Most people have at least a vague concept of what passing means in reference to trans people. If you ask one of us, we’ll describe a myriad of meanings, as passing means something different to each of us based on our personal experiences with the act.
If you listen to many of our stories, a common theme will most certainly emerge that looks something like this:
Passing is a euphoric refuge from a dysphoric experience in a transphobic world.
It allows us to let our guard down and enjoy simply being ourselves, fully equipped with the privilege of being interpreted as cis when we are in fact trans, which allows us freedom of societal mobility and safety from the forces that would disparage us if we were recognized as trans.
That’s the unfortunate state of things for transfolk. We lead a quite frankly terrifying existence which is very often dependent on passing. We are forced into strict gender conformity, the likes of which I haven’t seen imposed since the 1950s. If we stray from it, we risk losing our ability to pass, which can have devastating consequences for us. This goes for trans men and women alike, though the box women are expected to fit into is decisively smaller and more restrictive than that of men.
Our critics might tell us that we are reinforcing an oppressive system by adhering to these standards and attempting to pass, but what needs to be understood is that it’s something we tend toward in order to survive within said system. It’s the same for all people, trans or not. We all tend to adhere to our prescribed standards in order to survive in our societal systems around the world. Challenging them, for most any of us, can be dangerous. We could lose our livelihood. Our social support structures could collapse. Our families and friends could abandon us.
Why? Just because we’ve decided to dress differently or live our lives in a way more appealing to us?
Why do we put so much importance on these prescribed standards in our existences? I’m not going to claim to have any answers. This question is far bigger than me, but I do think it’s an important question to ask. At the very least, I think we all need to examine the qualities of these standards and be willing to challenge them in our daily lives, especially where they intersect with freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.
Passing should not be a prerequisite to our freedoms, rights, or privileges. We should all be allowed to express ourselves, free from disparagement for methods of expression we might find suitable to ourselves in our embodied lives.
What if we could live in a world free from transphobia, where being trans weren’t something we need to hide?
My particular corner of the world has been kind to me. I’ve not encountered much, if any transphobia in my life. I pass well and am lucky to live in a largely trans-friendly community. I’m out in all aspects of my life. My family knows. Everyone I’m friends with knows. My coworkers know. It’s become something I feel comfortable with being and sharing with others in my life.
It wasn’t always that way for me though.
I was born in Mike Pence’s hometown. If you know anything at all about the man, understand that his hometown is very much like him. The majority are conservative, Christian, and love America. The sort of people who listen to country music. Radio stations blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” every Independence Day. Nice folks, mostly.
But they don’t tend to like change.
Transitioning there was terrifying. Between circumstances where I lived and deep concerns over how my family would react, I didn’t come out much until I was 28 when I finally allowed myself to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy. Only my most trusted friends and partners knew I intended to transition.
To my surprise, everyone in my life accepted me, and living as a trans woman was easy because I passed well. I can only imagine how different my life might have been if I hadn’t been able to. It’s granted me so much privilege.
I had the privilege to allow the fact I am trans to disappear and live free from fear of the kind of discrimination transfolk face every day.
And I did.
For around 5 years, only those I had known prior to transition actually knew I was trans. In my day to day life, I was interpreted in the same way as every other woman. When I started the job that led me to my current career, I never came out. No one I worked with knew for several years. We’ll come back to this later.
Being a woman of course came with its own pitfalls and perils. I’ve been a survivor of a constant stream of misogyny, sexual assault, manipulation, discrimination, etc. I’ve been terribly unlucky.
But at least I wasn’t seen as trans for most of it.
Passing was never not important in my mind.
Even when I’d speak out as a trans woman in real life or on social media, I would insist I was a woman and engage in completely pointless arguments with others over it.
“Trans women are men,” cried anti-trans activists.
“Trans women are women,” we cried back, as the phrase became my mantra.
My invocations of this mantra were less a response to the assertion I was a man, and more a desperate effort to pass on a completely different level.
Being trans didn’t matter much to my real life. As I said, in my daily life I was just a woman. And I wanted it to not matter in any context. I wanted the fact I am trans to disappear into the fact I was read as a woman. I rejected my own complex reality as a trans woman and instead opted to erase the idea the word “trans” carried any meaning that I saw as potentially invalidating my womanhood. It was a point I was completely unwilling to capitulate. It was as important to me as passing itself.
I would make arguments such as, “Trans women and tall women are both women,” as if “tall” carried a similar meaning to “trans”.
But in the case of both trans women and tall women, tall women are still tall, and trans women are still trans. Being trans is as inescapable for me as being tall might be for a tall woman.
Trans, I realized, was something I could never not be, rage against my own biology and societal resistance to the idea as I might.
The inevitable conclusion for me was acceptance that trans women, are in fact, trans women. Once I accepted this truth, doorways opened for me that allowed me to see and appreciate the truly complex reality of my embodied life. The truth was simultaneously beautiful and terribly ugly. I’ve become so much more sensitive to the concerns of others when my complex reality intersects and interplays with their own.
Some of my trans friends and allies have expressed concern for me over my change in attitude, but I can ensure everyone my head has never been more clear. As I’ve explained, it’s been a long road for me coming to acceptance of myself as a trans woman, and it feels wonderful to take pride in the fact I am exactly what I am.
My co-workers all know now that I’m trans, and the context under which I came out to them is very much part of my journey toward this newfound level of self-acceptance.
A little bit over a year ago, another co-worker of mine who works in a different area came out and transitioned. One night, co-workers in my area were talking about her and saying some very transphobic things.
It wasn’t easy, but as one co-worker was beginning to talk about his experiences with the one trans person he’s known in his life who rubbed him the wrong way, I interrupted and told him he in fact, knows two. His stunned silence spoke volumes.
I’ve come out in similar contexts to others I work with, and every time it has had overwhelmingly positive effects. Transphobia, at its heart, is a fear of change. People get used to people as they are, and then when they transition, it’s like that person they’ve known dies and something strange and new replaces them.
What my co-workers have realized about their own transphobia is exactly that. I’ve asked several, “Having known me as a woman for years, would it be equally as difficult for you to accept me as a man as it is for you to accept transitioning people you know?” The answer has been, “Yes.” in ever instance.
My coming out and proudly telling others that I was, in fact, a trans woman completely washed away any transphobia that my co-workers might have held in their hearts.
One day, I would like to see all of society overcome transphobia.
Where visibly trans people and passing trans people can live with the same freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.
Where trans women can be trans women and trans men can be trans men and live in relative peace with ourselves as such.
Where our lives, be they trans lives or not, no longer depend on passing.