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Stealth is Soul-Destroying (2013)

Stealth is Soul-Destroying (2013)

©2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2013, 22 July). Stealth is Soul-Destroying. TG Forum.

Left: Monica Roberts (from her website)





Monica Roberts’s recent blogpost “Stealth Doesn’t Help the Transgender Community” has been generating a good deal of comment. It’s a good read, and the links within will take you to related posts on her commendable TransGriot blog.

Those who live in stealth keep their trans status secret. Those who interact with them—sometimes even their spouses—have no clue about their past. That’s how thoroughly they deny their transsexualism.

In the past the medical model of transsexualism demanded stealth; those who were accepted for treatment by gender clinics were required to close all ties with their past and live as if they were nontranssexual. Things began to change in the early 1990s as a new community-fueled transgender model began to replace the medical model. As a result, most transpeople today choose to live openly. Some, however, still opt for stealth. They live, as it were, in the woodwork.

Monica makes the point that stealth (unless done for reasons of security or safety) is an inherently selfish act, and indeed it is (so also, I suppose, is transition itself—and many of the other things we all do every day of our lives). She notes that those living in stealth do nothing to support the community and that their accomplishments—and sometimes there are many—reflect positively upon the cisgender community rather than the trans community because no one knows they are trans.

If you’re not out at your job, and you’re not out to friends and others, how is the world going to associate the positive things you do with the trans community as well, who could use more goodwill ambassadors and positive role models?

It not only doesn’t help the trans community, it doesn’t help the stealth trans person either, especially when it is only done to hide from your trans history and chase pseudo cis privilege. It reinforces the messaging from our opponents there’s something ‘wrong’ about being trans.

Monica comes down hard on stealth. She’s spot-on with her observations. Her essay couldn’t be an easy read for someone in stealth—nor should it be, for people in stealth live in a perpetual state of apprehension and dread that harms them more than they harm those with whom they have relationships and certainly more than they harm the trans community.

Monica didn’t say an individual doesn’t have the right to live in stealth. I’m not quite sure where she would stand on that and I don’t want to speculate about it. My own belief is that however poor a decision stealth might prove to be, however moral or immoral it might be, it’s the right of the individual to live as they see fit. And it’s my right, and Monica’s, to criticize them.

My concern about stealth is just this: it’s soul-destroying. Those in stealth live in perpetual fear that someone will figure them out and tell others. Consequently, they monitor everything they do and everything others do through the lens of their stealth. They live with an everpresent fear of being outed. It’s a stressful existence.

The observations that follow are illustrated here and there with examples of people I’ve known throughout the years, and from my own experiences. I’ve altered names and circumstances.

Stealth Is Just Not an Option for Everyone

Stealth has never been an option for the majority of male-to-female transpeople. People know on sight or soon figure out we’re trans. Secondary sex characteristics like facial features, body height and shape, distribution of body, facial, and head hair, voice, and mannerisms give subtle and sometimes obvious clues that help with that determination. Hormones, electrolysis, cosmetics, and surgery can make us more passable, but few of us are undetectable in an age in which media and personal exposure have made most people more attuned to us. And if our appearance wasn’t enough, there’s our paper trail. No matter how careful we’ve been about making sure there are no documents that might reveal our past status, we’re likely to miss some—and those of us who are born in states like Tennessee and Ohio are unable, under law, to get birth certificates altered to reflect the new gender. And finally, there’s the Internet. In my own case anyone who Googles me will easily be able to figure out my trans status.

I’m not talking here about passing while shopping at the mall, but on the long-term maintenance of a cisgender identity. Only the most passable among us can pull it off.


I was having lunch with a transsexual acquaintance I’ll call Xandra. Xandra, alas, had been born without the passability gene. As she approached the salad bar, a woman put a protective arm around her daughter of perhaps six years and pulled her close. The subtext was, of course, “this is an unusual person and I’m not sure it’s safe for you.”

That gesture wasn’t lost on me, and I’m certain it wasn’t lost on Xandra. I knew how I would have felt had that happened in response to me. Xandra said nothing, but I know she was hurting.

When she transitioned, Xandra lost her position as a human rights officer and entered upon a series of menial positions. She worked as a cook at a restaurant owned by another transsexual and quit in protest when she wasn’t allowed to work as a waitperson. She then went to school to learn how to apply ceramic nails. Upon graduation, she wasn’t able to find a shop that would hire her, and when she finally found a spot, customers avoided her and she made no money. Eventually she got a job delivering pizza in largely gay Midtown Atlanta. When the gay owner called her in and told her he was sorry, but it would be necessary to change her hours because of customer complaints, she blew up, blaming the entire LGBT community for being unsupportive of her transition.

When Xandra was invited to move to Chicago, she asked to speak at the support group meeting. When she was introduced, she told her peers passing was bad and the real transsexuals were the ones who couldn’t pass. Then she broke down in tears, sobbing she would give anything to be able to pass. It wasn’t a pretty exit.

I knew another transsexual woman—I’ll call her Robin—who transitioned at age fifty. She began taking hormones, had electrolysis, and grew her hair. Thanks to delicate features, she was soon a dead ringer for Reba McIntyre. At work she wore a uniform and tied her hair back; when she transferred to a new department, the customers and most of her co-workers assumed she was a cisgender woman. When asked, Robin was open about her past. Her official transition, as you might expect, went smoothly. She didn’t choose to go stealth—she stayed on the job until retirement—but she easily could have.

Xandra didn’t have Robin’s physical advantages, and she didn’t do the work that would have made her more passable. I had advised her to complete electrolysis and consider facial and hair surgeries before transition, when she could afford it. After transition she was unable to afford the things that would have made it possible for her to pass in most situations.

This isn’t to say Xandra didn’t have every right to live as a woman without electrolysis, hormones, or surgery, and to do so without comments or ridicule from others. She certainly did. Nor is it to say Robin was in any way superior to Xandra merely because she got a better roll of the genetic dice. I give the above examples to show stealth is more difficult for some than for others. Robin didn’t go stealth, but she easily could have. Xandra would have had difficulty even with extensive and expensive work. Sometimes stealth is an option. Sometimes it just isn’t.

Passing and Stealth Are Not the Same

When one passes, one is assumed to be have been a member of the gender of presentation since birth. That of course, is not the case. We may pass casually, while putting gasoline in our vehicles, say, or long-term, as say, a library patron, or at work. Passing becomes stealth when we deny our transness. If confronted and we say “Oh, yes, I assumed you knew,” we’re out. When we say, “Of course not, and I can’t believe you asked,” we’re in stealth. Stealth requires an active denial of our past—of much of who we are and all of who we were.


My friend Amalee is attractive, but those with whom she interacts soon figure things out. When approached, even delicately, she flies into a rage. Even when the subtext is “I know you are, but it’s okay,” she hotly denies her transsexualism. The general result is people who were prepared to be supportive turn against her.

Amalee does her best to live in stealth, but she rarely passes in even casual situations. For more than twenty years she’s been trying to implement a strategy that just doesn’t work for her. It has turned her into an angry person and left her with a lot of enemies who might easily have become her friends.

Barbara is an activist. She hardly lives in stealth, but those with whom she comes into contact don’t seem to suspect. Since she rarely wears makeup or jewelry and dresses casually, there aren’t any external gender cues, so she occasionally gets called sir, but when the speaker takes a second look they apologize and call her ma’am.

Consequently, as she goes about her everyday business, people with whom Barbara interacts assume she is cisgender. Usually, she doesn’t disabuse them of that notion. There wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to explain to everyone that she’s not, but when it’s relevant to the situation, she discloses. Her neighbors, friends, co-workers, and lover all know she’s transsexual.

Barbara passes, but refuses to lives in stealth.

Passing Has Its Advantages

Obviously, passing can mean the difference between life and death in some situations. If we’re passing we’re not going to get a brick to the head by someone who is out to bash faggots. If we’re passing we don’t have to spend our lives doing Gender 101, explaining ourselves to practically everyone we meet. If we’re passing we’re not going to face gender-based oppression or discrimination. We can more easily find jobs. We can go into a bar and get a drink without facing hostility. We can attend a fundamentalist church service, if we so choose. We can go places and do things that would be impossible or dangerous if we didn’t pass.

Here’s something to consider: No matter how out you are, few people will know your history. When you meet them, people will make a judgment about your gender based upon your appearance. The person next to you in the checkout line will assume your biology is consistent with the way you look, no matter how ambiguously you may be presenting.

Considering how much easier it is to get through the day if we’re passing, it’s no wonder some of us choose to live in stealth.


I was standing outside a drugstore once with my friend Constance. As a carload of young men drove by at forty miles an hour, one of them yelled out his open window, “It’s a man!”

I knew they weren’t talking about me, and I suspected it happened often for Constance. I said to her, “I hate when that happens.” She shrugged and said, “What?” I thought she had filtered out the insult. I said “Getting yelled at like that. She said, “I just don’t let it get me down.”

I contrast Constance’s experience with my own. People know about me because I’ve told them, because someone has told them about me, because they’ve seen my name in print or in their browser, or because I’m with a dozen other transpeople and am considered trans by association. But in twenty-five years I’ve been confronted about my gender only once in public. I had just completed a six-mile circuit of Stone Mountain. I was dripping sweat and my soaking hair was plastered to my head. As I passed a woman with a daughter perhaps four years old, the child asked me if I were a boy or a girl.

Before I could reply, the mother rebuked the daughter for being so impolite—an appropriate response, and thank you, whoever you are. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back. I never had to answer the question; we were, after all, merely passing one another on the sidewalk.

That encounter with Constance, and the salad bar incident with Xandra, have given me much food for thought. Their genders were questioned daily, and often under less than polite circumstances. I admired them for their strength and wondered how I, with my thin skin, would have held up through years of such treatment. I don’t think I could have. They were damaged by the reactions of others. I, I believed, and still believe, would have been destroyed.

I have to say my transition was to some extent predicated by the desire to pass. I wasn’t particularly concerned about how I was regarded by friends, co-workers, and neighbors, but I didn’t want a life in which every trip to Wal-Mart or visit to the library would be an ordeal. When I judged that wouldn’t happen, I transitioned. If I had thought I would be unable to pass, I would have done everything practical to render me more passable. Fortunately, in my case, electrolysis and hormones were enough. I go everywhere I want and do whatever I want. I realize how lucky I am. I’m happy I pass, but even more happy I don’t live in stealth.

Choosing Stealth is Your Right

Stealth is a personal choice. Those who have the ability to live so are well within their rights to conceal their pasts. We have no inherent obligation to support others like us—or anyone else, for that matter. We’re not required to build or assist a community with which we don’t identify.

This is, of course, as Monica points out, selfish—but it’s still within one’s rights to live in stealth.

Stealth Makes Intimacy Difficult, and Stealth Revealed Destroys Trust

The secret of stealth is a wedge that divides an individual from others. An entire past life must be concealed and a new and false one presented to the world. Any question about the past must be rebuffed or deflected.

How hard it must be to be married to someone who doesn’t know about your past! How hard it must be to be a parent to a child while you’re in stealth!

When a friend, co-worker, lover, or spouse learns a past has been concealed, that lies have been told, he or she will understandably feel betrayed. The relationship will be damaged and perhaps ended. Re-establishment of that trust will be difficult or impossible.

For these reasons many transpeople living in stealth avoid close relationships. It’s personally frustrating for those who do, but it diminishes risk.

Choosing Stealth Will Not Endear You to Others

People who make selfish decisions are subject to criticism for others, whether they’re Wall Street bandits or stealth transsexuals. It’s hardly surprising the stealth option has been so roundly and harshly criticized by the trans community.

Those who really won’t appreciate you, however, are those who have known you in stealth persona and are told about you or figure out you aren’t cisgender. This creates a real risk of rejection, hostility, and violence. Murders of transpeople often show excessive levels of violence—multiple gunshots, dozens of stabbings. The bodies are often mutilated. Feelings related to the revelation or discovery of trans status is a motive in at least some of those cases.

One needn’t actually be living in stealth to evoke violence, of course. Violence against transwomen is an unfortunately common horror, and many of those attacked and murdered are victims of people they had only recently met. Potential suitors are especially likely to grow violent when told by their trans lover or otherwise learn she isn’t cisgender.

And of course many murders are perpetrated by those who knew all along. Often they claim “I didn’t know.” When they find themselves under indictment they predictably trot out the transsexual panic defense.

Not only are men and women in stealth at risk if they don’t reveal their status; they may find themselves accused of nondisclosure if they are unable to prove their spouse or lover knew of their transsexualism.



Nikki Araguz (Wikipedia Photo)

A case in point is Nikki Araguz, whose firefighter husband Thomas was killed in action on July 3, 2010. They had been married for two years. Within twenty-four hours two lawsuits had been filed by the Araguz family, claiming Nikki wasn’t entitled to survivor’s benefits because she was transsexual and denying her the right to see her (Thomas’, biologically) children. Although she was post-op, Texas judge Randy Clapp signed an order voiding the marriage because Nikki wasn’t “really” a woman. The case is under appeal.

One point of contention was whether Thomas knew Nikki was transsexual. The family claims he didn’t know. Nikki says he did. Custody papers he and Nikki filed denied rumors she was transsexual. Nikki says she and Thomas lied of necessity, to minimize the possibility of losing their children, and probably they did, but Nikki has been unable to prove Thomas knew of her status. (It occurs to me as I write this—if, within twenty-four hours of Thomas’ death, the family filed lawsuits challenging the validity of her marriage because of her transsexualism, then they, and by extension Thomas, certainly knew!)

The iconic case of Brandon Teena shows just how vicious people can be when they feel they’ve been misled. Brandon was a biological female who was living as a man in tiny Humboldt, Nebraska in 1993. When he reported being raped by John Lotter and Thomas Nissen, Sheriff Charles Laux seemed more interested in Brandon’s transsexualism than in the crime. He failed to arrest Nissen and Lotter. Twelve days later, having tracked Brandon down, Nisson and Lotter murdered him, Philip DeVine, and Lisa Lambert in the presence of Lambert’s young son. Brandon had been staying with Lisa. Philip was present only because he had driven to Humboldt to visit Lisa.

The murders were absolutely cold-blooded:

Nissen would later testify in court that he noticed that Teena was twitching, and asked Lotter for a knife, with which Nissen stabbed him, to ensure that he was dead. (Court TV)

Nissen and Lotter were habitual criminals who clearly wanted to leave no witnesses, but at the bottom of it all was their feeling of betrayal when they discovered Brandon had a female body.

Being Unmasked Can Be Catastrophic

No matter how long you maintain a stealth existence, it’s liable to fall apart, and with no notice. British model Carolyn Cossey found that out when she we outed by the tabloids. Opthalmologist Renée Richards found that out when she was outed because she was enjoying some success in amateur womens’ tennis competitions. Computer engineer Lynn Conway found that out when someone traced her past work to her present.

In each instance the lives of these women changed dramatically. Each came out, and their lives were no longer the same.

Transmen are just as susceptible to outing. After his marriage dissolved, Michael Kanteras found himself on Court TV while a Florida judged tried to figure out whether he was a man or a woman (and thus whether he had been in an opposite-sex or same-sex [illegal under Florida law] marriage).


When Joy came to the support group, she was a mess. After living in stealth for four years, she fell in love and was engaged to be married. When the wedding announcement hit the papers her life fell apart. Anonymous letters were sent to everyone who knew her, outing her, and in a vicious way. Her intended reacted with horror and contempt and kicked her out of their home. His family, who had purported to love her, responded with hatred. She was ejected from her conservative church and fired from her (she thought) lifelong job. Her entire life fell apart.

Joy’s was a worst-case scenario, but it nevertheless happened. She didn’t deserve it—no one would have—yet it was the logical outcome of a life lived in stealth. She didn’t tell her church, her fiancée and his family, or her employer about her transsexualism. When they found out (in the worst way possible) they felt betrayed and deceived. The outcome, sad as it was, was predictable.

Stealth Requires Hypervigilance

Because stealth is likely to blow up in one’s face, a life in stealth requires constant vigiliance. Every vocalization, every gesture, every interaction, every chance encounter requires monitoring. “Does he suspect? I think he suspects!” “How should I walk down these steps to appear more feminine?”

It must be much like being an undercover police officer or a spy.

Living with stress can and often does have negative affects on the body. The effects on the psyche can be even worse—irritability, insomnia, nervousness, night terrors, even PTSD.

Disguising or hiding one’s past, wondering who knows or who is on the verge of figuring out, occasionally chancing across someone from that past, and the dread of being outed, all carried out over years or decades, is damaging to psychological as well as physical health. People in stealth live in a state of perpetual apprehension, constantly on the lookout for anything or anyone that might jeopardize the delicate balance of their lives, and it takes a toll.

Fear is a terrible thing when it’s everpresent.


I had my surgery in Belgium in 1991. Jessica, an acquaintance from the support group, flew with me, and we shared a room at the Derby Hotel in Brussels. We had surgery on the same day and shared a hospital room. We were together 24/7 for nearly two weeks.

After our return to the States we got together from time to time to have lunch and visit used bookstores. Then we lost track of one another.

A year or two after we had lost contact I was walking with a friend toward an antique shop. As we neared the door it opened and out stepped Jessica, on the arm of an older man in a suit.

The look of panic on her face was beyond belief. It said, “Oh, my god, please, please, please, please don’t acknowledge me! Please don’t say anything! Please don’t look at me! Please, please, please, please, please! My life will be over!” And of course it would have been if I had said something and her boyfriend had figured out that I, or my companion, or both of us, and by connection she, was transsexual.

We of course walked right past her. When we were inside the door I turned to my companion and said, “I wouldn’t trade places with her for anything in the world.”

My companion replied, “I didn’t come out of one closet just to go back into another.”

I wondered how it would be to be in a relationship with someone who didn’t know about my transsexualism, to move in circles where no one knew who I was. How stressful, how soul-destroying it has to be!

Stealth Discourages Excellence

Jan Morris Today

Jan Morris Today

Many transpeople are outed because of their achievements. That was the case with Caroline Cossey, Renée Richards, Lynn Conway, and others. Others, knowing they’ll be revealed, come forward. I’m almost certain that’s why Jan Morris published her autobiography back in 1974 (she transitioned in 1972). Morris was (and still is) a well-known travel writer. Short of abandoning a lucrative writing career, she had no other option than to disclose.

I wonder how many closeted transmen and transwomen turn down promotions, publicity and positions for fear of being outed.


Lana Wachowski

Lana Wachowski

Happily, being out is no longer the obstacle to employment and recognition it once was. Martine Rothblatt is justly famous for her pioneering work in satellite communications; Lana Wachowski continues to make films; Chaz Bono just got a film role; Marci Bowers, Anne Lawrence, and other trans physicians are prospering, and hundreds of transgender academics are happily teaching and publishing at universities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. And what the heck, Buck Angel is having a good time being an FTM porn star.

Secrets are Difficult to Keep

Secrets are notoriously difficult to keep. Few of us, in fact, are able to keep secrets. Eventually, we tell someone. If we don’t, we still feel the need to do so. As time passes, that need grows.


When transsexual therapist Erin Swenson made the news by playing in an amateur womens’ tennis league, she got a call from an elderly woman who lived in a retirement community in Midtown Atlanta. When Erin met the woman for lunch, she disclosed her own transsexualism. She had transitioned in the 1970s through the gender clinic that was then jointly run by Emory University and the state of Georgia. She had been told to cut her ties with the past and to tell no one about her transsexualism, and she had done just that. Absolutely no one she had met afterward knew. Now, in the twilight of her years, she felt compelled to call a stranger and disclose. I’m morally certain that after that lunch she went right back to keeping silent.

Stealth Actively Prevents You from Fighting Discrimination

Do we have an obligation to support the transgender community? Legally, no, we don’t. Morally and ethically, Monica would say they do.

Many, and I would argue most transpeople don’t participate in the community. This includes closeted crossdressers, transsexuals living in stealth, those who are devoting all their resources to their transitions, and those, whether crossdresser or transsexual, have grown comfortable with themselves and become caught up in work, relationships, or hobbies. Do we as a community need them all? Yes we do. Are they obligated to join the community? I would say no, although if they have drawn upon the community for help it’s irresponsible and small not to give back in some measure—with their money, at least. I’m bothered a lot more by those who don’t speak up in the face of discrimination or attack.

A life in stealth shouldn’t prevent one from supporting the trans community—after all, we have tens of thousands of non-trans allies—but those living in stealth typically consider it a risk, avoiding all contact with other transsexuals, even if they’re co-workers or neighbors. And when someone attacks other transsexuals, they say nothing or make their own derogatory comments. When they’re in public or watching television with friends of lovers and see a tranperson, they may actually join in the ridicule and almost certainly won’t say anything in the transperson’s defense.

This is morally reprehensible behavior for anyone—but especially so when done by someone in stealth.


Back in the early 1990s, Linda Phillips told the story of a U.S. customs officer who came across two illegal border crossers who had been handcuffed all day to a fence under the hot Texas sun without access to water. Other border guards had selected them for this mistreatment because they were clearly trans, and were making fun of them, drinking in front of them, holding canteens and sodas just out of their reach. The trans officer was horrified, but because he was a crossdresser and feared he would himself become suspect, he said nothing, the bastard.

Winding Up

Stealth provides short-term advantages for those who pass well enough to exercise that option, but the long-term negative effects far outweigh the benefit. If you find yourself thinking about taking that route, please remember and re-read this essay.

With all these things said, I still maintain it’s well within an individual’s right to choose a life of stealth. I don’t think it healthy, moral, or in anyone’s best long-term interest to choose stealth, but I support the right to make that choice.

My thanks to Monica for the essay that spurred me to write this.

Much of my work is available at my website at