I get a bit frustrated on occasion with how much us transy types limit ourselves when discussing the issue of passing. We hold ourselves back from really getting into the thick of what it suggests and implies, how it operates, what it means about concepts of minority status and privilege in a general sense beyond just what it means for us, what it means in terms of cisnormative assumptions that “passing” is even really possible in the first place not just what it means that it is, etc. Complicated and loaded enough as it is, so much seems to get so regularly left out of that discussion.
One thing that I really wish we were a bit more willing to talk about is how while “passing” is an extremely important and perhaps much more central issue for trans people than for other oppressed groups, given how it impacts not only risk and discrimination but the validation of one’s identity (similar to how the idea of being “out of the closet” means something entirely different in a trans context than it does in LGB contexts or atheist contexts), passing is nonetheless something that does operate along other axes of identity. Class-passing, passing as straight, passing as able-bodied, even passing as white, are all things that operate in the social dynamics of those respective issues and markers of identity.
Intersectionality is obviously important, and being willing to consider and educate yourself in how discrimination and oppression operate along other axes than just the ones that affect you directly is pretty fundamental to being a decent human being. But beyond just that, remembering to think about what passing looks like and means in different contexts can provide very crucial insight into how it operates in our own.
For instance, Class-passing is something that is extremely common, but usually a deliberate act, even if subconscious, and interestingly occurs both up AND down the lines of privilege, where in other contexts passing only tends to occur in terms of the oppressed party passing as the privileged (except in the case of sociological experiments, like “Black Like Me”). While passing as a racial identity other than one’s own is something relatively rare, and that is rarely really intentionally strived for but rather an erasure imposed on someone due to various ethnocentric assumptions in play about what a given race is “supposed” to look like, and in the absence of those visible signs, perceptions may default to the privileged “normal” race, white.
And in the instance of LGBTQA people, passing is, at some point or another something that does, inevitably, due to the heteronormativity and cisnormativity saturating our culture and perceptions, simply happen to us. Virtually all LGBTQA folk have been, at some point in their lives, read as straight and cis, and treated accordingly. For LGBA folk, that occurs in whatever time preceded coming out, and whatever instances occur afterward in which you may be in the presence of people who simply assume the heterosexual “default”. For trans people, this is almost the entirety of our lives prior to transition, and then becomes a fact that becomes intensely (and intensely complicatedly) interwoven into our existence and identities, through all the complexities of what we usually speak of when we speak of “passing” in a trans context.
The ultimate effect is that queer people, and perhaps especially trans people, have all been fully exposed to our culture’s unguarded attitudes about us. So many gay men have been in the presence of straight men who assumed no gay people to be present and made homophobic jokes, called one another faggot, openly displayed their insensitivity (or perhaps open contempt) of gay men, offered their opinions on it, etc. So many bisexual people have been in the presence of people talking about bisexuality not really existing (or just as stupidly, “everyone is really bi”), or just doing for attention, or being unable to make up their minds, or being self-hating gay men and lesbians. So many lesbians have been subjected to heteronormative questions asking all about whether they’re married and if they have kids without for a moment considering just how much such interrogations can sting when directed towards someone who is not afforded those assumed “normal” aspects of a woman’s life so easily, and for whom it certainly isn’t just some given about what you’re supposed to do with your life.
And every trans woman has heard the awful, despicable, hateful, mocking, sneering, condescending, theorizing, self-righteous, invalidating, fucked-up shit you cis people say behind our backs whenever the uncomfortable fact that we exist manages to momentarily not escape your notice.
Let’s make this clear: there is no behind our backs.
I know I often seem rather excessively angry and frustrated and disappointed. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is definitely the fact that I know exactly the kinds of things that cis people say about women like me. I’ve heard those conversations. I’m participated in them. I know that we’re often described as all crazy and loopy and emotionally fucked-up damaged goods. I know that people love chatting with one another about the degree to which they regard us as creepy, repulsive and unfuckable, and that the question of whether someone would be “willing” (sorry, just to need to pause for a moment to say fuck you for framing it like that) to sleep with a trans woman is treated as a bit of a “would you rather?” / “truth or dare” style question, meant to probe for “flaws” in one another. I know that cis people enjoy ponitificating on what exactly we are, and what our gender or sex “really” is, without bothering to put any effort whatsoever into actually educating themselves about it. I know about the Silence Of The Lambs and Crying Game jokes. I know about the casual use of “tranny” and “shemale” and “trap”. I know about how the simple suggestion of someone maybe being trans elicits raucous laughter because gender variance is just SOOOOO side-splittingly hilarious, the perfect punchline. I know ALL of that. And I know so much more, and so much I wish I didn’t know.
We were never even given a chance NOT to know. We’ve been intimately acquainted with the hatred directed towards us since we were little kids, first exchanging juvenile taunts of “cooties”. And that deeply colours our perceptions of the situation. We’ve all become acquainted with it through being mistaken for “one of you”, and even when not, its ubiquity (through the culture and media ALWAYS assuming the audience is purely cisgender, everything always being seen and interpreted through a cisgender perspective) makes it unavoidable anyway.
It’s also very much compounded by just how small a minority we are. Cis people can get away with assuming that we simply can’t possibly exist in their immediate, real life, because the vast majority of the time, we don’t. But you know how white people will do that awful little “look around” thing before telling a racist joke, to make sure there’s no people of colour around who might take offense (with the really, really creepy way that they just assume that because you’re white, you won’t mind, pulling you in as a complacent party to their racist bullshit and forcing you into the awful and awkward position of having to choose between confronting them and getting into what’s likely to be a hostile / defensive exchange, or becoming a tacit participant in something horrible)? That little “so this priest and this..” -looks left, looks right- “…black guy walk into a bar…” thing? When it comes to jokes at the expense of trans people, they never even bother with the look around. In their world, trans people are just this weird exotic abnormality, like Elvis or cowboys or mimes, who only exist in the jokes, or on TV. They couldn’t possibly actually be around in real life. Or in the room. Or much less be one of the people they’re addressing with their transphobic bullshit. Heck… as said, they assume there can’t even possibly be anyone who’d be bothered by said bullshit.
Not that the whole checking thing really matters. Because individual offense is beside the point. Cumulative effects, consequences, the enforcement of social inequities, the climate of hatred and ridicule and marginalization, the normalization of discrimination, that’s the issue. But the fact that trans people are so painfully aware of these things, how casually accepted transphobia is, ends up creating a particularly loaded situation.
None of us are really going to be easily deceived into thinking we’re fully accepted just because that’s how you treat the trans people you happen to know are trans. We know what’s said behind our backs. And we’re angry about it. And we’re not going to forget.
As always, ethics and being a good person is not defined by who you are and what you do when you’re afraid of the consequences or being exposed. It’s defined by who you are in the dark.
We’ve seen who you are in the dark.
It will take a lot to forgive.