Queerly Beloved: Is Trans Visibility Actually Necessary?

I have a confession. In our community, I hear a lot about the good ol’ days when there weren’t so many trans folks around.

I, too, am nostalgic for a simpler time. I am wistfully dreaming of the past, the days when people didn’t know much about trans people and therefore didn’t know that trans men even existed. I acknowledge that this is a terrible thing to confess, especially with Trans Day of Visibility right around the corner on March 31. But I’m a pastor and it’s the season of Lent, so I am in the mood for some confession. I yearn for the time of my own anonymity.

Of course, visibility matters, visibility is lifesaving. When trans folks dare to be visible, it helps others see that they aren’t alone, it also helps allies understand. Naturally, trans visibility is vital. On the other hand, I have lived unquestioned in my maleness now for almost my entire adult life. Have I not earned the right at this point to just live my life and be the man I am?

I am now 44 years old. The first time I uttered truths about my gender identity was almost 30 years ago, when I was a high school freshman. Although I didn’t have the language for it then, I knew I had to find a way to be comfortable in my skin. By the time I finished college, I walked across that stage at graduation and was fully the man I was meant to be. I transitioned so long ago, why bring all this up now?

I would have preferred to write about a different topic, but I can’t stop seeing Nex Benedict’s face in my mind’s eye. I can’t stop thinking about this innocent kid who was attacked in a school bathroom. When I was a differently-gendered high school student, I too was “jumped” at school, but I was fortunate to have had a different outcome. Nex, who was nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, had apparently been harassed by kids at school. I remember what that was like, and although my identity is different than Nex’s, I know what it is like to have a misunderstood gender as a kid.

Apparently, Nex threw water on their attackers. I have seen social media commentary claiming that Nex got what they deserved. How do people claim this? No child should be beaten and later die for throwing water on someone, and no child deserves to die for being different. When I was attacked, I too would have thrown water, if that’s what was in reach. I am lucky that I was able to run away. Nex’s story has awakened a memory that I thought I had long ago put to rest. I feel a sense of deep grief and solidarity when I think of Nex and what they endured.

So many years have passed since I was Nex’s age. I don’t often think about being attacked in high school. In fact, I really don’t think about being trans that much. I rarely reminisce about the painful soul-searching I once had to do. I choose not to recall the surgeries I had so long ago. I rarely even contemplate the life-long hormone treatment that I take to this day, unless I forget to go to the pharmacy to pick it up.

I don’t think about any of this until I am faced with discrimination or with elected officials who are attempting to take away trans people’s right to identity as our truest selves. I don’t think about it until a trans kid is beaten so badly in a school restroom, that they die from their injuries. Then I think about how the world sees people like us. Our identities are seen as easy to mock, our bodies are seen as easy to legislate and our lives are seen as easy to take away altogether.

Despite all the pain, despite being misunderstood, and even despite the mistreatment from elected officials, I actually wouldn’t do any of this life of mine differently. I am grateful for this journey, and I have learned to love the scars it has brought me. I wish Nex could have lived long enough to say the same about their life.

I don’t know why young Nex lost their life in such a brutal way. Even as a pastor, I don’t pretend to have an answer to those difficult questions, why such horrific things happen. I also don’t know how I survived long enough for my hair to fall out, or my beard to start turning grey. But I do know that visibility matters. As more trans people are open and visible, the easier it becomes for the next generation to find acceptance.

My life would be easier if I never told you that I am trans. But I have never sought for easy when justice is at stake.

Nex reminds me that there is something far more important than the comfort that comes with anonymity. I owe my visibility to the next generation of trans people. I want them to have the privilege of looking in the mirror one day and not only seeing a reflection of their true gender expression — I want them to be able to see a reflection of someone who has had the privilege to grow old.

Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw is the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa, MCCTampa.com. He is a proud husband and father in a family that was legalized through marriage equality and adoption.

More in Viewpoint

See More