Passing, trans men, and toxic masculinity


I’ve encountered a few interesting conversations on some trans groups with a predominantly trans masculine membership. A few of these conversations blew up about toxic masculinity and “passing.” As these groups probably wouldn’t appreciate direct links to their private chats, I’m just going to try and represent the conversation with my own words.

Content Notice for cissexism, heterosexism, and (obviously) toxic masculinity.

To begin, a few disclaimers:

  • This is my opinion, not concrete fact and definitely not research data.
  • I’m a trans woman, not a trans man; however, I’ve experienced toxic masculinity from within as well as without, and I’m obviously aware of identity policing given the slough of anti-trans hate groups on the interwebs and in various governments.
  • I’m not linking directly to the source material because haters already periodically disrupt activity with trolling, we really don’t need to give them help.
  • I could link to examples of toxic masculinity (discussed below), but that would increase traffic to MRA sites and seriously, it hurts my brain to be anywhere near that shit. If you really need confirmation, just go to an MRA site and read like the first 3 articles.
  • Some of the material discussed here is transferable to femininity and trans women; however, that is not today’s topic, so I’m not going to constantly qualify my analysis by saying “this affects trans women too.”

Part One: “Passing”

I put “passing” in quotation marks because it’s a really problematic concept. It works something like this:

  1. Someone decides, usually after protracted questioning, that they are transgender and need to transition.
  2. They experiment with their gender expression to see what feels right.
  3. They get unsolicited tips on how to “look like a cisgender man/woman.”
  4. It is never questioned on whether said trans person wants or needs to “look cis.”

Passing is the act of a trans person going about their life without anybody knowing they’re trans until/if they disclose.

The assumption that all trans people want to look cis can come from a few different angles. Maybe someone believes that looking trans is bad–and they’d be right, but only because of the discrimination cis folk feel entitled to enact on trans folk, not because gender variance is inherently wrong or gender norms are inherently right. Maybe someone believes that all trans people want to “look cis,” which isn’t always true. Thirdly, there is almost always the assumption that men and women “look” a certain way, which informs the whole “looking cis” business.

Of course, men and women don’t have just one look, and when people feel the need to police or “correct” trans folk’s gender expressions, what they typically have in mind is conventional masculinity or femininity. That even cis people occasionally choose to deviate from gender norms is lost on them. “Looking cis” is never defined except in nebulous terms relying on other people’s judgement.

People will make a guess about a person’s gender based on more than just their appearance. There is also the matter of their behaviour and body language.

When it came to the trans men’s group, all the same assumptions were made–that the participants wanted to be perceived as cis, and that all of their feminine-coded behaviour had to go. So the passing tips, in addition to fashion choices and grooming life hacks, included such gems as:

  • Take up more than one seat on public transit.
  • Manspread instead of crossing your legs.
  • Don’t be afraid to interrupt people.
  • Don’t apologize for anything.
  • Use sexist and homophobic expletives.
  • Use certain types of body contact (punches, body checks) with other guy friends.
  • Put other men down for not doing these things.
  • Date women, cat call women, hit on women at any opportunity, talk about women’s bodies, etc.
  • Make the first move boldly [don’t ask for consent.]

And so on. In other words, these trans men were told that they were more likely to be accepted as men if they could act like a typical cishet dudebro–loud, obnoxious, inconsiderate, entitled, and sometimes violent. That many of these attitudes are the roots of discrimination in the West doesn’t matter; if you wanted to be seen as a guy, you had to uphold that system. Act like you’re owed more than others and you’ll fit right in. Punish anyone who disagrees. You know, be a man.

Part Two: Secure vs Toxic Masculinity

If toxic masculinity is the expression of one’s male gender norms at the expense of someone else, then secure masculinity is the expression of one’s male gender independently of other’s expectations. Toxic masculinity is notoriously fragile–it always has to be built on someone else’s back, and if there is no one to victimize, then one’s manhood is revoked. It manifests in many ways, like rating women on a 10-point scale (and verbalizing one’s opinion of a passerby loudly), policing any feminine-coded behaviour in other guys, asserting superiority through intimidation and violence, conscientiously interpreting any vaguely friendly gestures from women as invitations for sexual contact, or suggesting that men who do not participate in these behaviours aren’t “real” men.

Some men are aware of the costs of toxic masculinity. If they’re primarily concerned with the pressures it applies to other men, they might be the sort of “masculinist” that advocates for secure masculinity (i.e. not MRAs, who actively celebrate toxic masculinity). They might be male feminists if they are concerned about the costs for women. They could be both or neither. Regardless, some people, cis or trans, have figured out that it doesn’t have to be this way, so a conversation about secure masculinity starts.

In these trans masculine groups, the ensuing conversations are complicated by one very important factor: validation of our trans identities is often potent medicine to us, considering the number of people who try to hold our identities out of reach. So we will try a lot of different things to acquire confirmation.

Including upholding toxic masculinity, if it increases the odds that trans men’s identities as men will be validated.

If you were already aware of secure vs toxic masculinity dynamics, then you can spot the problem: toxic masculinity, by definition, has one’s identity constantly out of reach. It expects men to perpetually prove their manliness to everyone else, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. Instead of focusing on the fact that there’s always another attack on one’s manhood around the corner, these men focus on how good it feels to have your identity confirmed–even though the only reason it had to be confirmed was because someone else started to question it in the first place!

Specific to trans men, those secure in their masculinity will often be sympathetic with the goal of having their identity confirmed, but they will argue that toxic masculinity is not the way to go. Even cis men can’t get their identities validated through TM–if engaging in TM actually confirmed your manhood, you wouldn’t need to do it over and over again. Validation is always temporary, always subject to the next attack where you must prove yourself again.

In addition to the arguments that toxic masculinity often takes from other people, secure trans men try to argue that happiness with one’s masculinity should never have been external to begin with.

Part Three: Secure doesn’t mean nonconformist

A potential misinterpretation of my argument could be read as “anyone who is conventionally masculine is upholding cissexism.” That argument is bullshit.

If a trans man makes choices about his transition that don’t involve shitting on other people, he is asserting his identity in a secure fashion. Even if those choices involve things like growing a full beard or wearing clean cut suits or the use of manly cologne called “Avalanche” or “Superpunch” or something. He is making choices about his presentation, and that is his prerogative. It only becomes a problem if he were to, for example, berate another man for keeping a clean shave, or for wearing pink. You can be 100% secure and healthy in your expression whilst also being conventional. The conversation here is about actions & behaviours, not the specifics of one’s gender expression.

Similarly, one can go stealth as a trans man without subscribing to TM.

Another point I’ll raise is that the proponents of TM don’t have to be men. However, in this instance, we are primarily discussing trans men conversing with each other, so I’m not going into detail over that.

In Conclusion:

Toxic masculinity is potentially an attractive idea for trans men. The act of validation is enormously fulfilling, so much so that proponents of TM in the trans masc community fixate so much on the fulfillment and not the fact that said fulfillment is always temporary and requires continuous, repeated performances. Society is generally heterosexist, and cissexist, (among other things), so being seen as cis, as straight, sometimes means upholding these structures. The benefits of assimilation, which include the acceptance that highly marginalized communities are so desperate for, comes at the cost of anyone who can’t or chooses not to participate. But specific to TM, said acceptance is actually fake and highly conditional, since any indication that you are no longer continuously reinforcing TM results in attacks on your identity.

Just because we, as trans people, are a minority, does not mean our choices don’t affect other people. If we choose to express problematic behaviours like toxic masculinity and other forms of identity policing, we are participating in the very system that punishes us. And I think it is a mistake to expect masculine validation from a system that relies on continuously taking it away to compel you to do something.

That’s not a game you can win. So don’t play.