Passability And The Toupée Fallacy

So, I wanted to take a moment to briefly look at one of the more common logical fallacies I encounter in terms of people’s perceptions of trans people. Although it’s a pretty simple fallacy, and the kind that once explained suddenly seems embarrassingly obvious, it nonetheless ends up having some pretty severe consequences for trans people, the cultural perception of us, our own individual processes of self-acceptance, and even carries a lot of complex political implications.

I’m not sure if this is the proper name for the fallacy, but I’ve seen it used, and I like it: “The Toupée Fallacy”. It works like this:

“Toupées always look fake. I’ve never seen a single toupee where I couldn’t tell what it was!”

See the fallacy?

Take a moment if you need to.

If the toupée looks real, you don’t end up noticing it’s a toupée, you just assume it’s real hair. So in terms of how you think toupées typically look, you end up with an extremely skewed perspective.

This applies to perceptions of trans people in the conception that we are never, ever able to pass, and always look obvious or “off” or grotesque in some way. It results in statements like the one from Germaine Greer I quoted in Feminist Dogma, “who to us seem like a ghastly parody”. It results in conceptions of us as being failed half-way attempts at our identified gender, it results in parents fearing that their children’s wish to transition will inevitably result in them becoming outcasts and unlovable, it results in terrible mocking stereotypes of trans women in the media as burly linebackers with five o’clock shadows wearing gaudy floral dresses. It results in my hearing people say, far too many times for it to be funny anymore, “I’ve never seen a single tranny that looked like a real woman”.

One of the saddest ways this fallacy can play out is in terms of how young people in the process of deciding whether or not to transition end up perceiving the fate that awaits them. Typically long before they see any positive examples of trans people or any evidence that transition can result in a happy, fulfilled, loved and accepted life, they end up seeing the incredibly negative media portrayals in which trans women are almost always a punchline or a tragic victim. From that perception they may look to real life to see if the trans women they see there confirm or deny the media portrayal… but the visibly gender variant individuals that they’ll notice in real life will only deepen the sense that they’ll never be able to be a “real” woman or man, only one of Greer’s “ghastly parodies”.

(I do not mean this to blame or demonize visibly gender variant people themselves. It is not their existence that is in any way harmful, it is society’s perceptions of gender variance that are.)

In my own experience, when I was living in Olympia, WA and contemplating transition, there were only two trans women in town (that I knew of) and both had very severe mental health issues, and one ended up taking her own life. Both were very difficult people to socialize with, both were very far from being conventionally attractive, and both presented a terrifying image of transition to me. One of the many tragic elements of this (such as my own inability to look past appearances and understand that their psychological difficulties were likely partly a result of being ridiculed and hated by others for their gender variance) was how in truth there were likely many happy, well-adjusted trans men and women all around me (it was Olympia, for chrissakes!), they just weren’t as visible, largely a result of being happy and well-adjusted (and the happiness and well-adjustment certainly aided, in turn, by their gender status not being a huge visible marker subsuming the rest of their identities and making them a target for hatred and ridicule). It took me an embarrassingly long time before I began to notice, and actually began to meet trans women who were, for me, positive images of transition.

One of the most embarrassingly transphobic things I ever said, still burned into my memory, was, while discussing transgenderism on the internet with a friend: “I’ve never met a single trans woman who wasn’t batshit insane. Some of the trans men seem stable and okay, and maybe some of the trans women in documentaries and stuff, but in real life they’re all fucking crazy and damaged.”

My friend has probably long since forgotten I ever said that, but I haven’t. It was, sadly, one of the things I genuinely believed about transsexuality at the time… and consequently, secretly, about myself.

I also said numerous horrible things about the woman who ended up taking her own life. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.

I’m not sure I deserve to.  And at least it serves as a reminder of just how easy it is to hate and fear, how easy to leave our compassion and empathy aside in favour of prejudice and scorn.
Internalized transphobia can be a truly monstrous thing. As in the self-flagellation school of repentance, at least my guilt is mitigated by remembering that for ever nasty thing I ever said about trans women, I inflicted a hundred times that cruelty on myself.

But back to the question of the toupee fallacy, and the political ramifications it has for the trans community…

The question is hopelessly complicated in its political and ethical dimensions, with all kinds of very good arguments on every side of the issue. On an individual basis, stealth (keeping one’s trans status secret and living entirely as a cis member of your identified sex) is something most trans people want for themselves. All things considered, given our social and cultural conditions it’s pretty much the only means available of being fully and completely accepted as a full and “real” member of one’s gender. But when all of us who can go stealth do go stealth, we create a condition of cultural invisibility, which allows cissexism and transphobia to perpetuate, as well as fallacy-driven notions of what a trans person is or can be. We do not demonstrate the full range, diversity and humanity of our community, instead allowing cis people to define that for us, define their conceptions of us for themselves, from highly limited information.

Typically, the most predictive factor by which an individual won’t have bigoted views towards a given group is for that individual to actually know someone from that group.

And we end up with a conflict there, between the instincts of self-preservation and the desire for one’s identity to be accepted that trans people legitimately possess (it is only the most callous and self-righteous who would call the desire to stealth selfish), making various degrees of stealth an extremely attractive possibility, but against that there are the needs of our community as a whole, which requires that we be visible, vocal and present the full diversity of trans experience, lives and, yes, appearance.

We have to very careful here, of course, about not holding passability up on a pedestal. Not reifying it as an inherently positive characteristic (it’s merely a useful one). A trans woman’s beauty should not be defined by her ability to look like a cis woman, and transgender beauty should in general not be evaluated by cisgender standards. When we act like we should proud of our cis-like characteristics, we implicitly assert that we ought to be ashamed of our trans-like ones. It’s also important not to blame visibly gender variant people for their appearance or to engage in imposing those same cissexist tools of body-shaming and oppression against our own. Passing is a matter of privilege, and is usually almost entirely a result of good luck. To a certain extent effort and confidence do play a role, but mostly it’s about being lucky enough to have the “right” bone structure, the “right” features, the “right” genes, having the money for surgeries, transitioning young (which is often a matter of other privileges, like money or insurance, supportive families and living in tolerant cities), etc.

However the concept that trans people cannot pass and that transition is an inevitably doomed undertaking, an inherently flawed half-measure that requires sacrificing one’s ability to be anything other than a “freak” is extremely dangerous and causes considerable harm, particularly to those in the process of questioning. As “shallow” as the issue of beauty and passability is, and as much tact and care may be required in its discussion, it does play a significant role in people’s ability to imagine themselves as being able to be happy through transition, and a significant role in cultural attitudes towards transgenderism itself.

All of these issues are something I’d like to go into in more depth in a future post. But for now I just wanted to demonstrate the danger, harm and implications that can emerge from a seemingly simple logical fallacy.

This is one of the reasons why skepticism plays a very important role in social justice and human rights issues. “Simple” fallacies can quickly blossom into very dangerous, snowballing chain-reactions of ideas, beliefs, conceptions, preconceptions. It’s also interesting how even an entire culture’s superficial conception of one of its component sub-groups can be so starkly defined by a fallacy. Irrational, shallow, crazy human beings, I love them to death, but we should never underestimate the harm that can emerge from a lack of critical thinking.

It’s funny how many people have written me since I started blogging saying “I’ve never met a trans person in real life”. People from majour metropolitan centers, too.

Cis readers, I can almost promise you that you have, at least once, met a trans person without realizing it. But at the time, like most non-neurotically-obsessive-about-gender human beings, you weren’t walking around vigilantly scrutinizing other people’s genders. You simply did your usual near-instant, sub-conscious gendering thing, saw him or her as they were presenting, accepted it, and moved on. Though you may not often notice it, remember that we live amongst you and share this world with you. We can be your neighbours, your friends, your co-workers, the people on the bus or train, cashiers and customers, cafe patrons, waiters and waitresses, anything. We’re not freaks or perverts or otherworldly magical fae-folk or pornographic fetishistic fantasy-creatures, and we’re often completely indistinguishable from the rest of you. We’re just people, trying our best to live our lives.


  1. Anders says

    Yeah, that last paragraph won’t make transphobic people paranoid… we’re all around, you can’t tell who’s who, you might as well watch invasion of the body snatchers and never. fall. asleep. again. 😀

    I believe you’ve said earlier that transwomen who aren’t undergoing HRT have little chance of passing – have I misunderstood this or is it still true?

    What are the factors that you can do something about? I tried to enumerate them, but I’ve probably missed something important – dress (including jewellery and shoes), makeup, voice, hairyness, behavior, language… anything important I missed? Anything superfluous?

    Good article.

    • Happiestsadist says

      When I was at Pride a couple years ago, I ended up standing near a pair of gay men while I watched the Trans March. One asked me if it was the Dyke March, and I corrected them. “Well they don’t look very trans!” he sniffed.

      “That’s because we look like everybody else. OooOOOOOooooo *spooky finger wiggles*”

      They left.

    • says

      I’m not sure I’ve said that… but yeah, HRT does make a pretty big difference in passability. But it’s not necessarily a “you need HRT to pass” kind of thing.

      Generally the things that one can change are what you mentioned, and are rather obvious. But facial feminization surgery is also a big one, and laser/electrolysis (presence or absence of beard shadow makes a HUGE difference). Body language and mannerisms. Overall confidence can have a big effect too.

        • Anders says

          I’d be happy for that alone. I hate shaving. I’ll not go through electrolysis for it, though.

          Nat, it was in the article on transkeptuality and gatekeeping: “This was hugely dangerous for the patient as very few trans people … are able to do so prior to taking hormones.” I’m thinking a lot about passing at the moment, for reasons that may become clear in time.

          Also, bad pun: What do you call two transpeople who meet and part without realizing that the other person is trans?

          Ships passing in the night.

    • Tualha says

      Well…for some people, maybe. I’ve sometimes “passed”* without even trying. I wore my hair medium long when I lived in San Francisco, I have an androgynous face and a high tenor voice, and, well, it was San Francisco, which is to say, it was fairly cold a lot of the time, so I often wore a fairly heavy jacket that hid my figure. And, with no HRT, no hair removal except plain old shaving, no makeup, no stuffing above or tucking below, I got ma’amed at least a couple of times (not sure if there were more, because I get ma’amed on the phone fairly often). Not even carrying a purse, just a backpack, but then, it was San Francisco, so maybe that clerk and that bartender were used to androgynous women wearing jeans and carrying backpacks instead of purses.

      And ironically enough, ten years after realizing I was trans, I’m still not sure in what way or to what extent I want to transition. I simply don’t have much gender dysphoria. I didn’t even realize I was trans until my mid-30s, and after some experimentation I put the whole thing on hold for years while working on other aspects of my life. I’m not sure if gender is really all that important to me, and I’ve always found introspection difficult.

      I’m sorry. I guess that story could be pretty galling to some readers who are in the opposite position. I wasn’t sure if I should post it, but decided it might be useful to someone.

      * Passing: a term I don’t much care for since reading Bear Bergman’s essay “Passing the Word” in the collection The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. Both recommended.

      • Tualha says

        Forgot to mention the time a little kid asked me if I was a boy or a girl. Made my night, even though I hadn’t yet heard of answering “Why, no”, and I chickened out and pretended to be cis. (Interestingly, the kid was pretty androgynous too. I wonder…)

  2. says

    I know several trans people, adn some of them have made the visual transiition to differing degrees. But so what? Those of us who remain as cis, do not chose how we look (I’m leaving out cosmetic surgery on purpose). Some of us meet society’s concept of attractiveness adn some do not. ost of us wish at some level to be able to either be attractive, or at least not noticibly unattractive. No one wants to go through life being a spectacle. I am rading the novel “The Gargoyle” in which that is one of the themes.

    I suspect that in those regards, trans people are similar. The need to transition is based upon the deire to match the external and the internal. Sometimes we fit what others think we should look like and some son’t. It’s easy to say fuck what the world thinks, but it’s not easy to do. To be honest though, I don’t really think much about a person’s gender or sexulality unless I am single and looking for a partner. Even then those thoughhtb tend to be limited to certain times and places.

    btw, this is an area where I admit I am trying to learn, and if I am causing offense, please teach me. I know I have learned an awful lot about misogyny and power from ftb.

    • Anders says

      You don’t think about gender or sexuality unless you are looking? We can test that nowadays, with a test developed at Harvard. It measures implicit associations – including our unconscious biases.

      And yes, it could probably be adapted to test for transphobia if anyone bothered to do the work.

      • Praedico says

        I just took the Gender/Career association test at that link, and was slightly disturbed at how much easier I found it to sort science/maths words to male than female. I’m sad that I seem to have internalised some bias there, but at least I try to be conscious of it.

        On-topic: I’ve never knowingly actually met a trans person, but I have encountered at least one trans woman. She was on staff at a training centre I attended several years ago. I never actually had occasion to speak to her, but she seemed to be presenting as female full-time, and I think she was probably in the earlier stages of transition. Of course, these are my thoughts now, looking back. At the time, my thoughts were more along the lines of “oh, I guess he’s a transsexual.” Yes, I thought of her as a ‘he’… I apologise for my past ignorance.
        I relate this story because, frankly, I don’t get out much (i.e., I barely ever leave the house) and I live in a fairly small city. So if I have encountered a trans person, you probably have too, even if you don’t know it.

        Now, I’m off to do more association tests and uncover what other biases I’ve got floating around up there.

        • Anders says

          Yeah, ok. That’s why I always look dumbfounded at guys who dream of going to lesbian orgies. It would be like being in a candy store that’s not selling…

  3. Anna says

    I am unfortunately one of those people unlikely to pass well ever. Too tall, large shoulders and chest, really deep voice, tranistioning late etc. I still have to transition. It’s a matter of life or death to me but its certainly not easy.

    I know the issue you speak of. It hits close to home. I worry about myself as a cautionary tale of transition. I would love to have some look to me for hope but I know on some level that won’t happen. I may also be too hard on my chances (im only part way through the process) but thats another issue about internalized messages and self esteem for trans persons. I know its hard to blame someone for wanting to be stealth since I would love to have that myself, but it is still hard to have to be one of the faces of transition.

    I am the one they see go into the woman’s room and think is a guy. They fear me. They never see the other people who stelath and learn that really there is nothing to risk from me. They never learn that there is so many of us out there, people like me become oddities. I know the solution isn’t having other people come out and put themselves at risk or make their already hard lives harder. Even stealth this is a really hard road. I just wish there was an easier solution.

    • Anders says

      Why does the time when you transition matter? Are there effects of continuous androgen exposure? Is it the same for transmen?

    • says

      Wow, I wish you luck. That sounds very difficult.

      I worked in a place once where there was a tall, wide-shouldered, heavy-jawed, obviously-trans woman in the office 2 floors down. I only saw her occasionally at larger functions, but everybody there seemed to treat her just fine. I never heard anyone say anything nasty behind her back. Newcomers were given a quick word to the wise not to call her a he or freak out if she was in the women’s toilets. It was a “make sure YOU treat her right” talk – responsibility firmly on you, not her. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her, but at least she got respect in *some* part of her life.

  4. Nomen Nescio says

    once you get to people-watching and start thinking about what sorts of things make a person pass or not pass, you can learn some surprising things about gender and how we all make those split-second classifications of perfect strangers.

    i spent an hour in the company of an older transwoman this weekend, one of those folks who stereotypically don’t pass very well. clearly transitioning in midlife, heavy bone structure, physically my size or larger, and i’m not a small dude. but it didn’t take very long of just watching and listening to her before it became impossible to think of her as male, and i came away from the evening enlightened about just how much gender is a performance art. i wonder what kind of mannerisms and quirks i might have myself that makes people classify me as male, or perhaps look at me and question.

  5. The Lorax says

    Cis reader here. In my life, I have been put down due to my physical appearance, so whilst I cannot say “I know what you’re talking about,” I can say that I’ve learned a valuable lesson about not judging books by their covers.

    As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care much for toupees. I care for what’s underneath. And if my humanness makes me biased in ways I have yet to correct, then I would like to know what they are so I can fix them…

    PS: Sorry ’bout the bugbears, it was an instinctive reaction… *puts his dice away*

  6. says

    “I’ve never met a single trans woman who wasn’t batshit insane.”

    I’ve seen this line trotted out on blogs dominated by gay cis men, especially when they’re called out on transphobic remarks. The gist is that all trans women are hysterical whiny drama queens who make a big deal over nothing.

    Sound familiar to my fellow cis women?

    • Happiestsadist says

      I’d say there is a particular mental-illness tone to it that is really specific to the (as you said, usually) gay cis men’s assholery toward trans women. Cis women are seen as shrill and irrational, but trans women seem to get more of a “mentally ill and therefore maybe dangerous” vibe to it.

  7. Jaime says

    Hi –

    a possibly dumb series of questions: It may just be the conceptual limitations of language talking (see what I did there?), but the word ‘trans’ seems to imply a process with an end-point. Short of a John Varley-esque ‘future’ where people can switch physical bodies, what is/are the desired goal(s) for a trans person? Is it “I now ‘feel’ as much like myself as I can reasonably attain”? Or “I can now present to the world the ‘face’ which best represents my personal identity”? Or is the latter just the ‘passing’ you discuss? How does intimacy with another person and sexuality intersect with all of this? Obviously there are probably as many answers and approaches as there are individual people on the planet; I just want to say that writings like yours Natalie have broadened my horizons and realized the inadequacies of binary thinking when it comes to this Being A Human thing.

  8. says

    I’m having no end of difficulty with getting this thing to log me in with my WordPress ID.

    Anyhoo…the idea that I could never “pass” was one of the major factors that caused me, in my youth, to submerge any notions I might have had about being certain about my gender identity. I didn’t even know the term, “passing”, but in my teenage years, having already passed the bulk of pubertal testosterone poisoning, I would periodically find a bit of makeup, and after doing my best, would look at myself in the bathroom mirror is despair, never believing that I could in any way resemble the girl I saw in the back of my eyelids.

    It took over 20 years until I was able to overcome that error. Twenty years during which the continued exposure to testosterone had its way with my appearance.

    I’m not the least passable trans woman that has ever existed. In fact, all things considered, I look pretty good. I pass in many situations now, although I don’t in others. At my age, with the budget limitations I am working with, I’ll take it. At 6 ‘ 1″ tall and in heels (which I almost *always* wear), I am rather conspicuous. In most rooms, I tower over even the tallest men, except for the rare occasions when they are 6’ 5″ or taller.

    I’m lucky, in some ways, being of relatively youthful appearance and slim (<160 lbs). But in other ways, I look at myself and think that I am cursed, either by genetic propensity or by the fact that it took me so long to come to grips with transition. I have very small breasts, although thankfully, I have a waistline, no hips, and no ass to speak of, a very high hairline (actually inherited from my mother, but my skull structure thanks to testosterone is quite different), man hands, and an Adam's Apple like the prow of a ship (as I like to say). It makes me insecure at times.

    I have learned to embrace the idea that passing shouldn't matter. I have to. Passing 100% is never really going to be an option for me without a massive infusion of money for Facial Feminization Surgery, Breast Augmentation, and possibly other cosmetic procedures, like a whole shitload of cosmetic dentistry (other legacy of my mother).

    But, if I *had* a choice? I'd want to pass. I'd want my voice, a major source of dysphoria for me as a lifelong professional singer, to be contralto. I'd want to have started HRT before puberty. My only consolation is my beautiful daughter. Which, you know, isn't such a bad consolation prize, after all.

    XOXO, Gemma

  9. carolw says

    I feel like I’m repeating myself: great post, Natalie. The toupee fallacy is brilliant, and I anticipate using it in the future. I’m learning a lot from your posts. Thanks so much.

  10. says

    This fallacy is pretty much the reason I am transitioning at 31, instead of 21: an ingrained belief, held for most of my life, that trans people are ridiculous freaks, and that I could never be one of them, “I just want to be a real girl”. I’m pretty ashamed of myself for having felt that way, and for laughing and mocking trans people along with others, even if deep down I could feel a kind of pang of sympathy… I suppose that lost decade or more is the price for being an arse, as is the uncertainty over my own future, over whether I’ll be another contributer to the majority view or I’ll be almost-comfortably hidden from their judgement and ridicule…

    Ideally, no one would have to be stealth, and people would simply accept trans people as ordinary men and women (as they identify), just ones with a rather complex and unfortunate medical histories. But I don’t really see that ever happening, sadly…

  11. Trebuchet says

    I’ve been aware of this falacy for decades but never had a name for it before. Thanks for that!

    I’ve only known one trans person for sure, but I’d bet money on having met multiple others without even suspecting it. There’ve been a few I did suspect were trans, mostly because of the voice and vocal mannerisms.

    It’s really tough for me to understand your world, but I’m trying. Keep blogging; I’m learning something from you pretty much every day!

  12. says

    This topic has been really helpful for me. Although I don’t think I’ll have a really hard time passing (I’ve kind of already got feminine features) it makes me feel better to know I’m not the only person with those sorts of fears. Now if only I could have enough courage to go and talk to a counselor about my gender identity, I’d be set…

    • Aliasalpha says

      Would taking the decision out of your hands help? Maybe flip a coin every day, heads you call and make an appointment and tails you procrastinate for another day. In the past I’ve found that tactic disturbingly effective in getting me to get off my arse & actually DO things rather than put them off.

      I could power a city if I could be bothered to harness the energy I put into procrastination…

    • Schala says

      That linked thread reminds me of my séjour at MWMF boards, though I wasn’t there to talk about sexuality and I’m lucky to be principally androcentric given what I heard about the lesbian community.

      I’ll take my chances with people who kill with fire extinguishers. At least they don’t hate my very existence, they only hate their own sexuality enough to kill for it. (yes I’m sarcastic, but I truly don’t know which is worse).

      • Schala says

        I mean mostly attracted to men, I forgot the word, androsexual? I’m pansexual though. And usually not attracted by physical parts, wether genitals or other parts.

      • Schala says

        By the way, this whole TERF argument (not only used by them, conservatives also love it for some reason) that “but gender is expression, and about liking pink and dresses and glitter, its all socialized and means nothing”.

        Is the whole reason I switched from gender identity to sex identity.

        I identity as female, not as a woman. My brain makes it so, brain over genitals (in a mind over matter way) whereas lobotomy = death while genital mutilation = traumatic life (regardless of how it happens, including accident at work, car, etc), but still alive.

        I identify as female, and thus people regard me as a woman, because society conflates the two. I don’t even have to identify specifically with the concept woman, only to not disidentify enough to still be considered a woman (ie strongly and openly identifying as androgynous).

        Gender identity is very often conflated with roles, clothing, behavior, and what have you, instead of “the internal sense of who you are as a person, sex-wise”. So I switched, following Milton Diamond’s lead.

  13. Schala says

    I have learned to embrace the idea that passing shouldn’t matter. I have to. Passing 100% is never really going to be an option for me without a massive infusion of money for Facial Feminization Surgery, Breast Augmentation, and possibly other cosmetic procedures, like a whole shitload of cosmetic dentistry (other legacy of my mother).

    I’ve embraced that idea over years too, mostly due to a boost in self-confidence after being with my boyfriend for some time, and finding myself accepted unconditionally by him and family.

    Ultimately, I don’t really care how others feel about my sex. If I can feel, without a doubt, that I’m 100% female, then that’s good enough, and all the “Mr” in the world won’t change that.

    I will still fight transphobic policies and such, but in my day to day dealings, I can deal with being perceived as androgynous, because I physically am (no real adult-male physical marker, but also no real adult female physical marker, leaving me in an underdeveloped void where I can easily pass for the other).

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