The Myth of “(In)Visibility”

August 27, 2009

I can’t count how many times trans men have complained of being “invisible,” or where they (or, admittedly, transphobic cis women) justified paying more or exclusive attention to trans men’s issues because of their “lack of visibility,” or implied that my “visibility” as a trans woman was a form of privilege.

But “(in)visibility” is an incoherent idea. One is not simply “visible” or “invisible” like Harry Potter putting on his cloak–invisibility cloaks don’t exist, some people can see you even if you are wearing one, and one is always standing on the other side of a wall/behind a tree relative to someone, and the near side of the wall/in front of the tree relative to someone else. What “invisibility” universally fails to ask is: to whom is one visible, and why? Under what circumstances, and in what light? Am I visible to the friend looking out hir window for a houseguest, through the binoculars of a peeping tom, or within the crosshairs of a sniper rifle? The concept “invisibility” implies that these things are all linearly correlated, so that as my chances of being harassed on the street go up, so do my chances of finding a partner who will know about and be sensitive to my issues and be a fierce advocate for me, and the fact that trans men don’t get murdered at anything approaching the same rate as trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers is something that will change as they get more spots on Oprah.*


These things are only weakly correlated:

  • Trans women are the targets of the large majority (though by no means all) of cis feminist transphobia, and almost all pathologizing/objectifying/fetishizing/misgendering/transphobic/non-feminist sociological, psychological, sexological, and anthropological research, while trans men and (conflatedly) FAAB genderqueers get the bulk of positive, sympathetic (though not necessarily trans-positive) feminist research (MAAB genderqueers, in this scheme, are subsumed into drag queens/crossdressers/trans women).

  • Trans women have the overwhelming edge on number of autobiographies–the surviving ones, for some weird reason, are all (with two mid-90’s trans-woman-bashing-smash-the-gender-binary exceptions) of the disempowered, desexualized, pity-me medical model variety, despite empowered trans woman writers of the period like Susan Stryker, Sandy Stone, and Angela Douglass (who did, in fact, write an unpublished autobiography) and several (also problematic) pornographic autobiographies no longer extant (see Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 198-202)–but trans men’s books have, on the whole, taken a much more empowered line, with sexuality discussed on their own terms in a non fetishizing way. As Serano writes in Whipping Girl, these were the only stories of trans women’s lives that were allowed to be told. (Some might say better something problematic than nothing, and while there’s limited truth to that up until sometime in the 1990s, there’s no room for argument in 2009.)

  • And though with Serano’s book there is a public and empowered voice for white trans women’s issues, and films such as Still Black attempt to broadcast the admittedly under-publicized lives, voices, and issues of trans men of color, our women of color’s self-advocacy has never or almost never been amplified by publishing or filmmaking institutions–yet trans women of color are all over self-published media (the blogosphere)–and murder reports and fetishizing/exploitative media articles, that almost universally omit their voices and ideas. (see my 2008 post about this phenomenon.) The closest thing to an exception would be Paris is Burning–and if you’ve read Butler and Prosser on the subject, you’ll likely agree that it’s not really an exception (though it is a highly enjoyable film).

To oversimplify: trans women are visible: as a sexual threat, as sex objects, as objects of derision and hate, and as objects of pity. Trans men are visible: as potential partners, as activists and revolutionaries, as an “invisible” group that deserves your advocacy, and (recently) as parents. The Thomas Beatie case is the exception that proves the rule–the unusually degrading media treatment that drew totally justified anger and analysis happened only in response to his pregnancy and open defiance of cisnormativity and transphobic eugenics, where that kind of media coverage is par for the course for trans women regardless of what they do, and doesn’t get that kind of attention, analysis, and anger simply because it is so common. And, you know, because fewer people and institutions care. That many trans men victim-blamed Beatie for this coverage and were angry about this making them “look bad” represents a tacit understanding that “visibility” isn’t inherently good or bad, but only good or bad relative to specific circumstances and situations.

Let’s dump “visibility”–and start thinking about to whom, as what, under what circumstances, when, why, to what end, and at what cost.

*(A bit of a tangent: Related is the idea that trans men pass better either a)because people don’t think about trans men or b)because testosterone is powerful, manly, and dominant while estrogen is submissive and weak, rather than being related to a)the ways in which masculinity is seen as natural and femininity as artificial and suspect (see Whipping Girl) and b)male as default (see Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach chapter 6 “Toward a Theory of Gender, also anthologized in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle, eds. See the overlay study in particular, which talks about how “male” gender cues count *much* more strongly toward gender attribution than “female” gender cues.)

EDIT 3:20 AM– General Note: For about half an hour after a post is first published, I’m revising it, generally without “edit” notations. I always intend it to be done before it’s published, but it never is/HTML doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, etc. The substance stays the same, (this time it was trying to get the spaces in between the bullet pointed paragraphs plus “to oversimplify”) but if you’re wondering “did something just change?” …it might have. After half an hour, though, I generally include a note. and my half hour’s up.


10 Responses to “The Myth of “(In)Visibility””

  1. Daisy said

    Awesome, awesome post.

  2. Olga said

    Interesting post!

    Oddly enough, the first two transwomen I met were Jewish and Black. The first is my chosen!sis, the second was on a panel of transgender and cross-dressing folk during Pride Week my freshman year of college. The trans and queer communities in St. Louis seem to be pretty diverse, judging by my interactions with them.

    • Cedar said

      While it’s rad that a black trans woman was on a panel during Pride Week, I don’t think it substantially undermines the point that trans women of color only extremely rarely are extended institutional help in raising their voices the way that white, male, and/or cis people are, and that they’re positioned as voiceless even within all the communities that are within just one oppression adjacent, let alone the three steps to mainstream media. (cis women of color, trans white women, and trans men of color)

      Also, there’s a space between ‘trans’ and ‘woman’ for a reason.

  3. geopunk said

    In/visibility is still important to me as a genderqueer trans guy, though. Although you bring up really good points in this post (which I will not contest), I’m not sure it’s as simple as saying that trans men aren’t hurt by invisibility because trans women are hurt more by visibility. (I swear I’m not trying to get all “but what about the menz” here, apologies.)

    What hurts me personally about visibility-vs-invisibility is the constant message from society, family, and even friends, that just because they’ve never heard of anyone else like me (a queer, genderqueer/neutrois, effeminate, trans male person who was assigned female at birth) that my right to self-identify is nonexistent and invalid. When I think of “visibility” I don’t think of it in terms of seeing trans men on talk shows or in the biography rack of a bookstore. To me, visibility just means having one’s (personal, not even necessarily collective) existence acknowledged and respected. Other trans people are not to blame for this invisibility, so it’s pretty damn sad when folks point their fingers at trans women like it’s their fault that sensationalist news stories exist.

    I’m thinking there really needs to be a good word or phrase to describe the complex intersection of privilege and oppression that trans men and FAAB genderqueer folk experience. I’m thinkin’ on it.

    p.s. Tangent: Good point about that “trans men pass better” trope (and the assumptions behind that assumption). In my experience, trans men (in general) are no more likely to pass better or worse than trans women (in general), and someone saying that “trans men pass better” is ignoring the fact that: 1) not all trans people take hormones in the first place, 2) that even still, hormones affect every person’s body differently and hormones do not guarantee passing, and 3) all trans men are not overtly masculine fratboy types.

    • Cedar said

      That’s not the point. Generalized in/visibility doesn’t exist. Trans people, trans men, femme trans men, genderqueers of all stripes, MAAB genderqueers, feminist trans people, etc, are each positioned as impossible or nonexistant, or have their social position conflated into another category, to specific groups of people in specific circumstances for specific purposes. In all such cases, it’s hurtful and oppressive, and legitimately so. But that’s not the point. Point is that the concept conflates several things that don’t actually go together, aren’t actually correlated.

  4. Late, but – this reminds me of something I came across not too long ago. Grant Morrison has a forum called barbelith where occasionally trans stuff gets discussed. Anyway, someone started a thread there about how trans women are excluded from women-only spaces (and specifically MWMF)which had some discussion along those lines for a bit. And a trans man came into the discussion and said something about how trans women get all the attention and visibility and trans men are basically invisible, and suggested that everyone stop discussing trans women and instead discuss how trans men are affected by trans exclusive policies at events like MWMF.

    In another post, someone also suggested that trans women visibility is because “what men and those perceived as men do is more interesting than what women and those perceived as women do” and a blanket denial that trans women visibility is really harmful – it’s just an aspect of male privilege.

    The thread was ancient, so I didn’t really bother with it, but it stuck with me.

    • Cedar said

      I feel like the “male privilege” meme is at the root of the whole discourse, spoken or unspoken. :-/

      Yeah, how privileged and selfish of us women to take up so much space talking about women’s space. GOD WHAT ABOUT TEH MENZ. (And, of course, trans men *aren’t* excluded by MWMF and a lot of other spaces that exclude trans women…*headdesk*…) I mean, I think that some spaces being defined no-cis-men is reasonable, and important to talk about, but…really dude.

      Re: second person’s point, I think the shoe falls on the other foot–per Serano’s book cover study, book covers market trans men’s words and actions and perspective (SO MUCH ‘deep thought’ eye contact!), and trans women’s bodies/sexuality.

      • Yeah, male privilege is always at the root. It gives some trans men the an excuse to be as misogynist as possible toward trans women, and when called on it they can throw out “you were raised as a man you have male privilege!” to shut down the calling out.

        And yeah, I agree with Julia Serano. I don’t think it’s about “men being more interesting”, it’s about hatred and objectification of trans women.

  5. […] the confessional. Invisibility discourse, as well as discourse about “ignorance” and “silence” and discourse about […]

  6. […] Invisibility is contested territory when trans people talk. […]

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