How Visibility Saved My Life

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Every year on Trans* Day of Visibility, we are reminded that being a visibly transgender person by choice is a privilege. Many transgender people, especially transgender women of color, are in danger every minute of every day because of visibility they do not actively choose. As a transgender man who could easily hide in the shadows, I try to recognize how lucky I am in comparison. But there is something to be said about choosing visibility in challenging situations. The openness of others about their trans* identities has, quite literally, saved me on numerous occasions. The number one person whose visibility I have to thank for my life, however, is myself. 

“As we wove through the hallways I choked out in a stutter, ‘I’m trans.’ “

In early March of 2018, I found myself walking through the doors of the emergency department in a daze. A nurse quickly brought me into the back, leaving my girlfriend in the waiting room. As we wove through the hallways I choked out in a stutter, “I’m trans.” I kept repeating myself, fixated on this one and only sentence I could muster. Blurry minutes passed, filled with feelings of overwhelming anxiety. It had been months since I’d interacted with anyone on this level, especially on my own. I was lead into a brightly lit room with a hard couch, white walls, and a tile floor. Psychiatric holding.

“My voice didn’t sound like my own.”

Eventually, they sent my girlfriend back to sit with me as we waited for news about what would happen next. I passed out from the exhaustion of hours of panic attacks, and when I woke up I couldn’t begin to process where I was. My voice didn’t sound like my own. I felt like my body was detached from my mind in a way that I had never experienced before. Time was irrelevant, and I still don’t know how long I waited in holding. She sat there with me, unwavering in her support and corrected people on my identity when I couldn’t. When they got a room cleared for me, I started to panic again. Not only did I have no idea what was going to go on once I left the safety of that room, I had no idea where they were going to place me. Was I going to be in a room with someone else? What gender would they be? Would I feel safe? The questions clouded my mind even further.

Koty wearing a grey knit hat, black glasses, and a green sweatshirt standing and looking into the camera. Behind him in the background are small vendor stalls and lights. Streaks of light obscure parts of his face.
Taken by Alexis Wells about 1 week after leaving the hospital

Throughout all of my meetings with doctors, nurses, and psychologists I made my gender identity known. I told anyone who would listen my preferred name and pronouns. At the time I had been taking intramuscular testosterone for nine months, and had yet to have any surgeries connected to my transmasculine identity. My legal name still reflected the name I was given at birth. I was fortunate enough to be placed in a single occupancy room, which the staff completely attributed to my gender identity. I had a bathroom and shower all to myself, but there was no door and the door to my room never could stay closed for long without someone coming in to check on me. My packer and binder were absent. All my clothing had to be cleared before I was allowed to have it, and I couldn’t risk having such important items damaged or lost. My girlfriend and I fought to get my T shot given to me by the head nurse on staff, since I was already days behind and wasn’t allowed to handle needles myself even if I felt comfortable doing my own (which I didn’t). My dysphoria skyrocketed, but I didn’t let myself be forced back into the closet in an environment meant to help me better my mental health. 

“Our identities are our superpowers.”

During the entirety of my 72-hour hold I kept myself visible as a transgender man. I refused to shy away from talking about how my gender identity affected my mental health, even when surrounded by many highly conservative and potentially violent strangers. This gave me a way to control how my treatment went, and gave me the space to process experiences that I knew few in the rooms I was in could understand. Little did I know, this encouraged others to be vocal about their own gender experiences. By the time I left, we had formed a small community of transmasculine and non-binary people who spent free time together and upheld one another in group therapy sessions. My visibility had allowed me to not only express myself, but let others feel comfortable in doing so. Before I came, some of my new friends hadn’t left their rooms. We came out of our respective dark places and found one another, further proof to me that our identities are our superpowers. 

After coming home, I decided that my visibility as a transman was not something I should hide. For months, I had refused to leave the house except for to go to school or with my girlfriend accompanying me. I knew it was fear of being outed that paralyzed me, fear of the people who gave us dirty looks in the grocery store, fear of my own voice giving away some part of myself that left me vulnerable to the violence that seemed commonplace towards LGBTQ+ people where we lived. But seeing what my visibility could do in that 72 hours, I began to rethink everything. My visibility had allowed me to make the best out of the help I was being offered, so why stop there? Being vocally myself saved my life once, I knew it had the power to do it again. So, gradually, and with help from an amazing support system, I learned not to fear the outside world. I learned that, even though being visible in this world might kill me, forcing myself to be invisible was guaranteed to.