The month before our wedding, Mitch and I headed down to Office of the City Clerk to apply for our marriage license. The gleaming marble floors in the newly renovated lobby vibrated with tradition and propriety, inspiring awe and humility. The soft echo of the room seemed to send our footsteps back, whispering, “You won’t get away with this.” I tried to shake it off; after all, it was a big moment. I grabbed Mitch’s hand and whispered, “Babe, this is it. We’re getting married.” He smiled back in return, but the corners of his mouth slipped sideways, making him look more constipated than excited.
It was May 2009, two years before New York passed its gay marriage bill and six years before the Supreme Court would rule that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, all states had to allow same-sex marriage. Had we been two women, we would have been unequivocally turned away, but the laws about marriage when one partner was transgender and the other was of the “opposite” sex were murky. Some states, like Ohio, required a gender marker change on your birth certificate in order for such a marriage to be legal but then prohibited transgender people from changing their gender markers—the old we-can-sell-you-the-house-if-you-can-get-a-mortgage-but-we-won’t-give-you-a-mortgage routine. Kansas and Texas specified that no amount of surgery, time spent living in accordance with your chosen gender identity, or document changes would be sufficient to alter your gender in the eyes of the law; basically, if you were designated female at birth, you’d go to your grave designated female where they were concerned.
As far as Mitch and I could tell, the laws in New York were mostly on our side, but vague enough to cause concern. You didn’t need to produce a birth certificate to get a marriage license, but we had heard stories about visibly transgender people being asked to produce one when applying for a license and being denied if they did not. Mitch had changed his gender marker from Female to Male on most of his important documents, but his application for changing his birth certificate had been rejected. It felt like that errant “Female” was floating somewhere, waiting for someone to snatch it out of the sea of consciousness like a message in a bottle, read it, and shout, “Stop! That couple can’t get married!”
After registering at the front desk, we were funneled to a tall, circular table near the entrance. It housed eight computers that faced outward into the room. Mitch and I logged on to side-by-side computers and started typing away. Most of it required no thought: name, address, date of birth, etc. But then I got to the line that had been on my mind for the last few months, a tiny little checkbox next to the words Yes, I will have a new surname.
I had debated a long time about whether to change my name. I was thirty-six, had lived with “Osterman” for my whole life, and was pretty attached to it. And Mitch’s last name, Davis, didn’t suit me. Heather Davis sounds like a woman who happily plays tennis at a country club, attends church on a regular basis, and votes straight-ticket Republican. When Googled, the name comes up with hundreds of hits instead of the handful that Heather Osterman produces—just me and a few others (most notably a Heather ‘Evenstar’ Osterman, who appears to be a pagan witch and doula, and with whom I feel an odd, if unearned, kinship). Mitch wanted me to take his name. Not in an insistent macho way, but he believed that a common name was symbolic of our union, would be a shared word between the two of us and the children we hoped would follow. But to me, it felt too traditional, as if just because he’d legally become a man, it was my role to relinquish my name.
“Why don’t you take my name?” I had asked one night as we sat eating takeout in our living room, passing containers of pad see yew and crispy duck salad back and forth. “It’s not like you even like your family.”
“I’d happily be an Osterman,” he said. “But honestly, I can’t go through it all again.”
As I plucked out a Sriracha- and fish sauce-soaked cashew from the salad, I conceded his point. Mitch had recently switched his female birth name to a chosen male one, a process that involved more than a fair share of painful bureaucracy, beginning with petitioning the court and ending with posting a public announcement advertising the change. This required announcement, which has to include your birth name, your city and date of birth, and your new name, ostensibly helps prevent fraud by giving people a chance to come forward and object. Mitch was mandated to publish his in the New York Amsterdam News, one of the more influential Black-owned and -operated newspapers in the country. Since he is white, this provided a sense of anonymity, as there was less chance of neighbors or potential employers happening upon it in the classifieds, but we wondered if the same could be said for transgender people of color. After no one crawled out of the woodwork to object, he began the process of changing his name and gender markers on everything from his diplomas to his bank accounts.
To change my name because of marriage, I simply had to check the box next to Yes, I will have a new surname and then write the new name in. I’d still have to go through the annoying steps of changing it on my important documents, but when you change your name after marriage, people generally meet you with either congratulations or indifference. When you change your name because you’re changing your assigned gender, people are not always so generous.
When Mitch tried to change the gender marker associated with his Social Security number, it was, at best, a harrowing experience. He’d been able to do the name change through the mail but was required to change the gender marker in person. I didn’t go with Mitch to the Social Security office, but when he arrived home, he looked like an outcast teenager crawling out of a hostile lunchroom after being emotionally and physically beaten.
According to him, when he arrived at the Social Security office, he took a number and sat down in a hard plastic seat while he waited to be called up to one of the many windows lining the front of the room. The office in Queens was cold, sterile, and bathed in the sickly glow of fluorescent lights, making the already sour faces of the waiting crowd appear even more unwelcoming. When his number was finally called, he was greeted by a young woman who took his papers, leafed through them, and then put them down and stared at him.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “What are you trying to do here?”
Mitch explained that he was trying to change the gender marker on his social security account from Female to Male.
“Why?” she asked. “You changed your name months ago. Why do you even need to do this?” The woman frowned, squishing her face into a tight twist.
“What do you mean why?” he asked.
“I mean, WHY? Like why can’t you just keep the Female here?”
Mitch calmly explained that he was finishing graduate school and applying for jobs, and if anyone did a background check, the discrepancy would show up and could prevent him from getting hired. When she pushed back again, he went on to explain that there were no job protections for transgender people in New York. Later, I asked him why he had bothered, why he felt he needed to justify anything to her. He said, at that point, she honestly just seemed like she wanted to know, and he hoped it might help her understand, which could benefit someone else down the line.
“I don’t know what to do with this,” she said, waving his papers in front of him. “I just don’t know.” And then she turned around and walked away from the window, disappearing into the back. Mitch waited an interminable five minutes, but she did not return. Then, one by one, all of the clerks at the long row of windows stretching out on either side of him sent the people they were helping back to their seats and pulled down the metal screens in front of their windows, shutting them with a loud bang. Then there was just Mitch, standing alone at his window, hundreds of curious eyes focused on his back.
He continued to stand there, minute after minute, back ramrod straight, looking ahead at the empty window, refusing to turn around and face the maelstrom of curiosity and impatience brewing behind him. It was close to twenty minutes before she returned, and then shortly thereafter, the others came back, sliding their windows up one by one. Holding the papers in front of her like a shield, the clerk explained that they had had to call Washington, DC, because they had never had to do this before and weren’t sure how to proceed. Apparently, all the other clerks had been called into an emergency meeting where they discussed the protocol and how others should deal with it in the future. Why this required an immediate training—as if Mitch had called for backup from a trans army, who would be arriving any moment, in full force, demanding their own changed cards—was left unclear. She grudgingly completed his paperwork and handed it back to him, saying, “I still don’t think this is right, but here you go.”
Asking him to go through another round of name-changing seemed cruel. But I still felt as if I was being pushed into something just because he had a hardship. Changing my name felt like a form of political and personal identity loss. But why? Would I have been more likely to change my name if he’d still been living as a woman? Why did changing my name have to mean giving in, like it was some failure of feminism and self? He didn’t view my taking his name as becoming his property, so why did I? Wasn’t what we were doing revolutionary enough? Eventually, I decided that while I wasn’t ready to let go of my name entirely, it would be a romantic gesture to hyphenate our names, welding his Davis onto my Osterman with a neat little punctuation mark to show we were still two separate people. I didn’t tell him, partially because I wanted to reserve the right to back out at the last minute but also because I thought it would be a nice surprise when we applied for our marriage license. Typing in Osterman-Davis under new surname in the echoing cavern of the City Clerk’s office, I felt a jolt of excitement.
But I hadn’t realized how tension-filled and anxiety-ridden the whole application process would be. And while we both felt this panic, it was stronger for Mitch. For him, it was symbolic of the system still being able to say, “You might think you’re male, but you’ll never be male enough.”
We sat down at a low marble counter facing two computers and handed our ticket to the woman behind the counter. She typed away at her own computer before our forms appeared on the two monitors facing us. At the bottom of my screen, Osterman-Davis sat quietly, bold black type against the white glow, waiting for him to notice.
“Is all the information correct?” the woman asked, looking at us sternly.
“Can you check mine, too?” I asked Mitch.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” he said, his body rigid.
“Can you just look?” I urged. “Make sure nothing’s wrong.”
“You know your info better than me. I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Just look at the fucking screen,” I said, jabbing my finger at the monitor.
He looked over, saw the name, and gave me a weak smile before turning back to the clerk. “It’s all correct.”
So much for romance.
The woman handed us a ticket with a number on it, and, clutching it, we sat down on one of the long wooden benches lining the wall. They looked as if they had been repurposed from a nearby courtroom, and we sat there quietly, knees pressed together, waiting for our verdict. The whole room was a tableau of waiting: couples leaning quietly into each other; larger, rowdier groups chatting away; and others glancing at watches as if this was just a minor irritation in their day. You could tell immediately who was getting married. Women were dressed in everything from casual cotton shifts to bright purple ball gowns that made them look as if they’d gotten lost on their way home from prom and somehow ended up here. They clutched anything from a single lily to a full bouquet of red roses. It felt like the arrivals hall at JFK, every race and age represented, except all seemingly heterosexual. I felt like an interloper, as if we were hidden, flying “stealth.”
The definition of stealth varies, depending on where you look it up. According to Dictionary.com, it means “surreptitious; secret; not openly acknowledged.” Urban Dictionary offers an alternative definition related specifically to transgender people: “where a fully transitioned person lives completely as their new gender and does not reveal that they are transsexual.” But what does it mean to be “fully” transitioned? What amount of hormones or surgery earns a person that designation? And I don’t believe any of us live “completely” as anything; instead, we reveal and display parts of our selves like a flip book, individual pictures partially obscured, blurring into a whole but incomplete picture. Aren’t we all stealth? Why should gender identity get singled out? Why is being transgender so threatening that the act of not revealing it merits its own word—and one mired in negativity at that? People don’t order coffee and share that they grew up in poverty but can now afford daily cappuccinos or that they failed tenth-grade biology but went on to medical school. Even if our pasts are relevant to our current selves, they’re not necessarily someone else’s to hold. And I was not trans, but I was sometimes stealth. It was new to be seen as straight when I was out with Mitch. I missed passing other queers on the street, getting that easy smile, that “gay nod,” that quick flash that a little part of me knows a little part of you, even if our lives only superficially intersect. But here we were, benefiting from the flip side of the coin. Being stealth allowed us the privilege of getting legally married while so many of our friends couldn’t. Or at least we hoped we would be allowed to marry. But along with the privilege that comes with being stealth, whether intentional or not, comes the fear of potential repercussions from being found out. In many ways, this was relatively low stakes. After all, it was “just marriage,” while for many transgender people, it is literally life and death. But the anxiety comes from a similar place, from walking the line between being “out” and being stealth or closeted in a world that can punish you for either decision.
After fifteen minutes or so, our number flashed on the board. We walked over to the final station in silence and sat down. The woman behind the counter glowered at us. “Mitchell Davis and Heather Osterman?”
“Yes,” I said, reaching out for Mitch’s hand. He grabbed mine, his palm slick with sweat.
“Congratulations,” she said, breaking into a half-smile. “Here’s your license.”
We left, clutching our piece of paper, wanting to get as far away as possible, as if a crazed clerk might run after us shouting, “Stop! Wait! There’s been a mistake.”
We were married a month later, in a light-filled venue at the southern tip of Manhattan, overlooking the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It felt simultaneously perfect and odd to hear, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” A few months after the wedding, as my mom and I were leafing through our wedding album, I paused on the photo of her and my dad walking me down the aisle. “I bet you never thought I’d have such a straight wedding, huh?”
“I’d hardly call it straight,” she said. “I mean, you had a man as a bridesmaid, that little woman in the tux as a groomsman, not to mention all of the tattoos, the spiked hair, and the women in suits. It was certainly unique.”
If the courts had witnessed our wedding, I imagine they would have taken our license back, thought, something is wrong here. We bring drips and drabs of ourselves everywhere. Maybe there’s no way for any of us ever to be truly stealth unless we’re willing to leave behind everything and everyone we have ever known.
After our first child was born, it felt as if our “queer” identity almost entirely disappeared. Many of our new parent friends didn’t know our history, and when we walked down the street in Greenwich Village, we appeared to be your average white heterosexual couple with a kid. But even harder than adjusting to not being “seen” was realizing that the way our gaze was perceived was radically altered, too. Where our lingering glance might once have been seen as supportive, now it could be interpreted as a threat.
Thirty-eight weeks into my second pregnancy, I stopped feeling the baby move. I drank a big glass of juice, ate half a Twix, lay down on my right side, and waited. This is supposedly the magic recipe for making a fetus go crazy. Nothing happened. After thirty minutes, I gave up and lugged my body out of bed. That afternoon, I went to the doctor for an ultrasound. I held my breath as she pressed the wand hard against my belly, sliding it through a pile of thick warm gel, until suddenly, mercifully, the heartbeat exploded out of the speaker as the image of my baby came into view in the small black-and-white screen.
“Well,” my doctor said, peering closely at the monitor, “everything looks good, but I’d like to send you for a follow-up to be sure.” She left the room for a minute and poked her head back in. “If you can get there in twenty minutes, they’ll take you now.”
Outside, I started waddling at pregnancy-top-speed, cutting through a tiny park. Walking toward me were two women, both black, one short and plump, and the other a tall, thin transgender woman with long, thin braids, wearing dark-gray Lycra leggings with clouds on them. I stared at the tall woman until her friend yelled at me, “What are you looking at, bitch?”
To be fair, I had been staring, but only because I’d seen her doppelganger getting on an uptown train in the subway station as I headed downtown on my way to the doctor’s. From their braids, height, skin color, down to the cloud-covered Lycra pants, they were virtually identical. I knew it couldn’t be the same person, both because the first woman had been heading the opposite direction and because I was fairly certain she hadn’t been transgender. But in the moment, riddled with anxiety and walking fast in the opposite direction, all I could manage was, “Not at you. I’m thirty-eight weeks pregnant and might be having a goddamn miscarriage. This shit is not about you!”
The woman who had shouted at me looked shocked. They moved on in one direction, and I wobbled off in the other, muttering to myself like a mental patient, as other pedestrians stared at me with some combination of disdain and awe. I made it to the hospital just before they closed. All my tests were fine, and they sent me home.
But for months and months afterward, I replayed that encounter in my mind. Everything about it bothered me. I was disturbed that I’d left one or both of the women feeling judged, and angry that I’d been seen as a transphobic outsider, though I imagine I’d been long forgotten, a blip in a string of negative encounters. Reimagining the scene, I stop and confront them, sometimes apologetic, other times angry and defensive. “You don’t know me. I was fighting for gay rights before you were a fetus. My husband is trans; my children’s donors are gay. I’ve been called faggot and dyke, been chased down a street, and been scared to get out of the car at rest stops on road trips, so back off.” But to what end? The newness of our privilege doesn’t erase it, and my past hurts don’t mitigate their present ones. I suspect that all the short woman saw was yet another white straight person with a threatening gaze, and she wanted to protect her friend. I get this. I respect it. I’ve been that friend—defensive and protective of someone I love, demanding, “What are you looking at?” But mostly I imagine that I just stopped and apologized, told them about the mysterious coincidence of those crazy cloud pants, and said, “I think you’re beautiful and brave, even though I hate it when people use the word brave to describe choosing to live in truth.” Maybe we all would have smiled and continued on our ways, happy and—more important—seen.
Our disappearance is about more than a loss of identity. It is bigger than us. According to some estimates, more than 50 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide by their twentieth birthday. In one survey, more than half of LGBT undergraduate students admitted concealing their sexual identity or gender orientation in order to avoid intimidation. These statistics make my heart hurt.
While I’m neither naïve nor hubristic enough to believe that telling our narrative will change the world, I do believe that transgender visibility matters. We need the stories of those who have suffered, but also of those who have thrived.
If I thought a single life could be saved by our sharing our truth, I would open my book to the rawest, deepest pages and say to anyone who would listen, “Look. Here’s my story. In all its ugliness and all its beauty.”
Still, in other moments, I reserve the right to hold it all for myself. And that is not “secret” or “surreptitious.” It is not stealth. It is human.