This is the math of transition as a public or even marginally public figure: You talk about it or you don’t, but other people will talk about it either way.
My relationship to my own visibility has never been easy, nor particularly healthy. I am an intensely private person — and honestly, private is the nice word for what I am. Secretive would be more accurate; on bad days, paranoid.
Which is to say: I am not, as a rule, someone who shares the most personal aspects of my life with a wide and largely anonymous audience.
As an editor, I cultivated invisibility as a credential, a professional accomplishment. As a bullied kid, and later as a woman writing about geek culture and media on the internet, I cultivated it as a sort of hopeless baseball magic, a means of survival, the only way I could find to let my work speak for itself.
(I suspect this is a common lesson, especially for people who are visibly different from the status quo. Straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied men get to be ciphers; the rest of us — and our work — are defined first and foremost by our points of deviation. There are authors, and there are female authors or trans authors or queer authors or black authors or authors who are more of those or any number of other things.)
When I was on staff at Wired, I kept a handwritten sign with the dictum “Always the lens, never the subject” pinned above my desk. I got into argument after argument with my editors about first-person headlines. They wanted them; I didn’t. I would dig in my heels as hard as I could, suggest dozens of other options: anything but that dreaded I. I made up excuses, even if I couldn’t quite articulate my real reasons: It sounds trashy and confessional. We’re Wired, not XOJane, for fuck’s sake. It’s misleading — the only parts of the piece that are actually about me are a few brief and mostly irrelevant framing paragraphs. This article isn’t about me. Nothing is about me.
This column is about me.
“You’re so brave,” a friend writes. I see it in links, hear it from friends and family and strangers: that I am brave to write this. Brave to talk about it. Brave to expose so personal a part of myself in so public a venue.
I don’t feel brave. I feel tired. Frustrated. Angry. Resentful: that there is no way for me to do this in private.
I don’t write this column because I’m brave. I write this column because I’m scared to lose control of my own narrative.
There are structures to transition. Ways you’re supposed to do it. Conversations to have with your friends and family and colleagues; things you’re supposed to ask of them.
None of those frameworks presupposes public visibility.
By the time I came out, I had been writing professionally for two and a half years. I had a podcast with 15,000 listeners, with my name in the title. I had a decade of editorial and authorial credits. These things are my identity and my reality as much as my gender.
I am not transitioning in a vacuum, and the economics are daunting. I am carrying a career, a byline whose search-engine continuity is my livelihood. Changing my name means rebranding my life, my work, my projects. If I pursue hormonal transition, my voice will change in front of a five-figure audience. If I change my editorial credits to Jay, I erase the decade I spent working as a visible woman in a male-dominated industry.
There are other considerations, too: Because I write and talk about queer and trans issues, I get letters from scared kids trying to figure out how to come out to their parents. Some of them use the phrase “role model,” and for a few days after reading their words, every choice, ever disclosure feels like it counts double.
I came out publicly in November of 2015, by way of my Halloween costume. This was not an accident. I wanted my transition to be a footnote, an afterthought couched in self-parody. Peak Jay: coming out via a Speed Racer costume and a critical essay.
A few days later, I came out on the podcast, in our weekly video reviews. In both venues, I was scrupulously careful to keep the information practical: name, pronouns, whether and how and when the title would change, what to expect over the next few episodes.
And the responses were good. It wasn’t surprising — we’d cultivated an audience that skewed toward radical acceptance, one that was itself disproportionately queer.
Hell, it took four whole months for me to stumble across the first discussion of my genitalia.
The thread itself wasn’t so bad, I guess. It wasn’t exactly anything I hadn’t seen before, or wasn’t prepared for. But in a small and ugly way, it’s still the realization of my deepest fears: that once I’m visible, what I am will always and inevitably eclipse what I have to say. No matter what I achieve professionally, it’ll never be as entertaining or relevant as what I may or may not have in my pants.
To be trans is to lose a veneer of privacy most people take for granted. It’s endlessly correcting pronouns and gendered terms — and if, like me, you don’t pass, outing yourself in the process. It’s invasive questions from relative strangers. It’s a culture that suddenly feels entitled to question and comment on the most intimate and private aspects of your body, your identity, your life and relationships, the state of your marriage. It’s checking search terms for a podcast about the X-Men and coming up with “when did jay rachel come out as transgender”; “is rachel edidin trans”; “rachel jay edidin trans surgery”; “are rachel edington and miles stokes divorcing.” It’s getting messages from strangers asking about whether my transition “queers” my husband.
It’s choosing to write a column about it, because it’s the only tool I have for wrestling back control of my story. Because if I have to put up with you talking about it anyway, I might as well get paid for it.
To my surprise, “How to Be a Guy” has so far been a mostly positive experience. It’s terrifying, every time, but it’s also freeing. I get to choose how much you see, how far back the curtain goes. I get to balance the raw, personal parts with the crunchy theory that’s my usual safe zone.
And I get a voice, one that’s mine to an extent I’ve never really allowed myself before. Writing online, Rachel was all about carefully choreographed presentation, misdirection: Look at the words, not the speaker. The mere fact of being Jay exposes me to an extent that makes the extra layers of secrecy feel superfluous: After all, you already know the most personal thing about me. What are a few more insecurities, after that?