Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock Images/Thinkstock.

“Most of the Time People Don’t Recognize Me at All”

What it’s like for trans men to pass for cis in the South.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

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Some names in this piece have been changed.

In middle Tennessee, not far from where they both grew up, Ted and Janice live the traditional American dream. They met and became friends in college, eventually started dating, and have now been married for two years. They own their own house on a quiet street, not far from the corporation where Ted works as a senior manager. Once Janice finishes nursing school, they plan to try to have some kids. On Saturdays during college football season, their friends, family, and neighbors will come over on the fly and watch the game. Their names and identifying details had to be changed for this article, however, because nobody in Ted’s life, aside from his wife and grandmother, knows that Ted is a transgender man. It’s not uncommon for Ted to run into people who knew him many years ago, before his transition, as a girl. Those folks don’t recognize him now, and Ted doesn’t say or do anything to clue them in.

Among the many things most people don’t know about transgender men is that most can pass as natal males after several months to a year of starting hormone therapy. Testosterone causes trans men’s voices to lower into the male range and allows them to grow full beards. It even subtly reshapes the fat distribution on their faces and bodies, making it impossible for most people to pick out a trans man from a group of guys. In the transgender community, the decision to pass as cisgender all day every day is called going stealth. To some, it might seem like concealing something important from everyone you know. For guys like Ted and the other stealth trans men who agreed to talk to me about living in the South, it’s the only way to be true to themselves.

Some trans men go stealth reluctantly, after they learn how complicated life is when you’re open about being trans. Some lead a double life, out to family and close friends but stealth with co-workers and distant acquaintances. Ted, who is 34 and has been stealth for roughly 10 years, has kept knowledge of his transition secret even from his wife’s parents.

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“My wife’s mother would cut her off if she knew. It’s a religious thing, but also a Southern thing,” Ted explained. “I’ve told my wife that if she finds out, she finds out—I would stand up for myself and say I take care of your daughter, we have a great life. My own mother let me go without a second’s blink. I haven’t spoken to her since I told her I was trans.”

Ted is matter-of-fact when he speaks about his parents and his half-sister (13 years his senior), but he doesn’t like to dwell on his estrangement from them. His immediate family have all left the area, but his paternal grandmother still lives nearby, and their relationship is close, akin to that of a mother and son. Ted takes pride in his being there for his grandma, able to help her out and care for her as she ages. Some of his grandmother’s friends knew Ted from when he was a child, which means they know his secret, but although this was once a source of anxiety, he no longer worries about his transition becoming the subject of gossip. These family friends have let him know in subtle ways that they weren’t surprised to learn that a kid who once went exclusively by their last name and played a different sport each season has grown into the man Ted is today.

Politically, Ted is a Republican who emphasizes that having a strong military and keeping down the national debt are more important than social issues, including LGBTQ rights. When transgender people are in the news, he finds it awkward but largely remains silent when the topic comes up. He says he’d say something to stop it if he saw someone being personally bullied or abused for being gay or trans, but otherwise he’ll keep his thoughts to himself. He agreed to be interviewed because, in his own words, “I just want people to know that we’re just regular people. It’s a medical condition—it doesn’t mean you can’t get a job, get married, have a normal life. People picture Jerry Springer, some crazy situation, but we’re just like anybody else.”

Not all stealth trans guys feel that way. Twenty-five-year-old mechanic Beckham Loupe feels more ambivalent than Ted does about being stealth on the job and is mostly out to his family and friends. A tattooed bloke with a cocky attitude, Beckham does oil changes for an auto body chain and says it’s just easier if the other guys at the shop don’t know. He found this out the hard way, after spending two years as an openly transgender guy at his previous employer. Even though he easily passed with customers and strangers, the other guys knew and all referred to him as “she” and asked overly personal questions about his sex life and plans for surgery, which grew more and more annoying for Beckham the longer it went on. After he left that job, he figured it was easier just not to tell anyone and avoid the feeling of being treated like a freak. Beckham offered to use his real name for this story because he doubts any of the other mechanics will read an article on transgender men in Slate, and because he wants to be a role model for trans men starting down the same path.

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“I run into people who used to know me a lot. I went to school here, played ball here, and nine times of 10 they don’t recognize me. If I want to have a nostalgic moment I’ll, like, gesture them close and clue them in. But most times people don’t recognize me at all, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Beckham has a top-of-the-line prosthetic penis that allows him to use the urinal and men’s locker rooms without issue—he says it took more than a month of practice to get to the point of using it to pee in public but now it’s not something that worries him at all. What does bother him is hearing the homophobic and transphobic comments that others in the shop, particularly his boss, regularly engage in. “In those moments,” he says, “I just want to stand up and say hey, this is who I am—but I would never ever do that.”

Unlike Ted, Beckham’s family has supported and stayed close to him despite his parents having been very homophobic before they knew he was trans. He says he loves the South and never seriously considered living anywhere else. “Southern hospitality is real—people want to help you. Everybody knows you and they’re there to lend a hand. Everyone loves you, until they know a little bit about you, and then they’re all whispering about you at church.”

A third trans man from Tennessee, who asked to be called Finn to preserve his stealth status, remembers having been a lot more negative about the South before he transitioned to male. “I hated the South so much, because of the politics. Tennessee is one of the most beautiful places in this country. It’s a shame the politics are that ugly,” Finn said. “I always shoved off the mantle of what it meant to be a Southern woman, and that’s probably a big part of why I hated it so much. Having transitioned has brought me back to my own culture in a way. I like that a woman expects me to open a door, I like that she expects me to lift heavy things—and I like that I can surprise her by knowing how to cook.”

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Finn describes being very satisfied with the way his life has been going, and credits his transition for helping to get him on the track that he’s on now. “I lived as a lesbian from when I was 14 until I was 23 or 24, and never understood why I didn’t fit in with lesbians. I had knowledge of a trans guy, but I was internally transphobic and it took a while to get over that.”

Keenly aware that many transgender people face familial rejection, Finn says he “hit the jackpot” with his family, who are Christian and lifelong Republicans but tell people they never considered doing anything other than accepting their child for who he was. He also got lucky with his current job, which started covering transgender medical care the day after he accepted a position there. “I didn’t have to ask myself Do I want a hysterectomy, or do I want to buy a house? Do I want kids, or do I want to have a dick?” he says. Although he had to take time off from work for his hysterectomy, he has remained completely stealth on the job and explains that although it was awkward, medical privacy laws have protected him from having to disclose his trans status to his boss. He knows that no one at work has any idea because of one excruciatingly awkward conversation, where a group of co-workers complained about their health insurance covering transgender care while he was in the room.

Dating has been a challenge for Finn ever since a bad breakup with a lesbian woman he was with before his transition started. He avoids putting his trans status in online dating profiles and declines to mention it to prospective partners until he feels they have good chemistry and are likely to become intimate. This helps him avoid having too many people aware of his transition history, but it means that the women he dates aren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, and he still hasn’t found one who was still interested after she found out he was trans. Finn is pursuing genital surgery, which will ultimately allow him to have a functioning phallus, and he’s upbeat at the prospect of feeling more confident around urination and sex after that surgery is complete.

All three men have been able to stay and thrive within the communities where they were raised in large part because they pass as native sons. But this choice comes at the cost of educating people who know and work with them that trans men walk among them every day. Ted, Beckham, and Finn each expressed the hopes that by sharing their stories they would be doing something to help people who think they don’t know anyone who is transgender rethink that assumption, and understand that transgender people are everywhere—trying to make a living and a life, just like everybody else.

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Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.