I hate the term “passing.” It stems from a fundamentally transphobic and cissexist viewpoint, and casts trans people as deceptive. So, I greatly prefer the phrase “read as cis” to the term “passing” and I wish the trans community could slough off the feeling of need that drives many of us—including me, at times—to obsess with the idea of being read as cis.
However, as much as I wish it wasn’t, “passing” is a thing. The term, like the concept it’s attached to, hangs on due to the fear it taps into—the fear that has kept me, and many others, closeted or constantly on guard most of our lives.
Fear that it was wrong to “want to be a girl” kept me from saying anything when I was four and grappling with who I am. Fear that people would think I was a freak, and no one would ever love me kept me from saying anything when I was 12, even when I knew that there were others out there like me. Fear of not passing rose up after I came out to my mom in desperation at 17, and back into the closet I went. Looking back at this, I now realize that all of these fears were rooted in the fact that I felt the cis gaze before I even knew what the word “gaze” meant.
When I came out again at 29, I was still deathly afraid of not passing. Desperation had simply forced my hand—again.
Early on in my transition—with my short hair; my beard shadow; my long, angular face; and my testosterone-corrupted body—some of my trans friends told me that time and hormone therapy was all I’d need to pass. They said that I had it easy. I didn’t believe them.
When, a few months later, I got a new job and started presenting as a woman full time, I did so knowing two things:
- I didn’t pass, and
- The fact that I was able to get a job as a non-passing trans woman could be put down to the various privileges I benefit from (I’m white, highly educated, live in a progressive state, and work in a progressive field etc.).
These facts, combined with my desire to be a visible advocate for trans people, drove me to put LGBT and trans flag buttons on my work lanyard (which I still wear). I was trying to claim a level of pride I didn’t actually have while also trying to deflect any strange looks or comments. Even still, every day was a battle between my fear of not passing and my need to be me.
At one point, a couple months into going full time, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I was misgendered by someone who didn’t know me before transition. Like some sort of shitty cliche, men were suddenly holding doors for me, and interrupting me in meetings. Other women started talking to me in the bathroom—which threw me for a loop because I was still focused on washing my hands and scurrying out as quickly as possible due to my fear of someone deciding to yell, “Tranny!”
I put this shift down to privilege—obviously, everyone was just being polite. I held onto my fear.
But then, a couple months later, I started to realize that maybe people weren’t just being nice—maybe they were just oblivious. Maybe these poor, simple cis people simply couldn’t see the obvious signs in the short time I interacted with them. I told myself I needed to stay vigilant, and that if I let anything slip, I’d be screwed—privilege only gets you so far when you’re trans.
Another two months went by. I’d been full time for eight months, and it had been a full half of a year since I was misgendered by anyone that met me after transition. I had presented an hour-long session at an education conference without getting any weird looks or comments. At another work event, I had a cis man from rural Colorado I’d been talking to for fifteen minutes tell me I reminded him of his daughter.
These things had me floored. Surely, if my appearance wasn’t getting me clocked (read as trans), my voice must be! I’d only been working on my voice for eight months full-time, and it still sounded like shit. Didn’t it?
I have been forced to admit I actually pass 90% of the time—even in longer interactions. I have accumulated, through HRT and the genetic lottery, yet another privilege: at a little over a year of HRT, I throw up a couple flags here and there, but the times in which I am clocked are few and far between. Those who suspect I’m trans are either trans themselves, or not all that confident in that assessment.
I sometimes trans fail (fail to be perceived as trans) with my electrologist. This is the woman I have been paying—since before I started to present as a woman—to zap away the remnants of my beard. She asked me, on a particularly painful day, if I was close to having my period because women often report more pain around that time. Yep. That happened.
I realize now that my fear of not passing had formed a sort of symbiotic relationship with my need to feel comfortable in my own body, and my wish to be conventionally pretty. This blinded me to the fact that I started being read as cis months ago. Understanding this has helped my fear of not passing start to subside. However, I’m starting to understand some of the difficulties that trans women who are read as cis often face.
Instead of worrying about being visibly trans, I now worry about what would happen if I were outed to someone who assumed I was cis. I wonder whether my being outed would result in violence (as it often does for trans women), or simply being looked at differently. One is certainly worse than the other, but neither is a good thing.
I wonder if I should avoid telling stories from my past, or mentioning my love of woodworking—because maybe that would be the final piece in the puzzle for someone trying to clock me. In my more vulnerable moments, I even wonder if I could or should go “stealth” with all but my closest friends and family—which makes me feel disgusted.
It makes me feel disgusted with myself, with society, and with the fact there is no winning when you’re trans—even when you benefit from a whole host of different forms of privilege, and fairly reliably “pass.” Then, I get angry. I get angry that I ever let my fear of not passing drive my decisions, and that passing only shifts my fear elsewhere.
But, there’s not much I can do about my anger other than try to be visible in the hopes that it will somehow make things better for others. So, I wake up in the morning, go to work, and put on my buttons.