For those not aware, “passing” is a term that refers to being perceived as cisgender when you’re trans. It’s often used in reference to walking down the street or having mundane interactions with strangers. Basically, it means successfully having it gone unnoticed that you are transgender.
I want to stress right now I have no issue whatsoever with any trans person who wants to be seen as cisgender. We live in a world where being seen as trans can be lethal. For some, “passing” isn’t just an inclination but a necessity to get through the day. In reality being seen as cisgender not only increases safety but eliminates misgendering, which can be very upsetting. Meanwhile, it can also alleviate gender dysphoria or simply be a preference. Every trans person has the right to pursue “passing” if that’s what they want for themselves.
But there’s a problem around “passing” in that the media consistently focuses on it as the ultimate goal for all trans people. They present it as some sort of prize that all of us should strive for, the day when we’re no longer seen as transgender.
This is a damaging message for a multitude of reasons and a concept I entirely reject.
I don’t want a society where trans people have more ways to “pass”, where we’re encouraged to hate the parts of ourselves that don’t conform to heteronormative beauty standards. I want a society where we don’t have to look cisgender just to be respected.
If as a society we strive to simply make it easier for trans people to hide the fact they’re trans, or encourage all trans people to look cisgender, then we’re not dealing with the root of the problem. The real cause of transphobia isn’t being recognised as trans, it’s that some people still treat trans people like dirt.
The media perpetuate the idea that being trans is undesirable and have a lot of culpability here, whether it’s explicitly through jokes, or in more subtle ways such as language choice when reporting on trans people. The message is the same: trans people should look cis and not looking cis is worthy of mockery or akin to failure.
If we create a climate where the media only panders to pretty “passing” trans people, which arguably is where we are right now, then we haven’t achieved trans acceptance. All we’ve reached is an environment where it’s safe to conform to heteronormative binary gendered expectations. That’s not even a standard that all of us can reach, never mind want to.
Another issue wrapped up in the “passing” debate, which seems to often be overlooked, is not every trans person even identifies on a binary spectrum. Not every trans person wants to “pass” as male or female because they are neither male nor female to begin with.
Regardless of how you identity, when you’re transgender misgendering hurts, it sucks. If you’re a trans person you know it’s difficult to control how you feel when you’re referred to by the wrong pronoun in public, some people can shrug it off and for others it really stings. It’s a sad reality that the blame is often placed on trans people when they’re misgendered, claiming they didn’t “pass well”, when the real long term solution is that both cis and trans people need to realise that you can never know someone’s gender. Until someone tells you what gender they are, then we need to respect that we cannot assume it. Ever. What someone is wearing, how they move, or how they look, does not indicate their gender. It is not anyone’s responsibility to convince others of what gender they are through performance or presentation. Trans people deserve to be believed and respected when they explain what gender they are, regardless. That’s the message the media should be pushing.
“Passing” as a concept puts the responsibility on the trans person themselves to prove or establish their gender before they’ve even said a word. It’s a standard cis people are not held to, it’s unreasonable and downright unfair to expect trans people to maintain it.
Most simply, we will not achieve trans liberation until “passing” is purely a personal preference and not about finding safety and respect. Until someone can “look transgender” either through choice or otherwise, and still have people respect what gender they are once they state it, then we’ve not reached a place where every trans person is equal.
The concept of “passing”, as a requisite for respecting and legitimising someone’s gender, needs to end.
I write this not because I want to nitpick or pointlessly complain, but because I’m worried the trans movement is leaving people behind in the name of progress and I don’t want to subscribe to a brand of trans activism which only furthers the interests of one group.
We need to fight for a trans activism which carries everybody forward, because otherwise, what’s the point?
Note: This article is adapted from a tweet thread I made last week, which you can read here. Meanwhile, I also want to mention my good friend Laura Kate Dale also wrote about passing recently here in a great article of her own, which you should also check out.