Tag Archives: passing
A Day in Gender
Did that customer just “sir” me?
When he said “Thanks man” would he have said that to a cis female or was that just for me?
Did that person just say “dude” to me in a gender neutral way or not?
Is my co-worker going to use the right pronoun for me at the end of this sentence? Is there any hesitation in their usage of “she” pronouns for me or is it natural, automatic?
Did that customer just include me in their reference to “ladies?” *internal leap of joy*
Pronouns are the primary fuel of the gender machine. The gender machine is the whole apparatus of gender, the constant way in which life on Earth is filtered through the lens of whether you are a man, a woman, or something else. The gender machine is omnipresent, though if you aren’t paying attention it can seem like it doesn’t exist at all. The gender machine is brutal and impersonal: you are subject to it regardless of whether you want to be or not. The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, etc.
Before I transitioned, I only had a passing familiarity with the gender machine. I knew it existed, of course, and was obviously a product of it and regulated by it, but I didn’t really know it. I never paid much attention with occasional exceptions: being read as a male with long hair and ear piercings was sometimes interesting. Getting punished by my parents as a young child for wearing women’s clothes certainly made me aware of the gender machine and the rules of what boys are “supposed” to be like. My relationships with women exposed me to the gender machine a little bit. Being a husband made me self-conscious of my role within the gender system. I had read a bit of gender theory here and there but didn’t really understand the gender machine on a super personal level. I was like the proverbial fish who lives and breathes water but doesn’t has a concept of water because it surrounds them 24/7.
But nothing prepared me for what it’s like to be a wrinkle in the gender machine, a nail that sticks out, an anomaly, a person who was first assigned male, raised male, and regulated as male but who eventually pushed back and bucked the system, who self-consciously rejected their position in the gender machine and chose another path, the path towards womanhood.
But violations of gendered social norms are highly regulated by misgendering, transphobia, and enforcement of gender conformity. If you don’t look and sound “like a woman” then the mahine will refuse to play along and you will get hurt. You will get “sirred”. You will get nasty stares as you walk out of the bathroom. You will be harassed, threatened, or maybe even violently assaulted or killed. The gender machine will attempt to chew you up and spit you out. You will be called “freak” and seen as less than human. You will be called slurs. You will be slandered as a pervert. Your sanity will be called into question. The gender machine has it especially out for nonpassing trans women and non-binary trans femmes due to the way masculinity and femininity is strongly regulated for those who are assigned male at birth. Any hint of a assigned-male person dabbling in femininity is brutally regulated so much so that trans women repress their desires for decades, or even repress them forever.
Does my adam’s apple stick out too much at this angle? I worry about this as I stand at the counter and adjust how I’m standing so the customer won’t see it right away. I maximally “prime” them with my available feminine cues, minimize the cues I want to hide, and slightly adjust the way I’m standing and holding my head to hide my adam’s apple. But I know they’ll eventually see it. They always do. That or my voice will reveal my history of being exposed to testosterone. What will they think of me? Not how will they treat me. Most people are nice. But how will they internally think of me? “Oh, there’s one of those ugly trannies. Freak.” Or worse. My paranoia about this runs deep. It affects my relationships with people I don’t know extremely well. Many TERFs these days are hardcore TERFs but keep their opinions to themselves. That’s almost worse. The fake smile. The deference with the pronouns, but secretly thinking “You’re a man.”
“Hi, what can I get started for you today?”, I speak over the intercom in a strained voice, desperately doing all I can to avoid the inevitable “Sir”. Often I don’t get it. But sometimes I do. I wonder if I would get misgendered more if we lived in a time when the gender machine regulated gendered communication and encouraged “sirs” and “ma’ams” at all times. Nowadays, thank God, people more lax on the honorifics. I personally try to never use them unless absolutely necessary. What’s the point? They do practically no good and often cause much harm to trans and GNC people. My voice is the Ur-factor in how I am perceived within the gender machine. It determines everything. Unfortunately, I know my voice is not perfect and still gets read as male to those unsuspecting strangers who might expect something else out of my mouth based on my appearance or dress.
I wake up super early for work to placate the gender machine with makeup. I know many cis women across the world are pressured by social norms to wear makeup to work in order to be seen as “professioanal”, “hygienic”, or even “competent”, but I am pressured into waking up extra early to shower, shave, and put on makeup in order to maximize my available gender cues, minimize the negative ones, and ultimately reduce my chance of getting misgendered, avoiding dysphoria as much as possible. With my voice and my adam’s apple and my masculine features, makeup is a defense mechanism for me, a way to reinforce the gender cues I give off. But what I’d give to have the option to just wear a bare face but still be so effortlessly feminine that no one in their right mind would question my status in the gender machine.
Whether I eventually get misgendered or not depends on many factors, mainly to what extent these people are self-conscious regulators in the gender machine aka transphobic assholes. But it’s also ignorance. And not paying attention. But still. Regardless, the most common thing that happens is that people don’t gender me at all. I get greeted as female all the time but rarely depart as an acknowledged female. When others around me get pronouns, I often get none. Which isn’t too bad I guess. Could be worse.
My coworkers, or “partners” as we call them at Starbucks, are my literal life blood. Their acceptance of me as a woman and their automatic usage of “she” pronouns are my primary coping mechanism for dysphoria and misgendering at work. The small little genderings that happen through the day literally sustain me. It means so little to them, yet so much to me.
Life as a non-passing trans woman for me means constant vigilance. Professional pronoun detector should be written on my business card. Constant awareness of all things gender defines my worldview. When I am hanging out with cis males, I can’t help but notice their masculinity and define myself as apart from them, down to tiny little mannerisms like the small inflection they put on the end of a word, or how much space they are taking up. When I am around cis females, I can’t help but compare myself to them and get self-conscious about every little feminine detail that comes so naturally to them. Even hanging out with butch lesbians does little to make me feel better because even they are so dripping with womanhood that I can’t help but feel “less”. Such is life as a non-passing, late transitioning trans woman.
The gender machine is fueled by pronouns, and regulated by conformity. It is all around us. Even in today’s post-modern liberal society of increasing LGBTQIA diversity awareness, the gender machine is working harder than ever to regulate gender. It might seem like we are now living in a laissez faire world when it comes to gender, but don’t let surface trends fool you: The growing acceptance of trans and GNC people in society has done absolutely nothing to placate the gender machine. It is still hungry – it still needs to feed. It simply finds a new tactic, a new way of regulatation, new rules, regulations, associations, connotations, expectations, etc.
Gender is still all pervasive, as any trans or observant person will tell you. Some gender theorists like to talk about a future, hypothetical society where the gender machine is no more. But that’s a thought experiment only. A fantasy. A utopia that will never come to be. All we can do is force the gender machine to evolve in small, hopefully progressive directions. But despite the gender machine’s dominance and finality being out of our control, we can as individuals take self-conscious steps towards understanding our place within the gender machine and working to make sure everyone feels safe as they can be within the machine. Respecting pronouns and reducing the usage of honerifics is a huge part of this and definitely something cis allies can do. Good luck.
Trans women are under intense pressure, internal and external, to perform femininity to a high level. They are seen as more “valid” in their identities the better they pass for cis women and in order to compensate for testosterone poisoning some trans women are pressured to wear makeup, accessories, and feminine styles of clothes to be gendered properly by strangers as well as fight their dysphoria. The common assumption is that trans women who are uber feminine are just narrow-minded 1950’s housewife artificialities who are putting on a costume to validate their own womanhood. Our femininity is never seen as natural – always artificial.
But in reality it’s often about pure survival, a defense mechanism. If we don’t perform femininity at a high level we get accused of being too manly and our womanhood is challenged and we are at more risk of misgendering, harassment, violence, and being discriminated against in general. But if we are feminine we get shit for just being caricatures of womanhood who think being a woman is all about dresses and heels. It’s a double bind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t – trans women lose either way.
But I don’t think the problem here is about femininity. The problem is that people don’t like the idea of a male-assigned person transitioning socially and medically. It’s the very idea of trans women that gives people a problem regardless of how well we perform femininity. The double-bind is thus a product of transmisognyny and not fundamental to femininity itself. The problem is that cis identities are seen as fundamentally more healthy and normal than trans identities. And I mean “normal” as in “normative” not “statistical”. Trans people are obviously in the statistical minority – but that alone doesn’t make our bodies or our identities pathological. Anomalous but not necessarily pathological. Trans women often get a lesser metaphysical status in the realm of valid identities but there’s nothing about our transness that is itself intrinsically pathological.
As philosophers like to say, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. It is the case that trans people are rare, but from that it doesn’t entail that we ought to eradicate trans identities. Imagine if we found a “trans gene” that caused transness and scientists had the power to edit that out before or after conception. We has a society would then have a choice whether to eradicate transness out of existence or not. My view is that the world would be much worse off if trans people weren’t around to shake up the cis-normative world.
Part of the pressure for trans women to perform femininity comes from a desire to relieve dysphoria. If I lived on a deserted island that had a Sephora I would still wear makeup because I just enjoy it and it makes me feel better about myself. But part of the pressure comes from how trans women are judged as less valid if we are not uber feminine.
But here’s the thing: trans women are often not even given a chance to grow into our femininity. As soon as we come out as trans we are expected to perform femininity flawlessly. We are expected to know how to do makeup, how to be stylish, have an extensive wardrobe of gender-affirming clothing, look sharp, natural, etc. But cis women have had decades to learn how to perform femininity, experiment with makeup, style, and figure out what looks good for their body shape. Not to mention, not all trans women can afford laser or electrolysis and the makeup techniques to flawlessly cover beard shadow are pretty advanced even for experienced makeup junkies.
Some trans women have been performing femininity from a very young age but that’s not true of all trans women. Some trans women such as myself repressed their feelings deeply and went through very “macho” stages to prove their masculinity to the world before their feelings finally surfaced fully and it was no longer possible to perform masculinity without great pain. But the little crossdressing I did in secret since childhood did not even slightly prepare me the pressure to perform femininity as a transitioned woman. The pressure is felt by all women but trans women feel it especially acutely. So I basically had to learn in a couple years what it took decades for cis women to figure out. Some trans women are just not interested in all that though and they should not be judged for it, no more than cis women should be judged for being butch or tomboys. The “tomboy” trans woman is often judged as less valid than feminine trans women. Many cis women say they are not scared of highly feminine cis passing trans women who have medically transitioned – it’s all those other, “bad ones” they are scared of in women-only spaces, the one who don’t perform femininity to some arbitrarily set cis-normative standard.
We need to let trans women grow into themselves. We are expected to perform femininity flawlessly within months of transition but often it can take years to come into a natural sense of style just like it takes years for cis people to figure out how to perform their genders. We need to let trans women have the space and time to explore themselves before we judge them as “successful”. Or better yet, how about we stop judging people who don’t conform to any gendered expectation and stop placing judgments on whether a transition is a “success” or not. If the trans person is happy at the end of the process it was a success, period. TERFs like to talk about how many trans women are just “pigs in wigs” but usually they are just selectively sampling from trans women just starting transition. Give them a few more years and get back to me. Let trans women grow. Give us time to figure this shit out without invalidating our identities because we have the audacity to look or sound like ourselves and not just flawless imitations of cis women.
Trans people are valid regardless of whether people have a hard time telling whether we are cis. That shouldn’t be the standard. There are no standards. Find me a rule book in the universe that tells me how men and women “ought to look”. There is no such book. There are just atoms in the void – but we place value on some arrangements of atoms and not on others. All value is created from the minds of creatures such as ourselves. Cis people often don’t place much value on trans lives. Our lives are seen as diseased. Just today someone commented on my youtube telling that I am “sick” and “need help”. Yeah – that’s a fun notification to get on my phone. That’s just part of what it’s like to be trans in 2017. And I have it easy! I am very, very privileged as a trans woman, both in terms of passing and my material status, but I still get constant reminders that my existence is seen by many in this country as an existential threat to the moral fabric of society. Here I am just trying to survive and somehow I am the threat to society? Yeah, right.
Let trans women grow. Not all trans women have had a strong sense of identity since childhood. That’s the narrative that plays well with cis audiences and trans women are under immense pressure to reshape their histories to conform to that narrative but it’s not representative of the diversity in the community. Some of us need time to unlearn old patterns of behavior and learn new patterns of behavior. Some of us need time to figure out simple things that cis women take for granted like putting your hair up in a bun. Many of us were not taught by female members of our family how to perform femininity. If anything, we were usually punished for displaying the slightest amount of femininity. So how can cis people turn around and expect trans women to be perfect exemplars of femininity when they at the same time stamp out femininity in their own male-assigned children? It’s the double-bind of trans femininity.
When you start to look, the double-bind is everywhere. We cannot escape it. But we must. The liberation of trans women cannot happen unless the double-bind is loosened and we are allowed to grow.
If you’re a trans person like me then you’re probably hyper aware of all gendered activities directed your way. Last night I was at Denny’s with some cis female friends and when the server brought the food out she was giving the food to the other girls and was like “And this is for this lady right here”, etc., but when she got to me she didn’t repeat the pattern – she didn’t know how to gender me – didn’t know whether I was lady-enough to warrant being called a lady. In my own assessment it was probably my voice, the downfall of many trans women.
For probably like the first 10-11 months of my transition I put a LOT of effort into trying to make my voice more passable. My results were not fantastic, probably because I never saw a professional voice therapist. And now I’ve just given up entirely because I am trying to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. It’s so hard. So so hard. I want to pass more than anything. I want to interact with people just for once and not have them question my gender. And not just like a fleeting interaction – like I want just for once to have an intimate one on one conversation with someone and not have them suspect I was born male. Oh that would be nice.
I suppose I am lucky though. I fall into that strange class of trans women who don’t pass perfectly but people say are attractive. The very concept of a beautiful nonpassing trans woman is almost a contradiction in terms if you are to believe all the transmisogynist bullshit TERF rhetoric out there. If you don’t pass you look like a man – yet how can a woman who looks like a man be considered beautiful? And yet it’s definitely a thing. Beauty and passing are not the same. You can pass but not be beautiful. And you can be beautiful but not pass. So I don’t have it that bad. I’ve actually be accused by others in the local trans community of being the “epitome” of passing privilege. But I live my own experience and I know from how I interact with strangers that I get clocked pretty much every time because of my voice. So I don’t actually have passing privilege because I don’t pass. I get clocked. It is currently impossible for me to go stealth. Most people are polite/smart enough to not “sir” me but I don’t always get those gendered pronouns I so crave for validation. My experiences are often genderless despite me observing other people around me getting gendered correctly. I pass enough to largely be avoided being gendered male (though it does still happen sometimes) but not enough to be consistently gendered female, especially after I open my mouth. At the intercom for a drive through? Forget about it. Over the phone? No way. Still a man.
So is there is a secret to learning how to say “fuck it” to passing? No. I have no tips. No advice. For some people it’s literally impossible to totally say “fuck it” to passing. Their dysphoria is too high for that. I’ve been blessed to have relatively low levels of dysphoria. Others are not so lucky and they literally cannot ignore the pressing concerns of passing. For some passing is an omnipresent concern. I have no words for these people – all I can offer is empathy and a hug (if needed). My advice instead is for the people who have the privilege of being able to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. If you have that internal fortitude and resolve – it’s possible to learn to care less about passing. If you live in an area of the world that is relatively friendly to trans people, or at least not actively unfriendly, then you too can learn to say “fuck it” to passing.
The number one goal is to learn to not care what others think of you. Easier said than done. But it is possible to foster this attitude within yourself through deliberate cognitive practice. Say to yourself “I don’t give a shit. Fuck you.” It helps. Or at least it helps me. If someone misgenders me, I try to just tell myself it doesn’t matter what strangers think of me. What matters is how I am gendered by my friends and people who know me and are close to me. If they see me as a woman, then that’s what matters because they actually know me as a person and respect my gender in its true authenticity. Strangers are just judging you based on cis-sexist stereotypes about how people are supposed to look or sound. Trans woman with deep voice? You’re fucked. But I’d rather spend time with people who don’t assume that a deep voice makes you less of a woman. It is the company of people like that that I cherish. Strangers are just reacting to surface-level gender cues. But gender is not a surface level phenomena. It goes into the core of my being. Strangers can’t see that, nor should I expect them to.
There are two types of transphobes. Those who can be educated to change their minds and those who can’t. The latter type of people are always going see me as a man so why not just blow their minds with how much a “man” can shatter gender stereotypes by embracing their femininity? In a way, TERFs use misgendering as a political weapon, used to upset trans women and get under their skin, provoking anger which can then be used to “prove” they’re still male socialized. Another tactic is to call trans women “male to trans” (MtT) instead of “male to female”(MtF) because they don’t believe trans women can actually change their sex. Once male always male. But one of my personal strategies for learning to say “fuck it” to passing is to flip TERF logic on its head. If they’re always going to see me as a man no matter what I do then it ultimately doesn’t matter if I put more effort into passing. I’m not going to change their minds. They are a lost cause not worth stressing about. But TERFs are supposedly all about shattering the stereotypes associated with what “males” are supposed to be like. So go ahead. Think of me as a man. You’re not going to change my femme identity. Femme man or femme woman – ultimately these are just labels with no concrete definition. People are free to define these terms for themselves how they wish. I have long since given up on getting the world to unite behind what it means to be a man or woman, male or female. Everyone has their own pet theory. TERFs think they can dehumanize me by saying I only transitioned from a male to a tranny. But echoing Kate Bornstein – I am proud to be trans! It’s an identity I welcome and embrace. Not because being trans is without its problems but because being trans is the only way I can genuinely be myself. My trans identity is a source of many difficulties but it’s also a source of great happiness through the power of self-determination and self-actualization.
But I recognize I am speaking from a place of privilege. Not all trans people are lucky enough to see their being trans as anything but a nightmare, a horrible biological malady that they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Oh what has the world done to you? How has the cruelty and transphobia of the world twisted something so beautiful into a tragedy? I am a strong believer in the hashtag #transisbeautiful. It’s a powerful message precisely because so many don’t believe it’s true. They have been convinced that trans is ugly, sinful, diseased, pathological. But it’s only those things because we lived in a fucked up world. In a utopia there would be room for trans people to not just exist but flourish. Think about that. Think about life in a trans utopia. The very possibility of that imagination proves that trans is not inherently pathological – it’s not an intrinsically horrible experience. In a perfect world being trans would be like having freckles, just another thing that makes us unique individuals. In a perfect world, passing wouldn’t have the all-importance it does now because safety wouldn’t be an issue. If trans people could be assured 100% that the world did not pose a physical threat because of their existence I guarantee so many more trans people would come out of the closet and transition. So many trans people would learn to say “fuck it” to passing because they can finally just be themselves without worrying about all the pressure to pass.
It is the first type of transphobes, the ones who can be educated, that I truly care about. They are the ones who are merely ignorant about trans identities. Their minds can be changed. They can learn about gender and how it’s different from physiology. They can learn about neuroscience and the biological basis of gender. They can learn about pronouns and how important they are. These are the people who can learn to feel bad after they misgender you. They can’t help it. But they can learn. They can change. They can learn to see me as the woman I really am. They can learn to move beyond the rigid male-female binary essentialism that fuels cis-sexism. It is through this process of education that trans people have any chance of approximating our trans utopia. By holding onto that ideal, we can develop the all important idea of hope inside our hearts. Hope leads to optimism and optimism leads to change, even if just internal change. We are ourselves our own best source for mental contentment and satisfaction. By giving ourselves a chance to accept ourselves we can learn to say “fuck it” to passing and just be ourselves. Easier said than done (there is my privilege speaking again). But I am a dreamer. I can’t help but imagine a better world for trans people. A world where passing is done only for ourselves, not for others. A world where passing is about being true to our internal image of ourselves not a defense mechanism against transphobic violence.
I haven’t quite learned how to truly say “fuck it” to passing. I still care about passing very deeply and perhaps always will. But I’m learning. I’m learning there is an alternative way of existing, even if it’s an existence that is fleeting. But the moments where I can truly say “fuck it” are magical because it’s in those moments where I learn to be myself.
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.
Am I a man? Or a woman? Or something else? Internalized transphobia is what happens when trans people unconsciously buy into the belief that, e.g., trans women are really deep down men and trans men are really deep down women. That biology will never change. That biology is destiny – gender is immutable. Often internalized transphobia is based on the toxic idea of cis-normative “Passing”. The idea is that the more you pass as cis then the more of a woman or man you are. We see ourselves in the mirror and see our assigned sex and the darkest thoughts enter our minds. “You’re just a man. What are you doing”. Or we meet a trans women who doesn’t pass perfectly and we can’t help but think “You’re still a man” – I admit I’ve had thoughts like this – I think we all have. Although I don’t have hard evidence I believe EVERYONE who has met a non-passing trans woman has had these thoughts. Even trans people. Trans people are not immune to transphobia. We live it and breath it just like everyone else. You look at someone, they have “masculine” features, and you think “boy”. But our minds like to ignore that many cis women have “masculine” features too. Oh but you might say even the most masculine cis women still is within the “norms” of cis-standards whereas non-passing trans women are “extreme” examples of masculinity. But this is internalized transphobia. It doesn’t matter if even the trans women before you is the tallest women you know. That is no license to assume she must be a man “deep down” because she is extreme on one or two traits. If a trans woman does not pass as cis female we have to fight against our own internal biases to see them as 100% women. We have to have grace for those trans women who have not had the time or opportunity to learn everything about acting/socializing like cis women. Furthermore, and most important, we must divorce ourselves from the idea that cis women define the standard by which socialization must be codified.
Personally, I don’t care if people think im 100%woman. But that’s just me. I’d be fine with like 70-80% woman. My self identity is not based on rigid binary concepts. I don’t even really identity as a woman simpliciter as in your “average everyday woman”. I see myself as a special kind of woman. A rare kind of woman. A woman that you just don’t meet everyday. But we must be careful. Because just because I’m rare that does not make me less of a woman. We need to reject the idea that the ONLY women are those women who embody cis-normativity 100%. If someone is read as 51% women we need to make room for these being full-fledged members of the category or women. We need to expand the concept of womanhood to make space for trans women who fall into the margins of binary stealth cis-passing normativity. Some trans women are butch, have no interest in passing as cis, and yet are fully comfortable in their own womanhood. Women come in all shapes and sizes. I know this idea is hard to swallow. Many people want to keep things easy were there are only two boxes for gender/gender presentation and everything is neat and tidy and correspondent with biology. But newsflash: biology is messy. Humans are messy. Gender is messy. This isn’t your biology 101 textbook about farm animals. Gender defies easy categorization. This is part of what makes the human experience so interesting. We are generally much more fluid than people believe. The line between men and women is rather thin actually and the boundary is porous.
But the battle with internalized transphobia is to accept this not just at an intellectual level but at a deeper, unconscious, core level. It’s one thing for liberal cis allies to use the right pronouns and treat us on the surface as women. But internalized transphobia deals with those secret thoughts you never share with anyone. It’s that twinge of uncomfort around non-passing trans women. And yes I am focusing on non-passing trans women because non-passing trans men often lead to less unconscious anxiety because they’re simply read as butch lesbians for which there is a socially acceptable category. But there is no acceptable social category for non-passing trans women. We are the fringe. But you know? Confidence is key. Hold your head up high. Be confident in your body language. Have a deep voice? Fuck it? Don’t pass perfectly? Fuck it. I am proud to fly my freak flag. I know not every one is comfortable with that language but for me non-conformity and living outside of society’s shit is a good way to cope with my internalized transphobia and dysphoria. Sure, I still care about passing. I still present femme. But I’m no longer obsessed with my voice. I’ve come to accept my voice. It’s mine. It will probably always be deep. It will always probably bring about occasional dysphoria. But that’s fine. Everyone has something they don’t like about themselves. Cis people also don’t like many parts of themselves. All we can do is work to better ourselves. To be good people.
At the end of the day the war against internalized transphobia can probably never be won. We might win a few battles but the war itself is a on-going lifelong struggle to accept ourselves. And to accept others. To divorce gender from biology. From appearance. From presentation. We will never live in a genderless world but we can live in a world where people internally fight hard to see trans people as their true genders no matter their appearance.
When I get right down to it I am a mixture, a blend of both the masculine and the feminine. I have long hair but a deep voice, smooth skin but an adam’s apple, breasts but facial hair. I wear makeup while my face is androgynous. I wear women’s clothing while being tall and muscular. I am a contradiction. An anomaly. I challenge people’s expectations everyday. Who is this person before you who looks like a woman but sounds like a man? Why does that woman have a prominent adam’s apple? Why are her arms so muscular and her hands so big? Why is her hairline so high?
Like most trans woman, I often feel like passing is everything. We all strive for more of it. More blendability. More stealth. Less ambiguity. More fitting in. Not violating expectations. Safety. Avoiding being misgendered. Fighting social dysphoria. We all strive for it but few trans women ever get to 100% passability. There’s usually something about us that makes us clockable upon closer inspection. For trans women this is often our voices. In my experience few trans women ever achieve 100% passable voices.
So what do we do? We have to cope somehow. Regardless of whether we pass will still have to go out into the world and buy groceries and run errands. We have to strengthen ourselves to accept reality. To accept that we will like never live up perfectly to the cis-normative standard. Maybe one day I will afford to shave my trachea down. Or maybe I will be able to get professional voice therapy one day. But for now I need to come up with practical coping strategies to deal with the fact that I don’t pass 100% and yet I still have to live my life.
One such coping strategy is to embrace ambiguity as a positive ideal, to embrace the idea of confusing people, of challenging people’s expectations of what it means to be a woman. Or going even further, challenging the notion of what it means to be a person in today’s modern society where gender transition is a real phenomenon. Though I would prefer to be gendered correctly and seen as a normal female person I know this is not going to happen all the time. So how do I cope? I have been trying to develop the attitude of (1) not giving a fuck and (2) embracing my androgyny as a positive trait. Some people are actually attracted to androgyny so I tell myself even if I don’t pass 100% it doesn’t make me less attractive or valid. Some people like mixtures, blends. They enjoy the fact that my body is a contradiction. A field upon which competing elements battle. This knowledge of my body being ideal to some people is a great comfort because when I get into relationship it helps dispel my fear that they’re just going to abandon me for a more attractive cis partner.
Many men are attracted to trans women specifically because of their trans status. In the community these men are called “chasers”. But I have never liked that term because it erases the possibility of a category of people who are specifically attracted to trans people without that attraction being fetishistic, objectifying, or problematic. I call these people “trans amorous”. And it’s not just men. Cis women can be trans attracted as well. But I think women are socialized to be more polite about it whereas men are overly blunt.
My other coping strategy is actually indirect. It’s through relationships and friendships. If I am in a relationship or friendship and that person has only known me as Rachel it really helps battle the dysphoria because I see them unconsciously using “she/her” pronouns because people who know me know those are obviously the most correct pronouns – it’s what is the most natural if you spend time with me. And that’s a good feeling. It says: I see you. I know you. You are valid. Don’t worry about your ambiguity. It’s ok. I like you and see your womanhood as valid. Building up a social circle of people who automatically gender me female has been an important part of my transition. This is why I enjoy hanging out with trans people. They usually have an above-average ability to correctly gender people regardless of what they look like or how they present themselves.
So in a nutshell, my strategy is to embrace ambiguity. To relish in it. Will this strategy completely dispel my dysphoria and social anxiety? No, not really. That’s too much to ask. But it’s a weapon in my arsenal. It’s a useful perspective to keep in mind.
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.