Lessons Learned: Part VII – To pass or not to pass?

Hi,

In the last Lessons Learned I wrote about going out and the need for some self-belief to help make that happen. Listening to trans friends and reflecting on my own experiences, one of the things that can really hammer us is passing. For those not in the know, shall we aim for passing as appearing as your preferred/new gender and not being ‘read’ (spotted/outed/seen) as transgender. It’s not about tricking anyone, it’s often about personal safety, but there’s more than that. (Note: a slight edit to that paragraph. I’m not a huge fan of definitions – I’m more a story person – but I think we need to start somewhere 🙂).

In some way, we’re all try to pass as someone

I think passing is a curious thing: an odd blend of that wanting to be safe (as in undetected), feeling right in one’s gender presentation, not wanting to upset others, to the more negative end of ‘not passing’ or not being good enough. There have been many times in my youth where I’d try my best on my femme appearance, only to catch sight of my body or face, and think what I mess I was. Cue the spiral of negativity on failing to meet your own standards – we’ll come back to that in a minute – and thinking you’ll never be good enough. Let’s just put the brakes on that crash cart and step outside of the scene…. 😉

Who’s standards? What’s informing or influencing me on how I think I should look? What is that narrative I’m being told and to what end?

If we take a look at certain aspects of society and the media, there’s seems a very heavy focus towards being young, white, cis, straight, thin, and pretty. Sure, things are changing slowly, however, given the beautiful variety of us as a people – and I mean humanity 🙂 – the range through media is not very diverse. Given many of us swim in this culture, so to speak, it saturates our thoughts and colours our perspective. BTW, if you are young, pretty, thin, and reading this, I’ve absolutely no malice towards you: it’s the system that needs to change a little quicker to benefit everyone. At some point you will start to age and/or your weight will alter. Are you really more valid being a size 8 over a size 14? Should we value you more because you’re twenty-something rather than fifty-something? 🤔

So if the system is pushing an ideal many of us – trans and non-trans (cis) – are unlikely to meet, what do we do? Well, you could turn your back on the whole thing and rock your a look from the street or subculture: alternative, punk, rockabilly, grime, retro, hippy, andro, genderqueer, etc. Lots do and good on them for striking out to something else.

Other than that, how about rejecting the concept of passing? I am aware as a middle class, straight, white man, who is effectively ‘part time’ in the Trans world, I have a certain level of privilege. Hey, you hear that click noise? That was a number of folk just switching off because I used the P word 😉

Jokes aside, and let’s finally get to the main course of this Lesson Leaned, by pushing against my need to feel that I must pass, I started to feel better about myself. I didn’t stop caring about trying to look good, stylish, or even pretty, but it wasn’t about comparing myself to a standard that I would never meet. It wasn’t about deceiving myself, I’m quite aware of my many flaws – physical, mental, and social – but to be a friend to oneself is important. I don’t say things to friends that are cruel or mean, so why should I do that to myself?

So, if you can, give up on passing. Embrace the feeling that you are valid and you are good enough. If you feel you can be more, you are only competing with yourself. Perhaps the destination is acceptance: accepting ourselves for who we are and maybe even for others to accept who we are too.

I think I would take that: to be accepted for all of who I am, rather than passing.

L x

15 Comments

  1. I totally get the idea that we should be able to live without being judged or limit ourselves by whether or not we pass. I also accept as fact that it is difficult for me to pass, because I am a tall person with many physically male attributes. But that doesn’t mean I do not try. I do the best I can with shapeware, selection of clothing, wig style and make up, as well as subtle adjustments to mannerisms (some innate) and voice, in an effort to pass.

    I try to pass. I want to pass. I want the freedom to move among the people, unquestionably seen as woman. That’s my ultimate goal. It may be unattainable, but it has been a personal motivator.

    And once in a while I actually have succeeded beyond my expectations. For example, one summer night six months prior to covid, I went to a local bar/restaurant for dinner and a few drinks. I was seated near a large group of young women out for a bachelorette party. Somehow I got drawn into their group and spent much of the evening enjoying the revelry with them. Most of the time was spent chatting with the pretty young woman who invited me to join their group.

    I’m not sure why, but at some point I acknowledged what I presume was obvious – that I was transgender. To my surprise, the girl was surprised by my acknowledgement. She said she never for a moment imagined that I was anything other than an attractive, mature woman. She insisted so. I was stunned and pleased and frankly felt so validated as a woman.

    I know, none of us should need to worry about passing, but when it does happen, it is utterly wonderful.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment, Kim, and such a lovely story too. So good to hear that it (you being trans) was not an issue for the other person. There’s that acceptance again. 🙂

  2. I’m pretty sure I don’t pass; I’m over 6 ft and my voice is wrong, but I try and blend in, which usually means leaving the overly dress up outfits in the box and opting for a sweater, jeans or leggings and low heeled ankle boots or flats. A big advantage is that you feel, and therefore act, more naturally, which is a major part of just blending in. And while I haven’t had a compliment as nice as Kim’s, I still have a fond memory of dropping in on a church sale in a nearby village and being greeted at the door by the organiser who turned to announce to her friends behind the tables “This lady’s come all the way from K… to see us”. I had a lovely couple of hours browsing and chatting over coffee and cake. I would love to do it again when the world returns to a semblance of normal.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about passing. I kind of got used to not passing, such as being addressed as “sir” or others facial expressions of double-take, maybe raised eyebrows. For the former I simply (and in my best female voice) calmly asked, “Please don’t call me sir,” which often provoked a sincere apology; something in my presentation automatically gendered me to them and when they more consciously looked at me they saw their error. I even received a warm hug from a customer service woman.

    These days I pass all the time at least as far as I know. And that’s delightful. That said, I don’t mind being recognized as trans. If/when I am I hope to simply demonstrate that we’re as real, valid, and decent as anyone. After surgeries, voice and mannerism training, clothing, and all that I will always be transgender. That is my authentic being.

    But it’s all about authenticity, at least for me. It’s clear to me and all of my friends that my authentic gender is female. So when I am automatically gendered as female I feel so good.

    But I must say that the word “passing” bothers me. Yes, a definition might be, “appearing as your preferred gender and not being ‘read’ (spotted/outed/seen) as transgender”. The thing is that my being female isn’t my preference per se, it’s simply my reality. To me “passing” implies an impersonation, like one’s not recognized as wearing a costume for being something that they aren’t.

    I wish we would come up with a better word for it, and this is why I am commenting. Any ideas?

  4. Ooops, I have another thing to add regarding passing: Less is More. A woman out and about is simply living her life, out and about. She’s gendered as female because of her “presence,” not so much because she’s wearing a dress and stockings.

    If you’re crossdressing, think about what you wear when you simply get up and head out for errands. Cis women do the same but of course with clothing bought in the women’s section. They generally want to be gendered correctly themselves so the colors they (we) wear are outside of men’s limited spectrum. Likewise the cut of the clothing.

    These days most women wear little or no makeup except for lipstick which is unfortunately covered by the requisite mask. So, do your makeup lightly, perhaps only to cover beard shadow, and feather it up your face. Having lots of makeup triggers a closer examination, something you may not want.

    All that said, as much as our authentic gender is female and we just wish we were “one of them” we are trans women. So if you’re clocked I would suggest just shrugging it off and go about your day with the delightful feelings of authenticity.

    1. Thanks Emma. I’m not overly keen on the word nor concept of “passing”. However, it is a thing people talk about, and so here we are. 🙂 I did a minor alteration to the opening paragraph based on what you said. This is the catch with writing, as in the real world there would be chance for you to interject. That, or I’d be able to ask what we thought passing might be.

      What might replace it? I really don’t know and I think, as per how I closed the post, I’d like to see the back of it as a term. In some ways ‘passing’ feels like a grading system and aren’t we more than that?

  5. Hi Lynn, you also don’t like “passing”? Great!

    For me, errors always creep in when I’m writing. My brain thinks it’s communicating clearly but all too often I find typos, missing words, and more.

    What might replace “passing”? “Being” came to mind this morning. It’s short and sweet and in my opinion, accurate. After what else are we when out and about? We’re simply being our authentic selves. It also seems to me that “being” has positive connotations. That said I’m not sure how I’d use it in a sentence!

    I’ve of two minds, though, about strangers not identifying people as trans. Sure, that might be safer and also such a great feeling to being authentic. But I see more and more children who, when their parents (with some understandable trepidation and concern), get puberty blockers and later, HRT which results in their bodies going through their authentic gender puberty.

    That might mean that over the next decades that trans people will unintentionally slip back into stealth mode and, very importantly, the cis population may think we’ve gone away and not give us the validity and respect that we, like anyone, deserve.

    I will say though that I would have LOVED to have puberty blocking/HRT and now having a natural feminine voice, face, and more.

    You and other readers might enjoy this podcast, which is by a friend of mine (Marlo Mack) who has a now 12yo trans daughter (who recently received her puberty blocker). In the podcast Marlo shares how she initially reacted to her daughter’s consistent and insistent declaring her authentic gender.

    http://www.howtobeagirlpodcast.com/episodes/episode-vii-the-facts-about-transgender-kids

    I think this episode could be updated and I’ve talked with Marlo about it but I think she’s moving on to newer episodes. I’m quite proud of her producing one with me!

    http://www.howtobeagirlpodcast.com/episodes/episode-xxx-emma-at-last

    Take care!

    1. I think I’d still prefer acceptance as it doesn’t matter if you have early treatment, have the luck of the draw on genetics, can afford a good doctor, or you’re late to the party (so to speak). It may also be that acceptance opens the door for genderfluid people (waves hello) as many are happy being different genders at different times.

      Looking at many countries around the world, not being read/spotted/outed is a matter of survival. The number of trans people murdered is wrong on do many levels. Plus, there’s the junk science currently being pedalled by this who wish to turn the clock back. While it will be difficult and painful for a time, I think we will get their. There’s a lot of trans folk carrying on regardless, the next generation doesn’t have the same outlook on gender/sexuality, and a growing number of parents of trans kids are doing an amazing job of supporting their child through love and compassion.

      PS: thanks for the links to the podcasts. I’ve seen the video before and it’s awesome.

      1. Very well said, Lynn. Thank you.

        As a total gender binary person it’s all too easy for me to forget non-binary and gender fluid people.

        I gave a speech to about 30 MDs earlier this year (before Covid) and concluded it with:

        “I’d like to leave you with two thoughts:
        1. Trans people are as normal as anyone. I like to say that we are normal examples of human diversity, like being gay, lesbian, left-handed, or blue-eyed.

        2. There is a lot of transphobia and hate in the US that would deny our freedom and even our existence. I feel this situation is the result of fear, such as what we saw when gays and lesbians emerged in the 70s and 80s.

        We need to spread the truth about trans people. I ask you to bring this up with your colleagues, friends, and families, perhaps over beers or dinner. Talk about what you heard today, share what you heard from me.”

  6. As I see it, the thing about ‘passing’ is that it’s a standard you create in your mind, a level that must be stained in order to ‘pass’. The trouble with this is, although it’s good to present yourself in the best possible way and wear clothes appropriate for the situation you are in, you can all too easy get hung up on trying to achieve the unattainable. Women come in all shapes and sizes, there is no ‘standard’ that a woman has to achieve. Women can stand out just as much as a trans woman, recently I spotted a woman, very smartly dressed, in a grey skirt, red top, grey fitted jacket, dark tights, and dark red heels. Her makeup was spot on as were her nails, this woman sood out to me and many others, I was in the middle of Tesco (supermarket), almost every other woman in the shop was wearing jeans. So the question is did she pass? She caused quite a number of heads to turn (male and female), this was a genetic woman by the way, but the point is she was out of place, she didn’t fit in and so became ‘visible’. My experience is dress appropriately for the situation you are in, yes make a real effort to look as good as you can without over doing it, but most importantly accept that this is you and be confident in the person you are, if you can do that you will feel more comfortable and happier. It’s then not a matter of passing but more of being accepted as you are.

    1. Good point, Andrea. For me I was just so scared. I just wanted to blend in as, like you say, an “any woman” in the grocery store or elsewhere. I’m in a safe area (Seattle) so my personal safety was probably going to be okay.

    2. Andrea: I think the standing out aspect means the person in question is the focus of attention. In the case of the person you saw, eyes were upon her and there was probably a subconscious categorisation going on (threat/neutral, person unknown/known, male/female, etc).

      When someone like us stands out through their clothing choices, I think that puts the spotlight on and then maybe we’re into that passing/acceptance situation. If there’s “low passability” and low acceptance, then that person may be at risk.

      The above feels like one of those quadrant diagrams 😁

      1. Top left (red): Low passing / low acceptance = most risk
      2. Top right (red): high passing / low acceptance = high risk if ‘read’
      3. Lower left (green): low passing / high acceptance = likely to be read, but little risk if read
      4. Lower right (green): high passing, high acceptance = unlikely to be read and little risk if read.

      It may be possible to argue that item four might lead to surprise if the Trans person has to ‘come out’ of (to use a phrase) deep stealth. See certain medical checks (smear test / prostate exam) or government systems (UK pensions are different for assigned male at birth vs assigned female at birth). Can we call this The Jones Quadrant? 😁

  7. Curiously, a lot of trans bloggers have been writing about passing this month. Yours is a useful contribution to a difficult, sensitive and complex topic. Maybe a subject I will explore in due course.

    You’ve kept your perspective on this fairly personal, and I’m inclined these days to share your view as far as my own interaction with the world goes. But for the more dysphoric, the need to pass is also connected with the need to eliminate the ‘wrongness’ the individual may feel regarding their body. Every interaction that doesn’t affirm gender can be a stab in the heart. A rejection of the physical standards or ideals that we or society have is part of the picture but I think passing reflects deeper personal needs. Passing and even rejecting the need to pass is a compromise we make between our true selves and the world so that, like so much else in life, we can get by. But it’s not a state that we actually want.

    Sue x

    1. Funny how such coincidences happen. Synchronicity perhaps? In truth, I’d had the post queued up for a time, as I try to write as the mood takes me, storing up posts and publishing each week here and there. Perhaps there was something doing the rounds a few weeks back and somehow it lodged in our collective brains? 🤔

      Thanks for the feedback on the post and I’m interested to hear what you’ve got to say in due course. In terms of experience, I think I can only take write about how I’ve felt and found over the years. It may well be different for others. 🙂

      I’m with you in that not passing can really sting. I would certainly attest to that. However, I gave up on passing and it was – to use an English phrase – “a hiding to nowhere.”. All it did was drive home how wrong things were and how far I was from the image in my head of how I thought I should look. In truth, listening to female colleagues at work, friends, and the Ever Lovely Mrs J, there’s many ways to be, so I dropped passing like a hot rock and tried to think on being the best I could with what I had.

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