I’ve been mentioning a bit lately the tendency within the trans community for trans people to operate as our own most committed, passionate gender police. The front lines of a system that sets up rigorously strict standards of what is necessary to qualify as a woman or a man, and what kinds of things will result in that identity being stripped from you.
It is intensely common on trans message boards and support groups for a considerable degree of enforcement of those standards to be passed along in the form of unsolicited “advice” and “tips”, nestled in the ostensible goal of helping the individual whose gender expression you’re reprimanding along in their transition.
Tips will be provided on how to dress. What facial features should be surgically modified. Which cosmetics should be worn and in what degree. Which hobbies and interests need to be abandoned, and which taken on. What “male” elements of a personality need to be pruned away, and in what ways your overall identity should be subjugated beneath the demands of a culture that has built its conception of womanhood on misogynistic principles, and conform to its idea of womanhood… an idea that places it as strictly subservient to men. How you should wear your hair. How big your breasts should be. What your genitals should look like. What emotions you should be feeling. Etc.
There is a near total lack of self-reflection as to how these standards are not only sexist, but also bundled up with racism, ableism and other concepts of what a normative body and beauty are to be. And if you’re simply unable to meet these standards, due to aspects of your body or mind that are beyond your control, you will be held accountable for that “failure”, and reprimanded as such, regardless… if not outright excluded from the community, and its supports.
“Hi, nice to meet you. So my doctor said I should meet other trans women, before I begin medical transition, so I can get an idea of–”
“Well, first of all, I can say you’re probably going to need at least $20,000 worth of FFS”
(facial feminization surgery)
The underlying concept on which almost all of this hinges is “passability”. There are a number of related concepts that each deserve investigation in their own right… to what degree are “passability” and “beauty” interchangeable, if at all? Politically speaking, why should our goal necessarily be to appear to be cis? To what degree is “passing” tied up into normative standards of appearance, along such lines as race and ability? If we’re to bury our authentic selves beneath a more “passable” persona, what was the point of transitioning in the fist place? Why are the standards by which a trans woman is said to “pass” as female so much stricter than the standards placed on cis women? What classism might be lurking in the demands we place on people to pursue expensive surgeries, or even expensive clothes and cosmetics, in order for their gender to be considered legitimate? Are we really offering “passing tips” on behalf of the individual we claim to be trying to “help”, or is this really all about validating ourselves at their expense? And to what degree are we supporting a patriarchal notion of womanhood and gender essentialism with what we do and do not define as “passing” for female?
All of those are extremely good questions to be asking. Some of them don’t necessarily have easy answers (the issue of “why do we want to pass?” in particular is very, very complex), but they’re all worth exploring, and, although they don’t get asked nearly often enough on the message boards and in the support groups, discussion is emerging in trans-feminism, for which I am grateful.
But there’s a particular big question that I’m not sure has gotten as much attention as it deserves, that concerns a particular foundational keystone on which much of the structure is built. Is it really necessary to “pass” in order to be seen as your identified sex?
One of the majour criticisms of the term “passing” itself is how it’s predicated on the concept of “passing yourself off as” something. Customarily, when we use the term “passing” in other contexts, it’s to successfully be perceived as a member of a category to which you don’t “belong”. To pass for rich (or poor). To pass for white or black. To pass for able-bodied. Etc.
So, if we are using the term “passing” in the sense of a trans woman “passing as a woman” or a trans man “passing as a man”, we are directly suggesting that a trans woman is not really a woman, a trans man is not really a man, they’re only ever passing themselves off as such. Obviously that’s a pretty fucked up way to look at things.
But we can look at it from a different angle. Perhaps what we mean in saying “passing” is that we’re “passing as cis”. Suddenly the meaning becomes rather different, and certain individuals’ focus on issues of passability starts making a bit more sense (those for whom the maintenance of stealth is a safety issue, for instance, or necessary for holding onto their careers). This is part of why it’s been relatively easy in trans-feminist circles to substitute describing someone as “passable” for describing them as having “conditional cis privilege”.
But if that were the case, the degree to which “passing” is often coached in a terminology of behaving, dressing, walking, talking, etc. “like a girl/woman/boy/man” wouldn’t make any sense, nor would the degree to which it is considered compulsory to make a certain degree of “effort” in regard to passing in order for the legitimacy of one’s gender identity to go unquestioned.
We could, in theory, salvage the concept of “passing” from its creepy implications if it meant only to “pass” as cisgender, but that’s not how we use it. The truth is that the few communities where this is the understood objective of “passing” are not the ones who so intensely lean on the concept, or use it as an excuse to police other trans people’s gender expression. Those few communities don’t often use the term at all. “Passing”, where it is so closely held as essential to being a “real” woman or man or transsexual, is hitched up to gender itself. The mentality is that if you’re not doing everything you possibly can to pass (and some things you possibly can’t), you’re not actually “trying”, and therefore not actually the gender you claim. Instead, so the theory goes, you’re just too much a member of your assigned sex to “give up” all the various “masculine” or “feminine” aspects of your appearance, personality, sexuality, etc.
But is “passing” really necessarry? Is it really a binary trait, with “passable” trans people on one side and “non-passable” trans people on the other? Is it really a case where you’re either seen as a member of your identified sex or as a member of your assigned sex? Is there a loose thread we can tug at here?
Personally, I believe it’s a lot more nuanced than that. For one thing, there’s the old criticism of the term “passing” that it is structured as a verb where the trans person is the active party. Under the usual framework, we’re the ones responsible, and we’re the ones who supposedly are determining what happens. We either “pass” or we don’t. But in actuality, it could perhaps more realistically be understood as a situation where everyone around us is gendering us, and they either do so correctly, or they don’t. We don’t “pass”. We get “gendered correctly”.
Another issue is how intensely contextual it is. Who is the person gendering us, their background and experiences, how much attention they’re paying, whether they have any prior knowledge or “clues”, whether they have reason to scrutinize us, whether or not they’re distracted by something else, the lighting, the duration of the encounter, whether or not we talk, etc. …all of that can influence whether we’re read as cis or read as trans, or whether we’re gendered male or female.
Both of those issues have been talked about before. But where I don’t see much attention being paid is the question of whether there are really only two categories into which we can be gendered. As mentioned, “passing” can be understood as either about male/female, or about trans/cis. So really, there’s at least four different ways an act of gendering can occur. Someone perceives us as a cis woman, a cis man, a trans woman or a trans man. And that’s the bare minimum. When we remember that man/woman aren’t the only possible iterations of gender, nor are male/female the only possible iterations of sex, the possibilities as to how we’re gendered in a given encounter are significantly broader.
What I’d most like to suggest here, though, is that being read as trans and being gendered as our assigned sex are two completely different things. Just because someone reads me as a trans woman does not mean they see me as a man.
And I don’t simply mean they’re willing to humour me.
The idea I’ve been thinking of lately is something I’ve been calling “conceptual gendering”. You know how when you’re like on a bus or train or something, and you see someone with an androgynous presentation or appearance, and you find yourself kind of compulsively trying to gender them? And it can get a bit frustrating if you can’t figure out how to place them? And you know how that suddenly becomes a whole lot easier and less frustrating once you allow room in your head for more than two categories?
Also, you ever notice how quickly we gender the people around us? How the vast, vast majority of the time, we instantly conceptually categorize the people around us into “men” and “women”, and once we’ve made that categorization, it becomes really hard to break? And how this process of instant categorization is very rarely ever interrupted, as in the very rare instances that produce the situation I described in the preceding paragraph?
This lightning-fast, intuitive process of conceptually categorizing people is what I mean by “conceptual gendering”, and it’s something very distinct from the separate issue of whether or not we read someone as trans. A read occurs sometimes, but almost always after the fact of the initial conceptualization. That lightning-fast, reflexive fact of being conceptually gendered one way or the other is exactly what allows most trans people, even those who don’t flawlessly “pass”, to move through the world and live normal lives anyway. We run into issues of people staring, or misgendering us, only when the encounters slow down long enough for them to scrutinize. But even in those instances, the majority of people, the ones who don’t have silly hang-ups over this kind of thing, will just proceed to treat us and think of us as members of our presented gender anyway, despite realizing we’re trans.
Again, not because they’re all just so terribly educated and enlightened and trans-positive, or because they’re patronizingly humouring us, but beccause they’ve already mentally categorized us. The conceptual categories that exist in most people’s heads on that deep, fundamental, intuitive, reflexive level are “men” and “women”. “Trans” and “cis” exist at a much higher, more formal level of cognition. By the time you get there, you’ve already intuitively decided what we are and all the various mental processes you’ve built as to how you think of and treat different genders differently are going to fall along with that initial categorization.
Unless they have hang-ups. Then they get all flummoxed and confused and stare and ask insensitive questions and generally act like assholes. But what doesn’t happen is a mental rewrite of the initial conceptual gendering, where they effortlessly fall into the mental patterns with which they react to members of our assigned sex. The fact that this mental rewrite is so difficult is precisely what gets them all flummoxed into staring and general assholery. It’s a cognitive dissonance between the part of their brain that says “trans women are really men!” and the part of their brain that already categorized us as women.
Ask any trans person. The people who knew you in your pre-transition life WILL treat you differently than the people who’ve only known you since transition, regardless of how out or “passable” you are. That’s because the people from your old life already conceptually gendered you as A, and have a really hard time changing that, whereas the people in your new life have conceptually gendered you as B, and treat you accordingly, regardless of whether or not they know you’re trans.
I’d also hold that that difference, written as it is in the subconscious biases, the little things, the details, is much stronger than the difference in how you’re treated by someone who knows you’re trans and someone who doesn’t.
It is entirely possible to be thought of, conceptually, as a member of your identified sex while being out as trans, and to be treated as such by the people around you, even those who, intellectually, refuse to acknowledge the full legitimacy of your gender. The intensity of those categorizations is just too strong and, as strange as it may sound, actually works in our favour. Once they’ve seen a woman, they can’t fully see a man. Not without a lot of effort and help, anyway (help which we’re not going to provide them).
So there’s really two different things we need to think about if we’re to have a realistic concept of “passing” and “gendering”. One is the way that we’re seen as a man or a woman, conceptually speaking, which determines how all the subconscious biases and habits and stuff are going to play out, and whether we’re seen as trans or cis, which will determine whether cognitive dissonance, intellectual opinions, hang-ups, politics, transphobia, sexual insecurities and so forth are going to enter into the dynamic (often with admittedly horrible results). But recognizing that these are two different things is important.
As is recognizing that it isn’t necessary to pass as cis to be understood and treated as your true gender. The legitimacy of that gender, or even its acceptance, is not dependent on falling in line with the gender police’s “passing tips”.
Admittedly, not every trans person is going to be conceptually gendered the way they want to be. And admittedly, dehumanization can be an even more powerful force than how a human being is perceived. But there’s no reason we have to continue acting like the inability to meet those ridiculously high standards for “passing” is necessary to live one’s life in the gender you feel is right for you.
Obscuring the difference between these ways human beings are perceived is one of the best weapons in the arsenal of the HBSers and other capos of cissexism, one of the best means they have of making us feel like we need to play along with those structures in order for our gender to be “real”. Let’s take that weapon away from them. All we have to do is notice what they’ve been ignoring.