The Problem of Visibility

by Jess O'Thomson

Thu Mar 31, 2022 (updated: Thu Mar 31, 2022 , 13:25 )· 728 words · 4 min

Note: This article has been updated to the remove an example of forced visibility and harassment at the survivor's request.

Today, March 31st, is the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV). It was founded in 2009 by trans activist Rachel Crandall in response to the lack of LGBT+ representation, and the fact that the only other day centred on trans people was the Transgender Day of Remembrance - to commemorate our dead1 However, the current reality means that for many trans people, visibility is not desirable, nevermind a solution.

Weaponised Visibility

The political climate has shifted significantly in the last decade, meaning that the last thing many trans people want is further visibility. Visibility is not always safe or desirable for trans people. This is particularly true for transfeminine people who are most at risk of harassment and violence when they are dragged into the spotlight. Significant numbers of trans people live in fear of being ‘clocked’ (identified that they are trans) and / or choose to go ‘stealth’ (not disclosing their trans identity when they are able to pass as cis). Many trans people simply wish to live their lives in relative privacy, the same as cis people do.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that forced visibility can actually be a weapon in the armory of those who wish to harm trans people.

From Lia Thomas to Emily Bridges, trans people living their lives are made more visible as a form of abuse and punishment for daring to exist or achieve anything whilst being trans.

Meaningful Invisibility

Most cruelly, although trans people are made visible in the public sphere in order to be targeted, trans people remain invisible in ways that a severely damaging. This is not through an absence of trans celebrities or CEOs, but a material invisibility to systems which they require access.

Trans people are regularly provided incorrect healthcare information because of poor wording, and assumptions made by clinicians about biology based on an individual’s gender presentation can be harmful or potentially lethal.2

In prisons, trans people are initially sent to a prison based on their legal sex (despite the difficulty of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate) and such institutions often do not have the appropriate clothing available. Access to appropriate medical care is even sparser.3

These are the significant ways in which trans people need to be more ‘visible’ - to the systems which control and govern our lives, not to the public sphere where such visibility is merely a tool of oppression.

Rights Not Visibility

Ultimately, it is vital to redirect this conversation to be one of rights, not of visibility and representation. Members of the trans community have already condemned TDOV, in similar ways to modern Pride, as being another facet of rainbow-washing, offering ‘support’ and ‘allyship’ with little in the way of material change.

It is indeed a shame that our only day remains one of mourning, but this is perhaps poignant given the political position trans people still sit in. Globally, the trans community are still harassed and face significant violence - most especially transfeminine people of colour.

CeCe MacDonald, a black survivor of nazi violence, outlines this dynamic lucidly in Trap Door:4

I feel like trans women are being acknowledged and are in the spotlight in ways that are not just about depicting trans women as stereotypes. We're human beings.

But this trans visibility also puts trans women in unsafe positions. With the height of trans visibility has also come the height of trans violence and murder. And so it's very important for people to acknowledge that yes, it is important to see these figures in the spotlight, but it is also necessary to recognize that this "trans tipping point" is bringing an unsettling rate of violence toward trans women.

For many of us, visibility - at least in the public sphere - remains a threat to be weaponised against us, not a means of securing much needed rights.


References:

4

Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibilty (Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture): Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (2017)