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.