Some Quick Thoughts on “Passing”

In a recent interview Janet Mock talks about the concept of “passing”:

I have such a difficult time with the concept of “passing” because I feel it gives this idea that there’s some kind of deception or trickery involved in our identities. I am a woman, people perceive me as a woman, and when I walk on the street, I am not “passing” as anything. I am merely being myself. Often, my trans-ness does not lead the way when I walk into spaces and that allows me safety and anonymity. And because trans people are marked as illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection – and this is a major burden for many trans people, a burden that I often do not have to carry in every space I enter because of the way that I look. Our safety should not be based on the way that we look.

What I find interesting in this passage is the idea that the very notion or phrase of “passing” is problematic.

If it’s so problematic, why are so, so many trans people seemingly obsessed with the idea of passing? Why is /r/transpassing one of the most popular trans-related subreddits on reddit? If a trans woman cares about passing, does that mean they believe they are interested in being deceptive? I think the problematic nature of passing is more complicated than Mock suggests because trans people seem to have a love/hate relationship with the whole idea of passing. In my limited experience. trans people seem to recognize the problems built into the concept but nevertheless the concept has a central place in many trans’ people’s heads. This is an interesting tension.

On the one hand, I have seen plenty of pre-transition trans people say they will only transition if they believe they will fully pass. This suggests that for some trans people passing is not just some accidental side-effect of transition but rather their whole reason of transition, the telos or purpose of transition, to pass as a cis person, to not be noticeably trans. If they cant pass 100% then they would consider their transition a “failure”.

On the other hand, Mock is right to point out the cisnormative assumptions built into the concept of passing. I think she is right that the concept of passing implicitly assumes that being cis is “good” and being noticeably trans is “bad” when in a perfect world it would not matter if someone could tell you were trans just by looking at you. But as it is we don’t live in a perfect world – we live in a world where being read as trans can expose you to violence, harassment, and discrimination. It’s not pretty. So passing is not just a side-effect – it’s a defense mechanism against our transphobic society. If society was less transphobic then I would bet that trans people would be less obsessed with passing.

Mock points out that our safety should not be based on how we look. Correct. But unfortunately our safety often does depend on passing. Until it doesn’t, trans people will have a complex relationship with the idea of passing.

Some days I feel very bad about myself because I have my doubts about if I will ever pass due to my face and my voice. Other days I develop a more “fuck passing” kind of mentality where I try to refuse to accept the cisnormative imposition telling me I need to look a certain way or sound a certain way to be accepted by society. It’s hard to know the deep rootedness of my dysphoria because of this tension. Do I care about passing so much because my own body dysphoria is telling me I am intrinsically unhappy with my body/voice? Or do I only care about passing so much because I want to fit into society without having to deal with the anxiety of being read as trans everywhere I go? Honestly, Im not sure. I think it’s probably a mixture of both.

It’s the same way with genital confirmation surgery (GCS) for trans women. I’ve heard some trans women say that they do not have real genital dysphoria (meaning their genitals do not cause them distress) but that they nevertheless want GCS because of fears of dealing with the medical establishment or the TSA and the problems associated with having breasts and a penis simultaneously. So it is the transphobia of our culture that can directly impinge on our bodies and affect our dysphoria. This is what makes passing so complicated. It’s the intersection of the individual and society.

All I really hope is that as more people are being made aware of the existence of trans people we will start to see more media representation of “non-passing” trans people so that we can start to undermine people’s expectations of what it means to be trans and eventually trans people will feel less pressure to pass as they decide whether they want to transition – we need to change the “conditions of satisfaction” of what it means for a transition to be “successful”. How many super tall trans women are discouraged from transition because they think they will never pass? How many people are going to have to live with their dysphoria for the rest of their lives untreated because of the worry that they will never pass? While I am skeptical trans people are somehow going to simply move away from the concept of passing being central to everyday trans-narratives anytime soon – I am glad to see more and more discussion of the problems of the concept of passing – which hopefully will translate into more trans people accepting themselves as they are.

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