Engaging Stealth Mode: What is ‘Going Stealth’ and Why is it Important?

Going ‘stealth’ is a term used by transgender people who decide that the best way for them to move forward after their transition is to be stealth and not be open about their transgender history. The reasons for going stealth are many and are as individual as the person who is making the decision. I made the decision not to be stealth in 2011 and articulated my thoughts about it at the time in my post Denying One’s Past. The discussion of whether or not to be stealth is not an easy one, nor without its disagreements. When transgender people talk about it the discussion can be quite heated.

To reiterate, this, like many decisions around transition, is a highly personal decision and up to each individual! I cannot emphasise this enough. Really, I can’t. Need I say it again? This, like many decisions around transition, is a highly personal decision and up to each individual! This is not a discussion about romantic or sexual relationships and being stealth in those relationships. That is a discussion that requires its own post.

Now that I’ve said that (and will again), it is time to get down to some of the nuances of being stealth, being out, or being somewhere in between. My experience and observation is that most transgender people live in between being fully stealth and fully out. What does this mean overall? First, being stealth. In its purest form being stealth means completely hiding one’s transgender history, not talking about it with anyone, and completely hiding that one has transitioned. In times past this was what was expected of transgender people if they were to medically transition. It was expected and necessary to leave one’s marriage (if married), move away, socially transition, prove one has successfully done that for one year, then one may get Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), one year after that one may get gender congruency surgery, then one may move back to where one lived. Then do not discuss anything about transition.

Fully going stealth is no longer a necessary goal for those who seek medical transition, but is still an option that transgender people choose. Transition is not the easiest thing in the world. In all too many cases transgender people lose those they were close to. Family, friends, faith community, employment. By going stealth it becomes easier to rebuild connections and one’s life. Going stealth provides the opportunity to live as who one is without a lot of difficult questions. It means being able to gain employment that may otherwise not be available. Going stealth, all too often, protects transgender people from physical violence and murder. Being stealth is an option that can be quite appealing. That said, it is only an option for those who are able to consistently pass as cisgender.

Going the other way is being fully out as transgender in everything one does. This is a lot harder than it may seem at first. If one is truly consistently out as transgender that would mean always correcting people when they make the assumption that one is cisgender. It would mean that whenever one’s gender comes up to always state one is someone with a transgender history. Many transgender people are out in these ways and it can be a gruelling existence. In my own experience interacting with and observing other transgender people few of us are as fully out as this, although we do come close. Reality places most of us somewhere in between the two extremes.

Rather than being fully stealth, many will discuss their transgender history with close friends and confidants. If they are still in contact with family, family knows. Yet, when interacting with broader community one’s transgender history may never come up. People are not told and if the person passes as cisgender it need never come up. Those who know that the person has a transgender history or is transgender are asked not to repeat this information. The transgender person trusts that their wishes will be respected and they will not be outed by others. This is a strategy that works well for many who are transgender. It allows for trusted relationships, but helps to mitigate the harassment and discrimination that we face in the world.

Overall it is relatively easy to be “out” as a transgender person. Being stealth, however, is not so easy. Posting on social media, having a blog, and other online activity impedes the ability to go stealth later on in life. Once we have posted publicly online going stealth becomes anywhere from difficult to impossible. Removing one’s social media accounts may not be enough given the archives and history tools that are available. Having a blog makes it more difficult. Being interviewed for any sort of article or by mainstream media makes it next to impossible. We have left online footprints that are somewhat permanent.

In many places changing one’s name results in a public record of the change. In Ontario we have the option to have our name change kept out of the Ontario Gazette if we are changing it as part of transition. Without requesting this all name changes are published in the Ontario Gazette. In jurisdictions that require appearing before a judge to change one’s name and gender designation the decision of the judge would be in the public record. In Ontario amendments to one’s birth record are recorded but the long form birth certificate still shows name and sex that were given at birth. Around the world and in North America there are jurisdictions that do not allow any change of one’s birth certificate to reflect one’s gender change from what was assigned at birth. Being stealth becomes much more difficult in these circumstances.

For those who believe strongly that going stealth is the right way to go seeing others post about their milestones of transition can be frustrating. They see someone who is throwing away any chance of being stealth later in life. This is a valid point. Yet the message is often presented in a way that is judging other transgender people for their decision not to be stealth. I recently encountered this in a forum in which I am a moderator. The person’s comments went to a place where they were being hurtful and causing harm to others in what is a group that is about supporting others and not putting them down. Others made comments that were judgemental about those who decide to go stealth. In the end I made the decision to remove the post. I am all for healthy discussions. This one was decidedly unhealthy.

In my own life I am much closer to fully out than to being stealth. It would be next to impossible for me to go stealth. I have this blog, I have been interviewed by various mainstream media outlets about my experience of being a transgender woman, issues of transgender rights, and the challenges we face. A lot of my energy goes toward educating others, writing this blog, being an activist, supporting other transgender and gender diverse people, and daily survival. I am out in the communities I am part of. My transgender history and experience of transition is part of who I am and I choose to be fairly open about it. That said, I don’t walk into the store and say, “Hi! Here are the items I’m purchasing and by the way I’m transgender!” There are times when people make the assumption I’m cisgender and I’m quite happy to roll with it. Outing myself would not advance the conversation and it is not relevant in the moment. I do, occasionally, get an internal laugh when people make assumptions about me. It can be more fun still when I then come out to them as transgender and see the reaction.

As I stated above, how each of us decides to be stealth, not stealth, or somewhere in between is a highly individual decision. Regardless of choices I support each transgender person’s right to make the decision and will support them in that decision. I encourage everyone to strive to be this way in their support of transgender people.

I ask you, dear reader, for your thoughts on this topic. I certainly do not have all the answers to this complex and often messy discussion. Please comment and be respectful in your comments.

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