Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. The term “passing” is typically used to describe whether or not a trans person is perceived as noticeably trans. For a trans woman, to “pass” is to be seen as a cis woman in everyday life, and vice versa for trans men. Most people tend to assume that passing is or should be a goal for every trans person, and it’s easy to see why. Some of us do find it necessary to look like cis people of our gender, because that’s what it takes to relieve our dysphoria. In other cases, the changes that we need in order to feel comfortable just happen to push us more in the direction of passing. And when people don’t know we’re trans, it can eliminate some of the insecurities that can arise when people do know, like wondering if they really see us as our gender or they’re just humoring us.
More than that, being visibly trans in public can be dangerous. In a study of over 6,000 trans people in the United States, those who were seen as “visually non-conforming” were more likely to be harassed in retail stores, hotels and restaurants, and they were more likely to be attacked when using public accommodations such as restrooms. Practically all of us have faced the fear or the terrifying reality of being heckled by strangers just because of what we look like. Passing isn’t just about aiming to reduce our own dysphoria – it’s also about keeping ourselves safe from everyone else.
“Men in dresses”: Cultural pressures in passing
All trans people should have the choice to express their gender in the way that’s most comfortable for them, but there are many such pressures that limit our choices, and passing can have more to do with cis people’s comfort than our own. Pediatric endocrinologist Norman Spack pioneered the usage of puberty blocking drugs for trans teenagers in the US, allowing them to experience a puberty that’s appropriate for their gender. This can be a lifesaving treatment for trans kids, and it can help reduce their need for future procedures to remove unwanted masculine or feminine features. Yet in a 2013 TEDx talk, Dr. Spack used one of his patients as an example of how his treatment can make trans people physically nonthreatening to others in restrooms:
“There was a bill that would block the right of transgender people in Maine to use public bathrooms, and it looked like the bill was going to pass, and that would have been a problem, but Nicole went personally to every legislator in Maine and said, ‘I can do this. If they see me, they’ll understand why I’m no threat in the lady’s room, but I can be threatened in the men’s room.’ And then they finally got it.”
A trans person obviously doesn’t become more or less of an actual threat to anyone based on how masculine or feminine they look. But when this treatment is advertised as a way to give us a body that cis people are more comfortable around, that’s just legitimizing their restroom-related fears and working within them. It leaves that particular prejudice completely unchallenged.
This isn’t the only instance where cis people have unwittingly revealed how much they’ve internalized media stereotypes while trying to express support for trans children. In the 2012 book Far from the Tree, one mother said:
“She won’t have testosterone ravaging her body. … So she’ll never get an Adam’s apple or facial hair. She’ll never look like a man in a dress.”
That particular phrase, “a man in a dress”, seems to turn up over and over:
“I don’t know that she would have survived male puberty. You know, how’s she going to prove to someone that she is a girl? At best, you know, she would have been shaving every day and been the man in a dress, and that might be great for some people, but it certainly wasn’t who she is.”
“They were making a transition in their 40s, 30s-plus… And especially in the case of the male to females, they weren’t looking particularly female. … If people said ‘man in a skirt’, a lot of them would have conformed to that…”
Now, are we really supposed to believe that women who transition after puberty all look like “men in dresses”? How much of this comes from an actual understanding of what it’s like to be trans – and how much of it comes from cis people who’ve watched Mrs. Doubtfire and Drag Race too many times?
Physical and financial constraints
Even if we do want to look just like cis people, there are so many factors that can make this difficult or impossible. For instance, an early treatment protocol isn’t even available to most trans people: puberty blockers for trans youth were only introduced in the late 1990s in the Netherlands, in the mid-2000s in the US, and in 2011 in England. There are still only a handful of dedicated gender clinics for children in the US, and these treatments often aren’t covered by insurance companies, assuming that a child’s parents are even willing to help them transition. And this is a moot point for many of us, since not everyone is aware that they’re trans from an early age – far from it. A 2009 study in the UK reported that the median age of trans people first seeking treatment was 42 and rising.
In adulthood, there’s only so much that transitioning can do for us in terms of appearance. As a group, we display the same wide range of physical masculinity and femininity as cis people, and as many trans people say: your mileage may vary. It’s important to remember that gender dysphoria can happen to anyone. This may seem obvious, but not everyone who transitions is going to end up looking like Laverne Cox or Andreja Pejic. There are still limits to what modern medicine can do, and there are aspects of the skeletal structure that can’t be changed after puberty, such as height, shoulder width, hip size, hands and feet. When so much of this comes down to biological chance, it’s simply unrealistic to expect that every single one of us will be indistinguishable from a cis person of our gender.
As for what is possible, surgical aspects of transitioning can cost tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, and are rarely covered by healthcare plans. Facial feminization surgery for trans women consists of a number of different procedures, and can easily add up to anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000. Chest surgery for trans men can cost $8,000 or more, and vaginoplasty for trans women can cost $10,000 to $20,000. Given that 14% of trans people are unemployed, 44% are underemployed, and 15% had a household income of less than $10,000 a year, these procedures can often be totally out of our reach. When’s the last time you had $40,000 just sitting around for facial surgery?
The social cost of passing
Putting aside the practical aspects of passing, consider what it means when this is treated as something we should all aspire to. I don’t want to shock anyone here, but maybe – just maybe – being expected to be completely invisible isn’t always good for us. That attitude has wide-ranging implications for our personal comfort as well as our place in society. For instance, look at how dramatically the stakes of passing were portrayed in a recent article in The Atlantic about voice training for trans women:
“If she slips up, the $100,000 she has spent to shed every trace of masculinity will count for nothing.”
I’ve heard from so many people who were worried it was “too late” for them to transition, because they felt that at their age, they would never be able to pass. Some of these people were in their 30s or 40s. Some of them were teenagers. But all of them were under the impression that there was no point to transitioning if they didn’t end up looking just like a cis person of their gender. They didn’t take into account every other possible benefit of transitioning, like how much this can relieve our dysphoria and improve our mental well-being and physical appearance regardless of whether we pass or not. But when this is treated as all-or-nothing, so many people will feel like their only choice is nothing, when they could have had so much more. It’s never too late for that.
The exclusive focus on passing is not new – historically, this attitude has wrapped our lives in a shroud of secrecy and isolation. In the 1988 book In Search of Eve, many trans women stated that living as a woman required an almost total separation from anyone who knew them before they transitioned. For some of them, this meant avoiding family, giving up friends, quitting their jobs, concealing their history of work experience, and starting fresh at entry-level positions in other fields. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach by Kessler and McKenna describes how trans people in the 1970s would construct entirely new biographies all the way back to their childhoods, just to conceal the fact that they hadn’t always lived as a woman or a man. For these people, passing meant having to abandon some of the most important parts of their lives.
This pervasive concern over passing also serves to keep trans people separated from one another. In Search of Eve cites a common belief that going out in groups with other trans people makes us less likely to pass, and that passing is therefore much easier for individual trans people. And a 2014 study of 536 trans people found that a fear of being outed by association was one of four major barriers to their friendships with other trans people.
The social distancing due to anxiety over passing extends further than our circles of friends. In Search of Eve reports that some trans people were opposed to any news coverage about what it’s like to be trans. They felt that this would inform a wider audience about certain physical features that are common among trans women and trans men, making it more difficult for them to pass. Some even believed that trans people who did come out, like Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, “were indirectly threatening others’ ability to pass by sensitizing the audience”.
Working past passing
This openness and widespread awareness may actually serve a useful purpose. Polls have consistently shown that personal familiarity with gay people is linked to greater support for gay rights. But while 65% of Americans report having a close friend or family member who’s gay, only 9% have a close friend or family member who’s trans. A 2012 study found that exposure to a lecture on transgender topics, as well as a speaker panel of trans people, was associated with a significant reduction in transphobic attitudes.
Clearly, outness has its benefits, both for us and for the rest of society. Passing demands invisibility, but how can we advocate for ourselves if we’re never supposed to be seen? How can any of us share our experiences or serve as role models for people who are thinking about transitioning, if we can’t even say what we are? How could I even do this show if I were trying to pass?
At its core, the very idea of passing contains an incredibly toxic suggestion. When “passing as a woman” actually means “passing as a cis woman”, it implies that people won’t really see you as a woman if they know you’re a trans woman. But why does that have to be the case? If someone knows you’re trans, why should that keep them from recognizing your gender? There’s no reason why this should be impossible. Countless cis people are entirely capable of recognizing our genders even when we’re out about being trans. I’ve come out to four doctors since 2012, and three of them still asked me about my periods. I’m pretty sure they don’t think I’m a guy.
But the glorification of passing completely rejects this reality. It rejects openness. It rejects community. And worst of all, it rejects hope. When passing teaches trans women that if they can’t look like cis women, they’re really just men, it’s pushing them away from being themselves. It’s closing off a world of possibilities for them. It’s telling them to throw away their dreams.
Passing is a very personal concern, and the way we present ourselves is a decision for each of us to make, based on our own needs and goals. Everyone will have their own answer, but the question must still be asked: Is silence always worth it?
I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.
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