There were no signs

(Content warning: slurs)

Many LGBT+ people who’ve come out have been told by friends or family, with some bafflement, that there “weren’t any signs” that they were gay or trans. And I think that’s really interesting, because I think there are two main reasons for that. The first is that the signs people expect are often based on stereotypes. And the second is because many people – not all LGBT+ people, but many of us – make damn sure we don’t reveal who we are if we haven’t come out.

Let’s start with the stereotypes. When the only LGBT+ people portrayed in the media are from a particular mould – trans women but not trans men; straight trans women who fancy men but not gay trans women who love women; gay men who are hyper-camp but never gay men who are hyper-masculine, and so on – then many LGBT+ people simply don’t match the stereotypes people expect us to be. And in the case of trans women there’s the added confusion of drag. How could I have been trans when I didn’t spend my teens strutting down the high street dressed like RuPaul and destroying the locals with my savage drag queen wit?

If those are the signs you’re looking for, then no. There were no signs.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. It’s something Zoe Violet writes about in this poem for Tacoma West, “When you come out as trans and your mom says ‘there were no signs’”. Here’s an extract:

But of course, there were no signs
There were no signs because
She was the city planner
She was the civil engineer
…She plastered you with circles and arrows
Posted warnings and named all the places

This isn’t exclusively a trans or LGBT+ thing, of course. As a parent I’m acutely aware that I’m the town planner and enforcer of my kids’ environment, and there are all kinds of ways in which I can make it clear what is and is not acceptable. And words are only a small part of it. What we do can undermine what we say: for example, a friend of mine was told through her early teens that no matter what she was going through, she could talk to her mum about it free from judgement or censure. And when she told her mum she’d started birth control before turning 16, her mum went ballistic. She didn’t confide in her mum ever again.

It’s not usually that blatant, though. It’s something we tend to absorb by osmosis. It’s in how the people around us react to things, such as a boy wanting to wear nail polish or a girl who doesn’t want to do stereotypically girlish things. It’s in the jokes others tell and the sitcoms they laugh at, the churches the kids are taken to, the clothes allowed and the behaviours discouraged, the newspapers bought and the books left lying around, in the conversations kids overhear and in the phrases they learn (man up, be brave, boys don’t cry, good girls don’t, if you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about), in the friends on the approved list and the ones excluded from it.

As the cartoonist Sophie Labelle put it, every time you laugh at the idea of a man dressed as a woman, a trans girl gets more scared to come out.

Cartoon by Sophie Labelle: every time you laugh at the idea of a man dressed as a woman a trans girl becomes more scared to come out

And then there’s school. As Michael Franti of rap group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy wrote in The Language of Violence:

The first day of school was always the hardest
The first day of school, the hallways the darkest
Like a gauntlet the voices haunted
Walking in with his thin skin, lowered chin
He knew the names that they would taunt him with
Faggot, sissy, punk, queen, queer
Although he’d never had sex in his 15 years

Collectively these are the circles, arrows and posted warnings of Violet’s poem: they set out the territory we inhabit and tell us where the boundaries are. Some people become enforcers of those boundaries, and others become their victims. At school, LGBT+ people are much more likely to experience bullying; outside of it, they are much more likely to experience hate crimes, sexual assault and discrimination of all kinds. In our cities, LGBT+ people account for a disproportionate number of homeless people; they’re more likely than straight, cisgender teens to be made homeless by their parents or to be fleeing parental violence.

You don’t need to have experienced these things directly to understand them. When every road and every junction is plastered with warnings, you know very well what might await you should you fail to follow the permitted path – or if you show any signs that you might be considering a different route.