We Need To Talk About The Myth of “Passing” In The Trans Community
Some transgender men and women place so much weight on their perceived visual presentation that it usurps their right to thrive.
Ever since I found my home in the transgender community many years ago, one common myth has persisted: A trans person must “Pass” as their preferred gender in order to be allowed their identity. The value placed on passing has had so much significance placed on it by transgender folks that I have witnessed it contribute to the emotional and psychological downfall of tremendously good people who have been victim to this imposed ideaology that a transgender person cannot “Look” transgender, or possess any characteristics of their birth assigned gender. These men and women suffer indelible consequences; Self hatred, social anxieties, depression, self imposed isolation. Their hyper-focus on “Passing” impedes their ability to identify their own positive qualities and substance of power.
Let’s call “Passing” what it really is: The desire to meet the standard of an external social gaze. The privilege of blending in with the rest of society as a “norm” rather than stand out as an “other.” I am not sure why no one has told these incredible people why standing out is far more powerful than falling into formation to satisfy the often unreasonable definitions of femininity and masculinity as if they have firm definitions… they don’t. I know many women with masculine traits, wide shoulders for example, arms with ample hair, some stand over six feet tall or are mistaken for a man on the telephone because their voice is not received as explicitly female. There are men with small waists, even proud busts that make small-breasted women jealous. Some have soft features or mannerisms that have been classified as traditionally feminine. Cisgender people, even with these vast variations in appearances and mannerisms rarely suffer a blow to their quality of life as a result of not fitting into socially constructed molds of how men and women develop. That fact is, while masculinity and femininity are identifiable characteristics, they are not and never have been exclusive to men or women, transgender or not.
When I moved into my first apartment, my landlord was a 55 year old art teacher. When I first called the number on the “FOR RENT” sign in the window of that two story home on the corner of my one streetlight town, I thought I was speaking to a woman when he answered. When we met for the showing, I was surprised to discover that it was him. He wasn’t trans. He was actually a straight, married man with three kids. However, his shrill voice and flamboyant gestures fetched a lot of attention in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. I’d hear other young folks talk about him and throw a limp wrist around to imply he was gay. If it bothered him, he never let on. Despite my initial misstep of referring to him as Ma’am on the telephone, he never bothered to correct me, which is why it blindsided me when I met that portly, balding little man and he greeted me with that voice from the phone. I imagine he was so used to it that the infraction simply never fazed him anymore. He was confident enough in his identity that he didn’t feel it was necessary to bring my expectations into alignment by means of aggressively correcting my pronouns or taking any offense to my error.
As trans people, we don’t allow ourselves that luxury. The demand we place on ourselves to satisfy the external gaze becomes nearly excessive, thus, self destructive. What does the perfect woman look like? How does she sound? The ideal man?
There is no schematic to follow, no rules of gender presentation or characteristics we must or must not have in order to embody our gender identity. We have made them up. Society has influenced our idea of what a man or a woman is- what makes them attractive. The men on the cover of GQ and the women staring back at us in the centerfold of Cosmo are not reality. They are caricatures, often styled, manufactured and edited to deceive us into the belief that is the standard we must reach for. No one is exempt from being disillusioned by looking at those images, then at themselves, and feeling that pang of defeat as they realize that is not them. They are too short, too heavy, their nose is too big, their hairline too far back, their teeth more crooked than the person in the check out line in front of them so they put their hand over their mouth when they smile.
To some trans folks, passing means not being identified- or targeted- because of their gender presentation versus their physical build. I get it. The path of least resistance is the one where we don’t have to stop and explain or deal with the clerk at the gas station misgendering us when we pay for our items. We don’t have to endure the awkward apologies that follow, or worse, the incriminating whispers we observe from onlookers. Passing ultimately means avoiding unwanted attention. But, that isn’t specific to us trans people. It happens to the girl with more body mass who gets heckled in a restaurant, or man given side-eye for his embellished tattoos. Someone is always going to clutch their pearls at those whose physical body design departs from ideological proportion or expression.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring that path of least resistance. We all want that emboldened confidence we see pretty girls or handsome guys who were fortunate enough to fall between the goal posts have, but it’s not the norm, my friends. For any gender.
We don’t all come from the same mold. I want to remind you that you are a one of a kind. You are a piece of atomic art. Your value is priceless, thus shouldn’t be determined by the satisfaction of any of the strangers who populate the world. We live in our skin, and while doing what we must to feel good about ourselves, to walk with our head held high is absolutely vital, our self image is just that… our self image. We own that. When we hand the power to the greater world to create our image for us, we will forever be reaching to attain a level of ever-shifting terms of acceptability, and more for the comfort of others than for ourselves.
It took me decades to learn that lesson. I was that person who lived in a state of perpetual angst over how my gender was perceived and accepted. Until others were indifferent to me, I refused to be satisfied with myself. Indeed, I wasn’t looking to be held up as a pinnacle of beauty- I repeat, I only wanted people to be indifferent to my gender as I navigated my way over the terrain of life. I hinged my happiness on that.
When I was told that traditional transition wasn’t an option for me, I was devastated. I suffer from a genetic defect called MTFHR- a disorder that causes me to produce high homocysteine levels, predisposing me to blood clots that can result in heart attack or stroke. As a result of this inherited defect, hormone replacement therapy was not an option. The risks associated with the medication amplified those I already faced.
It was a rough journey, I’ll be honest. I had to come to terms with the fact that no part of me would physically feminize. I was burdened with this damn course black facial hair, thanks to my Lebanese decent. The thick, black leg hair growth, the hairy arms and heavy brow. These things, I though, made me male. I envied women with their peach fuzz arms and legs who only bothered to shave once a month, as where I saw myself as an amalgamate of constant maintenance, which I did exhaustively, only to feel defeated as my male features betrayed me. What kind of life would I have if I lived under constant scrutiny. People will know. People will stare. People will laugh.
Oddly enough, before I acknowledged- or even knew what Transgender meant, I thought I was just an effeminate gay man. As a teenager I, like my landlord I would meet years later, had an unusually high pitched voice for a male. I endured so much abuse for not sounding enough like a boy throughout my school years. My own mother would make fun of me, mimicking my voice when I’d talk. I refused to speak on my answering machine, and lowered my voice if I had to speak on the phone. At Sixteen years old, I started smoking after reading a story in a magazine about a rock singer who smoked before each concert to lower his voice and hit the bass notes. I smoked and smoked like a house on fire hoping beyond hopes, ironically, that I would sound like a man should sound.
You see, no matter which direction my gender pendulum swung, I was trying to embody what I thought was right according to everyone else instead of accepting the body I lived in. The lengths I went to in order to first be perceived as qualifying as male, to then taking on the task of qualifying as a woman kept me so wrapped up in fitting in, that I never appreciated that I stood out.
I can say that now. We underestimate our value in that, perhaps, we don’t tic every box in the “I MUST BE THIS… TO BE THIS” survey. We have conditioned ourselves to believe that passing is the penultimate achievement of the trans experience. We’ve sabotaged ourselves by being the first to criticize and reject ourselves before anyone else might have the opportunity to. If we don’t like what we see looking back at us in a mirror image… well, we accept immediately that no one else will like it either. We overwhelm ourselves with an inordinate amount of stress wondering if anyone out there will accept us as the gender we are… if we’ll be called “Sir” despite our tireless efforts to pass, if we’ll be called “Ma’am” regardless of our visibly male attire or short haircut.
Part of the new resistance and pursuit of pride begins with self love. For some, surgical intervention is the answer, for others, it is not necessary. Even still, there are a whole other sect of individuals who fall somewhere in the middle. Yet, none are more or less valid as men or women than the next. We have different intentions, desires and degrees of dysphoria, most certainly, but if the idea of “Passing” has you finding yourself alone, unattractive, or a lesser equivalent to those you hold on high as a gender goal, you’re undermining the gift of the trans journey, which is, in part to ask society to conform to a state of acceptance rather than you bearing the burden of changing yourself simply to gain it by passing. We trans people have influenced so much change in how the greater world adapts to pronoun usage, well beyond the “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” that once plagued us. Now, we have awareness, and it wasn’t because we hid ourselves away until we fit the world view of femininity and masculinity.
We changed that world view.
I wish I could, in one post, take the weighty stress that maybe you’ve experienced over your appearance and physical body design. I wish I could reassure you that you are a man, or a woman, as you present, and that your big arms or wide hips play no part in validating you as authentic in your gender identity… but I know it does in your ability to love yourself. However, may I remind you that hating yourself for it isn’t going to make anyone else love you more. In fact, most of those who inhabit your world, those in your orbit, they will love you as you are, and support you in the path you choose to take.
Maybe, they wish you loved yourself as much as they do.