I want to talk about visibility
March the 31st is Transgender Day of Visibility, and it’s a particularly important day of the year for me. Three years ago, in 2018 it was when I came out to a broad range of people that I was trans. I’d started properly admitting it to myself in earnest a few months before then and had started telling people on a need to know basis. But on the 31st of March I made my trans-ness public. I changed my pronouns, I wanted people to know that I was a woman. I became visibly trans.
Visibility is a weird thing to think about when your trans. Broadly speaking, a lot of what I do that feels “trans” to me involves hiding. I hide great swathes of my body that feel wrong to me. I try to wear scarfs and turtlenecks to hide my Adams apple. I try to use makeup to hide the ridges of my face, and the discolouration on my chin that laser is yet to solve. I wear bras with padding to hide the smallness of my chest and wear clothes that are loose around my groin to hide… that. If I’m walking home at night I try to hide behind my silhouette in the hope that an assailant would see my height and broad shoulders and not assault me. It’s strange, the traits that for most of my waking hours cause me nothing but strife and feel like a cage, suddenly become a sort of armour in risky situations.
It’s not just physical either. I hide the fact I’m dating a woman from most of my acquaintances and from people at work because I worry that it would make it harder for them to accept that I’m a woman. I hide interests of mine that I don’t feel are feminine enough, or that suggest that I didn’t have a “female” childhood. Additionally, and it pains me to admit, there are many things that, due to a somewhat deep-seated internalised transphobia, I avoid because it feels cliché or unprofessional or just unbecoming. I’m not immune to transphobic stereotypes and clichés just because I’m trans. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with sharing that I’m trans, I just don’t want it to affect my visibility as a woman. The balancing act of the pragmatism of being stealthy, with a feeling of being disingenuous or betraying those who don’t have the luxury of acceptability is tough.
So maybe it’s weird for me to say that I desperately want more visibility for trans people in the world. There are so few of us in public life, and even less trans people who I feel reflect my experiences of transition. I’ve been constantly writing and revising an article about examples of trans people in media that speak to me because it just feels like there’s not enough, and I’m grasping at nothing. Before I came out, I saw basically no examples of trans-ness that reflected me. I was fortunate to know of trans people at all of course, but my image of trans women, was far from my image of myself. In my mind trans women were performers and artists, revellers and revolutionaries. Admirable to be sure, but they weren’t like me, and they certainly weren’t designers. I wanted to make useful beautiful functional things and solve strange complex problems, and the people who I saw doing these kinds of things weren’t trans. I thought I would have to choose between being a designer and transitioning because people like me couldn’t be seen as competent and professional in the design industry.
I tossed over this thought for a few years while I was uni. I was lucky enough to meet some queer designers and talk with them during this time and that gave me hope that things could be ok. However, it would still take a couple of years before I would finally force myself to make the change and come out to my family and start what one might consider a “transition journey”. Thankfully my uni was broadly accepting and excusing the hell of going through a pretty taxing medical process while completing a full-time honours project. It still took another year however, before I started to meet other designers in my field who were trans, and not through lack of searching.
We’re certainly still rare, In all the design work I’ve done, I’ve always been the only gender diverse person on the team. I’ve also often been the first gender diverse person that my colleagues have worked with, and in many cases, the only gender diverse person that my colleagues knew. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there is some fun to that, it’s nice to feel unique, but it’s lonely. One thing I’ve learnt over the past few years is that trans experiences are INCREDIBLY HARD to communicate to cis people, cis-hetero people especially, and these experiences are a big part of who I am as a designer.
Dysphoria from being seen as male, dominated my teenage years, and the process of untangling that and establishing this new identity was a big part of my early twenties (and I’m only 25 now). These experiences led to me having a fairly interesting relationship with gender, as well as cultural norms and hierarchies, and finding myself now a social minority really accelerated a desire to incorporate social justice into my practice. The small and supportive communities of trans people that I found online inspired my interest in online identities and communities, and wanting to explore the interesting and powerful ways design intersects with the world of social media. I want my trans-ness to be part of my design practice because it is part of me, and I want my practice to reflect myself.
I want to be able to share these experiences and interests and values with people around me, and learn from the experiences of other trans designers. I want it to be acceptable to be visible and trans and a designer, hell, I want it to be the norm. Design has been really welcoming to trans people, but It’s tough. Even with the best intentions of those around me, it’s hard not to feel ashamed as there’s so little evidence trans people in design and the design community, there are no precedents, no visibility.
This is really why I wanted to run an event, to really push being trans in design into the conversation. We need more trans people in this industry because it has so much potential to change our lives for the better. I admit I’m far from the best person to be talking about these things (or god forbid represent trans people in user centred design areas) but I have the power to be visible. While I’m still early in my career, there’s certainly people out there who are trans and wondering if design can be for people like them. There are probably even closeted trans designers who are worried that coming out will end their design career. I’m hoping that by having conversations with trans people about being human centred designers, and being trans, will show to trans folk that are terrified that their experiences don’t matter, that they do. I want to show them that trans issues are important, and trans culture isn’t silly or irrelevant to design. I want to show them that you can be a successful designer doing meaningful work, and be trans. I also want this conversation to show to non-trans folk how interesting, talented and valuable we are, because we are interesting, talented and valuable. Most of all, either directly or indirectly, I want this conversation to lead to more visible trans folk in design, because there’s not nearly enough, and I desperately want to work with more trans people in my field.