Is the Very Concept of “Passing” Problematic?

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If you hang out in trans circles long enough you start to realize the controversy surrounding the concept of “passing”. First off, what is “passing”? Typically, for a trans woman to “pass” is for strangers to not realize they were assigned male at birth. In other words, for a trans woman to “pass” is for the random passerby to think she’s cisgender i.e. not trans. For this reason, some theorists talk about “cis-passing” because that’s exactly what it is: passing for a cis person when in fact you are not cis.

And therein lies the controversy: why should cis people be the standard through which we define and understand the appearance of trans folks? To say that cis people are the ultimate standard is to buy into the whole concept of cis-normativity, which is the idea that cis people’s genders are more valid and real than the genders of trans people. Furthermore, the concept of passing implies that we are trying to “pass ourselves off” as something we are not. Thus, to “pass” can imply that we are being deceptive. A trans woman walks into a woman’s restroom and “passes” – does this mean she was pretending to be cis to enter the bathroom?

But that’s false: trans people are not being deceptive simply in virtue of walking down the street. How could we be deceptive when we are just trying to be ourselves? When I go to the grocery store I am not “pretending” to be cis and have zero intention of deceiving anybody. This is the dilemma that trans people face when we have to “come out” to people. Cis people often view this in terms of duplicity but that places trans people in a double-bind. Should we be expected to wear a sign on our heads? There is no way to be “non-duplicitous” in virtue of just being ourselves. I am not constantly lying with every footstep I take in public. I’m just being myself.

But there’s a conundrum here which is that trans people, including myself, go out of our way to “pass more” or “pass better” in many circumstances. When I go to the drive-through I try to pitch my voice up higher than normal in order to get gendered female over the intercom. Does this mean I was “faking it” in order to pass myself off as something I’m not? If you look at forums like reddit’s /r/transpassing it’s very clear that the vast majority of trans people, if not ALL trans people, care about passing to some extent. If they pass already, that’s great – they’re happy. And if they don’t pass, that’s a reason for much consternation. The belief that one will never pass can actually be a reason for some trans people to decide to not transition at all.

And there are very good reasons for trans people to care about passing. First and foremost, it’s about our safety. If you pass you are said to be able to “blend into society”. If you don’t pass, you stick out and are at greater risk for transphobic violence or harassment. This is especially true for trans women. Sex workers who are “found out” to be trans are often at risk of extreme violence from men. To pass as cis to be safe. To be visibly trans is to be less safe. So it’s quite rational to care about passing from a pragmatic safety perspective, especially if you are on the trans femme spectrum.

Not passing is also the source of much of gender dysphoria. If you’re a non-passing trans women , i.e. everyone can tell you’re trans by looking at you or talking to you, this can be a source of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Why? Well it’s simple. First off, if you don’t pass you’re more likely to get misgendered, which is painful for trans people. Second, if you don’t pass then that means people in society are less likely to see you as your true gender. Third, if you don’t pass, then your body does not align with your desires with respect to having the characteristics of the “opposite sex”, which leads to dysphoria aka suffering. BUT WAIT.

Weren’t we just saying before that cis people should not be the standard by which the appearance of trans people should be judged? Why are cis people the standard? Why can’t trans people be judged with respect to their own standard? One of the deepest symptoms of transphobia is to think that more you pass the more valid your gender is and the less you pass the less valid or real your gender is. When we see a non-passing trans woman transphobic people are likely to think “that’s a man” because she does not pass. It requires a great deal of internal mental work to correctly internally gender trans people who do not pass because it is ingrained in our minds that men and women are “supposed” to look a certain way. A 6’5 300 lbs broad shouldered trans woman with a deep voice is automatically thought to be “less valid” than a petite attractive passing trans woman.

And therelin lies the problematic nature of the very concept of “passing”. The whole concept reduces gender to a certain set of physical traits. If you don’t meet some checklist of physical traits that are stereotypically associated with a certain gender, then your own gender is up for question. Why that is problematic should be obvious. The validity of anyone’s gender should never be reduced to the question of having certain physical traits. If a trans woman has a deep voice that does not make her less of a woman. Or at least that’s how things should work in an ideal world. But in the actual world cis people seem to have a problem properly internally gendering someone who does not pass. Sure, the good ones might gain a mastery of pronouns and be respectful but there’s always the lagging issue of what they “really” think – of how they are internally gendering someone. It’s quite possible for someone to use she/her pronouns for a trans woman but deep down see her as a man because she doesn’t pass perfectly. And if you think this is just a cisgender phenomenon then you are mistaken because trans people can also be deeply transphobic and harbor the same biases against nonpassing trans people. I’ve seen this in the community over and over, especially in the older generation of trans people who had to make it through the gatekeeping system in order to transition, a gatekeeping system that used to deny HRT/surgery to trans people who weren’t deemed passable enough or didn’t have enough passing potential.

So is the concept of “passing” deeply problematic? Yes and no. Should we do away with the concept altogether? I don’t think so. Clearly passing is important to the trans community. Just looking on online communities should make it obvious that most if not all trans people care deeply about how well they pass to some extent. But on the flip side I think it is our imperative to spread the message that our validity does not depend on how well we pass. We need to also spread the message that non-passing trans people can still be happy, find jobs, be romantically loved, and live successful, fulfilling lives. Passing should not be the gold standard by which we judge someone’s success in transition. However, we cannot ignore the fact that passing trans people have it much easier in our society than nonpassing trans people. If you watch the cis media, usually the trans people interviewed or recognized are highly passing trans people, which is unrepresentative of the whole trans community (this is especially true for the community of trans women, but less true for the trans male community which often has an easier time passing after years of testosterone). We need to do a better job to normalize nonpassing trans people as being “just as trans” as their passing counterparts. A holdover of the “true trans” era of medical gatekeeping is that “true transsexuals” were believed to be more passable than the people who are not “true transsexuals”. But the quest to define who is “truly trans” is a fool’s game – not one worth pursuing because you will inevitably exclude people based on arbitrary criteria such as your height or the deepness of your voice.

Passing is important. And I don’t think using substitute terms like “blending” are really going to by-pass the importance of passing to the trans community. But as we’ve seen the concept is also deeply problematic insofar as it implies deception and reinforces cis-normativity. Many if not most trans people wish they were cis but that’s not true of all trans people. Many trans people are happy being trans and wouldn’t change it for the world. I kind of fall into the later camp. It’s beyond this post to explain in detail why I love being trans, but part of it comes from my intrinsic distaste for normality. I like being different and different I am – I am not your average woman. But many trans people crave normality. They just want to be a normal man or woman in this society. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s also nothing intrinsically wrong with being trans. It’s not an intrinsically horrible life, even in you’re nonpassing. Sure, living in a transphobic society can make being trans horrible – violence, loss of friends, job, family, harassment, discrimination, lack of healthcare, etc. – all these things can make being trans a nightmare. But those things are not intrinsic to being trans – they are a product of the society we live in. If society was lurched forward hundreds of years and trans people became widely accepted in society then things would be much different. The suicide rate would surely go down. Because being trans is not an intrinsically horrible experience. There are many horrible aspects of being trans such as dealing with dysphoria. But in a perfect society, we would be able to use technology to deal with dysphoria such that it would be drastically reduced in most trans people, especially by letting trans kids get access to blockers and start HRT before becoming masculinized/feminized by puberty. Greater awareness of trans people would give trans kids role models through which to identify and the average age of transition would probably go down, making HRT more effective and increasing the chances of dysphoria reducing.

So no, I don’t think the concept of passing is inherently problematic because it’s the only way to adequately deal with gender dysphoria. If passing made no sense conceptually then the concept of gender dysphoria would also be incoherent. But dysphoria is critical to understanding the trans experience and thus passing is critical as well. But we need to realize that passing is not the end-all-be-all of our identities. Nonpassing trans people deserve respect and deserve to have their genders recognized without emulating the cis-body perfectly. Trans people should not measure their intrinsic worth as people by how well they can pass as cisgender. I know plenty of nonpassing trans women who are happy being their authentic selves and go about their life like anyone else without too much concern for whether they pass perfectly. These women are role models on how to live successfully in a society that can be cruel and harsh to non-normative people. And furthermore, we need to spread the message in Laverne Cox’s hashtasg #transisbeautiful, which is that trans people are beautiful not just when they pass for cis, but rather, they are beautiful in virtue of not passing as cis.

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16 Comments

Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

16 responses to “Is the Very Concept of “Passing” Problematic?

  1. Macabre Mim

    Please. We pass not only to feel better about ourselves, but to survive. In a Trump world, being clocked is more than an inconvenience- it’s a real and present risk that leads to being attacked and even murdered.

    Talk pretty words all you like, but passing is about survival. In the most literal sense imaginable.

    Like

    • Tori

      You have not lived in a trump world yet, and thus have no factual basis for that statement. We have lived in a violent world already, with 24 transgender deaths this year so far. Having someone new in office is not going to change that.

      Stop trying to be a cis-gender clone, and just be.

      Like

      • TaltosGirl

        Exactly Tori. Just be. Just be yourself. If your self is very feminine, be that. Of your self is very masculine, be that. Wherever your self is in between, thats great to.

        Meanwhile demeaning people who end up on one end of the scale by calling them “cis clones” is a rather sad example of oppressing people in one’s own group.

        Let people be happy with themselves.

        Liked by 2 people

      • TaltosGirl, it would not let me reply directly to you for some reason, so here it is.

        It was not an attempt to demean the person. It was simply a response to a non-nonsensical political statement. I apologize if it was interpreted that way.

        I happen to live in a very accepting city, Orlando. I have been transitioning since the end of January, but out 24/7 since the Pulse shooting. I took that event as a challenge to be myself, and be damned what anyone else thinks. I still get misgendered occasionally by those who don’t know me, but I have NEVER had a negative reaction to being trans. I have had a lot of curious people, who I have done my best to educate, and made some fantastic friends.

        I struggle with the topic of passing, and have done a lot of very in depth soul searching about why. I tend to agree with the original author, that we use, “passing” as a yard stick to measure ourselves by, and believe it is wrong. Being transgender is NOT something to hide as if we are ashamed of it, or ashamed of ourselves for being it. It is something special and awesome in a world of conformity. We are people who are desperately trying to be ourselves in a violent world. One which is filled with hate and misconceptions about who we are. It is up to us to educate those who are interested, in who and what we are, and ultimately it is up to us to be happy with who we are. If that means you have to achieve that golden standard of, “passing”, then so be it. I will never reach that standard. I am 49 years old and was very much considered a manly man before coming out. 49 years of testosterone damage that will never go away. But that’s ok. I am who I am, not who people say I am. I am PROUD to be me.

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      • TaltosGirl

        Tori, it seems to only allow replies to the main comment. Thank you for the response. Thank you for clarifying your thoughts.

        I transitioned about 2.5 years ago. I did not pass well at first and people were horrifically cruel for that first year. Two years l pass very well after some surgeries and a lot of learning… and now I get attacked by other LGBT people for “hiding” or being a “cis clone.” It hurts more than the nastiness I received at the hands of cis people. I went to a few activist events and was treated to speeches about how much it harms the rest of us that I pass. I guess I was naieve to assume that our shared experiences makes us a kind of family.

        I “pass” because when I see masculine traits I have an intense urge to carve them out of my face and body. I “pass” because some of my friends are makeup artists and taught me a few tricks. I “pass” because hearing my own rumbly voice gave me horrific nightmares, so I took voice training lessons and practiced obsessively because I didnt like self censoring myself due to the immense pain I felt when I heard my own voice.

        All that aside, I am not special. Being “pretty” does absolutely nothing to make me a better or worse person. That said, I absolutely refuse to hide and pretend to be Cis as long as ANY of us have to hide. I am 100% out as transgender. I am out to my coworkers, my friends, my family and I tell people if it is relevant, its ok to tell someone who inquires that I am trans.

        Its a sign of our shallow humanity that in some ways my voice gets heard more than those of us who do not “pass.” So I resolved that I would do my best to make sure that I use that voice to remind Cis people that we are all human. That every single one of us hurts the same, regardless of us being trans men or trans women, or height or deepness of voice. Every one of our smiles holds immense pain and a burning desire to find a way to love ourselves.

        So in conservative Idaho I went on the news more than once, outing myself, to try and amplify all of our voices.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kiersten

    I hesitate to even comment on this as this issue has been a topic written and argued about ad infenitum over for many, many decades, Personally i have gravitated to a more comfortable place but in order for me to talk about it, i have to take off my activist hat. The one that is emblazoned with the words ‘we are one’ and ‘no one left behind’. Anyone in our community who cares about our community had one, right? So let me take off thatbhat forva moment to offer ‘my’ own personsl feelings on this topic.

    First and foremost, passing offers me SAFETY. There is a burden almost too heavy to bear when you cannot go anywhere without feeling you are at risk of physical asssult to you, your property, your family or more. Secondly, I believe everyone wants desperately to live a normal life, at least as normal as possible, and passing is the means by which this is often ‘made possible. Third, passing provides a kind of confidence and strength that Allows me to tackle head on those instances when we ARE clocked, and or confronted. It does happen. Most, (not all) I find are teaching moments or opportunities. Fninally, those of us who can get by day to day blending in with most eveyone else, can NEVER, never take off their activist hat. it is We who have a larger responsibility for those who are desperately fighting for a different kind of acceptance, one that is not obtained by passing but is earned through hard fought legislation and in many areas through education. Lets be clear, Passing is a priveledge not to be abused by leaving the battle for the comfort of the barracks and leaving the wounded and walking dead on the battlefield, Passing for those lucky enough to have it, comes with a great responsibility. That we cannot forget…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. TaltosGirl

    It is just as wrong to be cruel to someone who passes as it is to be cruel to someone who doesnt.

    It wouldnt be ok to go up to a random generic man and tell him he isnt “manly enough.” Nor would it be ok to go up to a genetic woman and tell her she is “too feminine.”

    Just let people be happy in their own way.

    Like

  4. We are MORE than passing privilege. We are TRANS. All of us. No one should have to pass to have to survive. We need to break down these walls and open honest communication. Those of us who have the spoons to teach others should do so. Ignorance and bigotry and hatred all come from a lack of understanding or an inability to walk in another’s shoes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Alex

    I realize this article has broader reach than my comment will touch, but sometimes simplicity is the true genius, so… How about directing general feel of how passable I should be in the direction of who do I like to like me? No matter what is generally accepted we all try to accentuate our best traits to appeal to some group of people. Should take away a lot of personal mental anguish from this issue. As for safety though I am plain sad… Looking to the stars we are hoping education will make for better society if love alone did not cut it…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kiersten

    Oooh Alex, had to comment on this.. “How about directing general feel of how passable I should be in the direction of who do I like to like me?”
    My answer, ‘I would l like everyone to like me” but of course that is impossible and not in our control so, i never worry about those that don’t. Gump said it best, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates”. I just might stop and take a bite and if it doesnt taste good I move on to the next… 😊🌹

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  7. Nice article…there’s truth there. What I would like to mention is the “transphobia” that you say exists in the trans community, particularly older ones…like me, I am 45. It is not transphobia…but a fear that non-passing ones in our proximity will cause US to also be identified. I am not justifying it….but it is there…and it is a safety thing. Just sayin’

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    • Kiersten

      You speak truth here as hard as it is for some to hear it.. This is a problem seen from many different viewpoints. Truth is, that transwomen coming out want and need the security of a crowd when venturing out. For transwomen who living as their lives ‘it is the means by which everyone in your group is scrutinized.. sad but true. This said, w4 all have an inherent responsibility to help each other in the ways we are able, even if not in the ways expected..

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s sad Angela. I’m sad for all the unsafe. My trans daughter is 16 and doesnt pass. I’m sure the future has much in store for us, and I hope acceptance for her as she is will always be possible. I love her more than anything ♡

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  9. Sylvia

    Isn’t is paradoxical to despise the heteronormative framework for its dichotomy which makes society hostile towards people who don’t match the gender associated norms while trying to meet and live up to those norms at the same time? Is it necessary to wear a dress, use make-up and behave female-like (whatever that may be) to identify yourself as a women? I understand that people will not recognize you as a women when you not meet “the standard” but who decides on what that standard is in the first place? In the Netherlands it is possible to have your legal gender identity changed into the one you feel right without the need for surgery. So it is possible for a biological male to have a passport stating a female identity while still looking and dressing like a male. Does that make that person less female? Why does identifying as a female imply impersonating one?

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