can be causing harm to another. Because the word “stealth” means one thing to one person does not automatically mean living “stealth” is harmful or it will give society a bad view of trans people.

    Quite frankly I find these last two articles about “stealth” absurd. Unless you know someone personally you have no idea why a person is living the way they are living.

    In a sense I live in “stealth” a couple of ways, first there are a lot of people I know that do not know I am trans and that is because they are just people I know, not friends so my personal life is none of their business. Second, I am a very solitary person and it has nothing to do with being trans. Often times I am in and out of public without being noticed and that is deliberate, why because I have my personal reasons. Does that make me a liar? Does that mean I have some sort of psychological problem? The answer to both is no because that is who I am and that is the life I chose to live for reasons very few people would understand.

    There is no way of knowing why a person lives the life they do if you do not know that person and their circumstances. If a person says they are living “stealth” then that should be honored unless they are seeking something else and they ask your advice. Remember you do not know what a word means for another. Should the two words “passing” and “stealth” be lost? Never because one of these words just may save a life.

    • Reread the articles. Stealth does not mean privacy.

      I am out but most of the people at work I have not told about my trans. That is about as ‘stealth’ as someone not telling me what their medical history is. I do not have a right to invade their privacy and the same vice versa. Besides, they are work colleagues not people I know socially.

  • I have made my own journey through the world of “passing”, although I have never subscribed to the “stealth” idea.

    To me, stealth is lying – plain and simple. As you mentioned earlier, there is a clear difference between stealth and privacy, and I feel privacy is the healthy choice and right of everyone – trans or otherwise.

    But I battled greatly with the idea of “passing” before and during my transition. There were days (most) that I woke up and wished more than anything else that I would “pass”. I loathed leaving my house feeling like “the bearded lady”. But as my outward appearance has become mostly reflective of how I feel inside I have come to realize that “passing” wasn’t what I wanted at all. I just didn’t want to see a stranger in the mirror anymore.

    I read once that “blending in” was a preferable phrase to “passing” as the latter infers that there’s the possibility of failing. And how can you possibly fail at being you?? Don’t get me wrong, people assuming I’m a cisgender woman saves me a lot of dialogue that can be tiresome and intrusive, especially among strangers. But I do not actively hide who I am.

    I am proud of me. That doesn’t mean that being trans isn’t hard sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have the occasional day when I wish I had been born with all the right parts from the start. But it does mean that I have chosen to live an authentic life (especially among my friends and loved ones) and offer my experience, help, and voice where and when I can.

  • The whole concept of ‘stealth’. Brr, not a fan. Among other things it means lying. I have even had someone who was stealth call me ‘he/she/it’ in order to protect her own identity. While everyone has a right to how they want to live their life that right stops where you harm other people. In fact, I would argue that by being ‘stealth’ you cause harm and are being greedy as no doubt you got help from other people along the way and now you are not returning the favor to the next ‘generation’. I see myself as having an obligation (one joyfully accepted) to help people just realizing they are trans in any way I can.

    Interesting view on the word ‘passing’ as I do not care for it either. For one it is inaccurate. Very few trans people do not give off tells to other trans people, whether cis people pick up on them or not. Even if they stay away from GLBT spaces. I realized a friend was trans by the emotional slant she had on certain topics, so minor most would discount it but it was like a flashing neon sign. As to the population at large, well, more than likely they know somebody is probably trans but are just being polite.

    It is also pretty arbitrary. Is someone less trans because of things that are beyond their control like height or some disabilities? What about things that can partially be controlled but not always easily, like weight (especially if your genetics predispose you)? For example, my voice is lousy, not for lack of trying but due to picking up several accents as a child. If it were used as just a descriptor I could at least see the argument (even if I did not agree with it) but that is not the case.

    Both words are used by some people to mean they have ‘finished’ and are more advanced than other people. Yet another hierarchy. Me? I do not see transition as ever ending. The me a decade from now will not be the me of today will it? To say it is done is like saying you may as well be dead because there is nothing left to do.

    • I do not, by and large, disagree with you. I dislike stealth, both the word and the life, which I have myself lived, for better and worse. But I react rather strongly to this statement:

      ‘I would argue that by being “stealth” you cause harm and are being greedy as no doubt you got help from other people along the way and now you are not returning the favor to the next “generation”. I see myself as having an obligation (one joyfully accepted) to help people just realizing they are trans in any way I can.’

      Really? And if I received no such help? (I transitioned long ago.) And either way, exactly how am I ‘obligated’ to help others, at the jeopardy of my own safety? Must I ‘joyfully’ expose myself to harm, to settle some imagined debt?

      And ‘greedy’? Because I have been harmed for being trans, and choose to avoid further harm by the only means available to me? Your characterisation of me as ‘greedy’ leads me to think that you must be very privileged indeed.