Passing may afford many privileges, but it is not a true freedom.” This is the unwinnable situation that society puts trans people in: the paradox of passing.
When people look at me, they see a petite 20-something-year-old with long and dark burgundy brown hair and arched eyebrows, wearing either a dress or an oversized sweater with thigh-high socks (It really depends more on my mood than the weather). Just by my outward appearance and mannerisms, most people would unconsciously read me as female and refer to me in “she” and “her” pronouns.
To a certain extent, especially at a bar setting when I’m alone or with a fellow attractive female companion, some men might also make assumptions about my sexuality and, occasionally, ask if I have a boyfriend or if they could buy me a drink.
While it’s true that I am a woman and use “she” and “her” pronouns, what a lot of people who meet me for the first time don’t know is that this wasn’t always the case. I was assigned male at birth, used “he” and “him” pronouns until not too long ago, and — surprise! — although I do occasionally enjoy having sex with men and currently do not have a boyfriend, you probably shouldn’t buy me a drink — I’m actually on a date with said fellow attractive female companion.
“Passing” and “Passing Privilege”
Passing comes with some practical advantages. For myself, it has significantly helped with my gender dysphoria and in feeling less self-conscious in social settings, especially in avoiding the awkwardness of correcting people on my pronouns. Additionally, passing and being able to blend into cisnormativity can also determine the spaces trans people are freely able to access. This could range from social venues like nightclubs to essential facilities, such as public restrooms. But passing goes beyond practicality and access. It could literally be a matter of safety.
Too many trans people are violently assaulted for simply existing. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC) reports between 2013 and 2017, 102 trans people — mostly transwomen of color — were killed in hate crimes in the United States. In 2018 alone, at least 26 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals were killed. 2019 is shaping up to be just as deadly a year for the trans community, with at least 22 reported deaths as of October.
The real numbers are likely higher, as these don’t include incidents that were either unreported or weren’t classified as hate crimes. It’s also important to mention that these are reports regarding violent and fatal assaults. It doesn’t include nonfatal but nonetheless harmful forms of transphobia, like bullying and harassment or institutional and workplace discrimination.
While passing provides momentary safety for some trans people, passing as cis doesn’t guarantee complete safety. In particular, cis-passing transwomen still get unwanted attention, like when we get catcalled.
Some might wonder, “But isn’t plain, vanilla misogyny not as harmful as blatant transmisogyny?” Perhaps. Being told I need to smile more and then being called a bitch for scowling at my harasser isn’t nearly as awful as having blatant transphobia screamed at me, or worse: getting beaten to death for being trans. But it gets more complicated.
I’m from Berkeley, California, a socially progressive city. We call manholes “maintenance holes,” so yay for gender-inclusive language! Even so, when a man offers to buy me a drink, “Fuck yeah, I’m unclockable!” isn’t the first thing to come to my mind — it’s, “Oh, shit. Am I about to get hate-crimed?”
Receiving unwanted attention is concerning enough for many women. But when you add our transness into the mix, the situation can get very dangerous. The murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude in October 2014 hits too close to home.
Like in the Laude case, violence against trans people somtimes involves a straight cisgender man assaulting a transwoman whom he was attracted to. In 2013, Islan Nettles was violently beaten by James Dixon. The incident put Nettles into a three-day coma before she was taken off life-support. Like Laude’s killer, Dixon assumed Nettles was a cisgender woman, started flirting with her, and became enraged after he was told by his male friends that Nettles was trans.
What’s worst about such incidents is the victim-blaming that occurs. When transwomen are killed by men who mistake them for cis-women, many don’t hesitate to accuse them of “tricking” or “deceiving” their killers. In fact, in the United States, only eight states so far have banned gay/trans panic as a legal defense.
Damned If You Pass, Damned If You Don’t Pass
The unequal treatment of cis-passing trans people and people who are visibly trans highlights the oppressive nature of putting so much value on passing. It’s deeply rooted in the same misogynistic ideals dictating how women ought to look and behave — that women need to be soft in their physique, aesthetic, and demeanor — for society to deem us worthy of respect and dignity.
Simultaneously, the danger that many cis-passing trans people experience illustrates why blending into cisnormativity doesn’t rid us of hostilities. It suggests that many don’t recognize transwomen as “real” women and transmen as “real” men, further emphasizing the backward ideals that perpetuate queerphobia.
There’s nothing wrong with passing. After all, it helps some of us with dysphoria. But when we make passability (and attractiveness) a prerequisite for respecting trans people, we’re pretty much saying, “You’re not one of those trans people, so I guess you’re okay.” That’s not queer liberation, that’s just using one group of people to police the bodies of another. The freedoms afforded by passing are conditional and can be taken away the moment we deviate from the norm or when people find out what’s between (or used to be between) our legs, and that’s not real acceptance.
Let’s Focus On Human Dignity
Systemic changes through judicial decisions and legislations protecting the LGBTQ+ community are vital to creating a society that is truly accepting of trans people. But we also need a cultural shift for such changes to be feasible and sustainable. We need to put less emphasis on glamour and more on human dignity. For us to truly have a society that is safe and inclusive of trans people, we need to normalize transness in all its shapes and forms regardless of how well it fits into or how far it deviates from what our cisnormative society deems “normal.”
There’s a myriad of ways pop culture can do this, from accurate storytelling to casting and media representation. But at the individual level, we — especially our cis allies — need to reevaluate the language we use and the different ways we support trans people.
It’s always heartening when friends and family encouragingly take notice of my physical transition. As someone who has struggled with gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, of course I take pride in the work I’ve done and the progress I’ve made on my physical self. But I think it’s also important for our cis loved ones to stop for a moment and ask themselves, “Am I in awe of my trans siblings because of how beautifully they are thriving in their authentic lives, or am I awed by how well they fit into my understanding of authenticity?”
*Disclaimer: Every person’s journey is unique. I’m writing through the lens of one transwoman. If you found this article interesting and informative, I highly recommend checking out similar writings by other transwomen, as well as transmen and nonbinary and gender non-conforming folks!
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