I was afraid for the longest time. I never wanted to admit that I was a trans woman. I had my own internal transphobia. In fact, when I encounter new people and the subject of my trans identity comes up, usually the first question they ask is, "When did you know you were trans?" Well, that's the thing. I didn't know I was trans.
I knew at a very young age, around 5, that I was a girl. Trans was not even in my vocabulary. When I made the decision to transition, I was in my teens, and I packed my bags and moved away to Los Angeles. Since no one knew who I was, my past or my family, it was easy for me to start a new life. In a way, I lived in the fairy tale that I always dreamed of. City life, great friends, cool job, and a loving boyfriend. To live my life as a woman was all that I ever wanted, and I achieved it successfully. In the trans community, we call this living "stealth." Because I look a certain way, I "pass" and have the privilege to disclose as very little as I want. So for many years, I hid my gender history from friends, colleagues, and my entire network here in this new city.
I realised that I was preventing myself from connecting deeply with the people that I loved.
After living like this for more than 10 years, some things started to no longer sit well with me. It happened the most in the moments when I would hang out with my girlfriends. We would start talking about high school crushes or childhood games we used to play. I would avoid delving into any details because I didn't want to reveal that I had a very different upbringing than they did. Or when my boyfriend at the time would ask to see a childhood photo of me but I didn't have anything to show. I had trashed most of all the old photos I had, because I was ashamed of how I used to be. In those moments, I would hide by revising the past a little. If that felt too hard to do, then I would try to change the subject. Eventually, I realised that I was preventing myself from connecting deeply with the people that I loved. And If I truly love them, shouldn't I give them the consideration of knowing who I truly am?
After this epiphany, I got myself into therapy and I attended a support group at the LGBT centre. I also started working on the show Transparent. The creators and producers of the the show, Jill Soloway, Zackary Drucker, and Rhys Ernst, gave me the opportunity to be 100 percent my authentic self in a professional working environment. For the first time in my life, I was living out loud and proud as as a trans woman. I came out to my friends and loved ones, and they were all very supportive. I learned a language that gave me a voice, which I used to articulate my story and advocate for my community. I am very proud to be a part of show that treats me like family and allows me the space to flourish creatively. As an actress and aspiring writer/director, I felt like my career was on the rise, which is not an easy feeling to get to in this industry. My short film Ryans is a success and continues to have a life of its own. And I started booking more acting gigs. I also have a new short film coming out this Summer.
But things started to change after the November 2016 election and Donald Trump got into office. I started to get a sinking feeling. It would come when I read on the news that another trans sister of colour had been murdered. I felt it after the shooting in Orlando, which happened one day before LA Pride. My Transparent family and I were scheduled be on a float to celebrate. That feeling surmounted to an unbearable pain of loss and fear. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was being attacked personally. That my family — my community — was in danger of losing everything our transcestors worked so hard for. In addition to that, I was still auditioning for roles that continued to tokenise trans people.
Suddenly, I felt powerless.
I was in my third year of working on Transparent, and I was considering quitting. Not just the job itself, but I was considering quitting being an out and proud trans leader, which some people in my community consider me to be. I was considering going back to living stealth. I started to feel the weight that many of my brothers and sisters have felt for a very long time. Living in stealth was a time when I didn't feel targeted. A time where I was marginalised just as an Asian-American woman and not an Asian-American trans woman. To go back to that meant that I would feel somewhat safe again. Less targeted, less attacked, but also less "woke." Did I really want to go back to being ignorant?
"I'm not here to be your token."
I started to watch Gavin Grimm, who's become the revolutionary of a new generation. To see him speak so articulately, at such a young age, with such passion and dignity was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I saw my soul, my mind, and all of my feelings in him. I even saw that strength which I thought I was losing. Then, I booked the role of Coco on the TV Land series Lopez, a role that every trans actress I knew in town auditioned for. That was the light shining through. As Coco, I got to say on national television, "I'm not here to be your token." A line that speaks volumes for me and my community. It fuelled me. After playing that role and working on Transparent for three years and after several articles written about my short film Ryans, I realized I was stamping myself as trans, and there was no way I could go back to living stealth. It was no longer an option.
You can google my name and the first stamp you would see is "Transgender actress Rain Valdez." Then I realised that Gavin Grimm has also gone too far to ever consider living stealth. If he ever wanted to, he would have to go the lengths of changing his name and appearance and possibly moving to a different country. And if this was a conversation I was having with him, we would both laugh because that's something we would never do.
My years living stealth were a privilege. Safety and ignorance is a privilege. If not everyone in my community can have that choice, then why should I? This is the moment I felt proudest as an out trans woman. The moment I realised I can never go back because of the stamps I've been creating for myself. Instead of fear or disappointment, it gave me peace to know that there can no longer be room in my heart and soul for my own internal transphobia. There's no more room for hesitation when it comes to my part in our fight for equality. Going stealth would not solve anything, at least not for me.
I can finally move on and leave those years behind me. I can be the strength and voice my community (and this Hollywood industry) needs me to be. Whether it's through our art, or storytelling, or political advocacy, we will overcome. And when we do, we will find a future where the violence against trans women is significantly reduced and our homeless youth — about 40 percent of which identify as LGBTQ — has a place of love and shelter, and the men who love us privately will be professing and confessing their love for us on the mountain tops. They can throw as many opposing laws against us now, but really they're just giving us more obstacles to master. We have more patience than you can ever imagine, and because we've always existed and will continue to exist, we will master these obstacles. Just like we always have before.