When you see someone with a beard, or hear a deep voice, you simply accept the person as being male with no questions asked. You do not wonder about what is happening ‘down there’. You do not whisper behind your hand, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ You simply accept.
And, in short, that is the reason why so many Female to Male (FTM) transgender persons go into ‘stealth’.
But please allow me to explain a few concepts.
A Female to Male transgender is someone born in a female body but is male-identified. He is not a butch lesbian. He is a male in every way except one. And that one reason makes him a transgender because he is going to transition as much as makes him comfortable within the body he has or will have. He is going to align his body with his mind and feelings. He may stop with testosterone. He may go on to remove reproductive organs or maybe have a mastectomy and phalloplasty, which is the actual ‘sex-change’ operation. Or he may do nothing at all besides dressing as a male and hanging out with the guys. The point is not whether he looks like a man or not. It is about his gender identity and has nothing to do with his sexual orientation, which is a different thing altogether.
“I am a man, period. Whether I sleep with men or women is not the question. But it is difficult to approach someone with the view to a potential relationship when you are in deep stealth. When do you tell the person? When you meet? Or when the relationship has progressed to the next obvious level? Or not at all?” says Dan Smith* who has had all his operations already.
But when does transition start? Transition starts the moment the FTM understands and accepts that he is transgendered and then makes the decision to effect some changes to align his body with his mind. Most FTMs will at least start the transition process through hormone replacement therapy, i.e. using testosterone which is injected as prescribed by an endocrinologist. This would ensure a deeper voice, facial and bodily hair growth and fat redistribution, often to the point of being able to ‘pass’ as male. Once that happens, the FTM might opt for going into STEALTH.
Stealth basically means that the transman has decided that since he presents and passes as a male, nobody needs to know his history. He lives his life as a male, is accepted as male in the workplace and social circles and has broken all ties with people who knew him before transitioning, excluding perhaps his family.
Andrew Peterson* lived in stealth in a Shelter for six months, sharing a dormitory with sixty men. “It was a great challenge. Those guys would never have taken kindly to what they would have seen as a ‘woman’ sharing their sleeping space or their bathroom. For that matter, neither would the authorities have. I passed well and that kept me safe. But I had to shower at four o’clock in the morning when everyone was sleeping! “, he said.
South Africa is a very conservative, religious country, irrespective of which religion we are talking about. This, unfortunately, means that the majority of people are intolerant and discriminating towards people they perceive as being non-conforming to societal norms. And what is the norm? The gender norm is that people are born as male or female and you just have to accept the body you were born with.
If it only stayed at disapproval, transgender people may have been able to accept that they are not accepted by a large percentage of the population, and get on with their lives. But it does not end with disapproval. The discrimination against trans people affects not only their safety but also their livelihood. Too often the trans person finds it difficult to get a job if they disclose their status at interview. Or they might lose the job after disclosure at work. When they decide not to disclose, they live in fear that they may be outed, unwittingly or maybe even purposely, for whatever reason. So the safest is being in stealth.
Bart Prince experienced being outed at his fiftieth birthday by a member of his extended family. “When the time came for speeches, an aunt decided she was going to tell the assembled guests who I actually was. Some knew and some did not. However, I was fortunate in my choice of friends. I got a lot of support from them and it seemed like they did not really care whether I had the right genitals to match my gender. To them I was still the male I portrayed. Needless to say, I’m still not talking to the aunt.” He admits, though, that he is very careful about which family gatherings he attends and is grateful to those family members who respect his gender identity.
Although the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons are supposed to be guaranteed by the very progressive South African Constitution, the reality is far different. In the highest echelons of government, few understand transgenderism and are thus either not vocal enough on the issue, or condemn it as an “evil” practice – un-African, irreligious and non-cultural. It is that ignorance which sent arch-homophobic journalist Jon Qwelani to Uganda (where an anti-homosexuality bill has been tabled) as an ambassador.
In Pambazukqa News (28 July 2010), Audrey Mbugua refers to it as ‘The Politics Of Penises’. “[This] is the assumption: A penis is a male organ and anyone having a penis is a male”.
I want to add: The myth carries forth - Whoever does not have a penis is not a man. The myth is the fact that you are not and cannot be a man if you do not have a penis. Many FTMs do not transition that far, for various reasons, including lack of funds. Yet they are men, they pass as men, they live and work as men and society as a whole accepts them as being the men they portray.
Having said all that, it is a pity that society has not reached the stage where they can simply accept or at least tolerate the transgender person. We need to have FTMs coming out of the closet and living their lives openly as the people they are or need to be. We need them as role models and we need the support they can give the questioning young FTMs who might not understand what is happening to them. But he also needs to know that if he does step out of the closet, he would be able to live his life without fear of rejection, discrimination or - worse still - intimidation or violence.
- Charl Marais is bookkeeper at GenderDynamix and also the editor for the organisation’s monthly newsletter. This article is republished here with the permission of GenderDynamix.