Oh, passability. You most intensely problematic, yet utterly inescapable, of trans concepts. What a rascal you are! I think it’s time we had a little chat…
Passability is an issue that cuts pretty close to the bone for most trans folk. It’s immensely complicated, tied in to a dozen or so different larger issues, connects very deeply and intimately to intensely personal things like one’s body image and dysphoria and sense of validity in one’s identified gender, it’s hopelessly tangled up in privilege and risk and oppression and the day-to-day facts of our lives, and it breeds endless jealousy, disgust, resentment, alienation, and internalized transphobia, hierarchies and conflict in our own community. Can’t buy into it, because that elevates cisnormativity as what we “ought” aspire towards, measures our validity, beauty, worth and identity by cis standards, and positions being a good little tranny as being all about being as cis-like as possible. And you can’t really reject it either, because it’s deeply connected to what most of us are working towards, which is a body and social / cultural / interpersonal identity that are in accordance with our sense of self, our gender identity. You certainly can’t seem to ignore it, despite how many voices within the trans community want to just scrap the word entirely, because it’s completely impossible to talk about things like cis privilege, cissexism, transphobia, gender-based discrimination, our experiences, our lives, our fears, our beauty, our daily hassles and so forth without talking about passing.
It’s a great big mess, really. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
Since it’s not going anywhere, we might as well learn to talk about it and deal with it, right?
There’s a lot that’s inherently problematic in the term itself, and the assumptions that underlie simply choosing that word at all, and that semantic structure. For instance, it’s a verb in which we’re the active party. A trans person either “passes” or ze doesn’t, as though ze has some kind of say in the matter, or that it’s somehow hir responsibility, hir fault, if ze “passes” or… fails? A more accurate way to structure it would be to speak in terms of being gendered correctly or incorrectly. That the active party in this relationship is the people around us, who are the ones doing all the perceiving, and projecting their concepts of gender onto our presented selves. That would provide a lovely shifting of that problematic issue of who’s the one “doing” anything here, and whose “responsibility” it is. But it’s clunky, and doesn’t really provide us a way to talk about the trait, or set of traits, or state of being, by which a trans person has the privilege of being consistently gendered in a manner consistent with hir identity, which is something that sometimes we do need to talk about. For instance, it’s nearly impossible to discuss the issues surrounding the degree of media attention surrounding Jenna Talackova, in contrast to far more socially significant stories unfolding alongside her’s, without being able to talk about how much she fits into cisgender standards of female appearance and beauty… her “passability”.
Then there’s the sort of wider sociological sense from which “passing” is derived. “Passing” conventionally meant to be able to be seen and interpreted as others as being a member of a different identity or class or group or race than one’s own. It has that dimension of “deception” smuggled in through that etymology, which I’ve consistently to held to be one of the most dangerous and harmful ways in which transgenderism is conceived (as a “deception” or “trying to be something you’re not” and all that stuff). To say, for instance, that a trans woman “passes as female” is to quite clearly state by implication that she’s not really female. We aren’t “passing ourselves off” as members of our identified sex. We are the gender we are presenting.
But we could say that in “passing” what’s going on isn’t that we’re “passing” as female or male, but rather that we’re “passing” as cis. Which, arguably, is presenting ourselves as “something we’re not”. But here we run afoul of cisnormative assumptions again in that that sort of universalizes the flimsy assumption of “everyone is cis until proven otherwise”. It plays into the sense of cis as “normal” and default, hyper-privileged to the point of being almost entirely conceptually unmarked, such that our existence isn’t even factored into perceptions, and for us to not be wholly obvious in our marked status is somehow seen as trying to “pass” as the unmarked status. This is tricky to explain… but as with the “ethical imperative of disclosure” issue, the real problem here is the cis privilege that allows people to walk around as though there’s no such thing as trans people at all until that fact is staring you right in the face, explicitly announcing its presence. The simple truth is that trans people present with a range of phenotypes, which overlap, in varying degrees, with those of cis members of any morphological sex. Sometimes we look a way that you might read as “trans-looking” and sometimes we look in a way that you’d read as “passing” (or hardly get read at all, just fading into background noise), and most of the time we look somewhere in between and how we’re gendered varies from context to context, but regardless of what perceptions get imposed on us, that range of phenotypes IS the range of phenotypes that trans people may present. A “passable” trans woman doesn’t in any meaningful sense “look like a cis woman”, she simply looks the way that many trans women happen to look, which often happens to not be distinguishable from the way cis women look.
And there’s definitely no precise identifiers. Everything is gradiated, and everything is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Like there’s a general range of brow bossing that most people consider within the norm for women, and there’s a general range of brow bossing that most people would consider within the norm for men, and the two overlap a bit. And there are women (cis and trans alike) who are outliers for the average range and men who are outliers for their average range. So effectively, there’s no specific point at which brow bossing ends up giving you a “male forehead” vs. a “female forehead”. It, in and of itself, won’t make any difference in terms of whether you “pass” or not. And every single one of these gradiated, gendered traits, pretty much all of which have male/female overlaps in the middle, end up playing off one another. A prominent Adam’s Apple can go unnoticed on a woman. A large nose can go unnoticed. Big hands can go unnoticed. A strong jawline can go unnoticed. Broad shoulders can go unnoticed. A husky voice can go unnoticed. But if you take enough of those features together, and the way people will conceptually categorize you in that lightning-fast act of perceptual gendering will shift.
But yeah, sorry, but as De Beauvoir pointed out like, 75 years ago, there really isn’t any single, completely reliable test you could use to delineate a line between “woman” and “man”.Much less in terms of outward phenotypes. Instead we have a loose bundle of features that we happen to use to make little speedy intuitive (unreliable) abductions about unseen features of sex, like genitalia, chromosomes, whatever.
So we’re not “passing ourselves off” as cis just because our features happen to be in a given range that you happen to not find any difficulty abducting a gender from. Nor are we failing to “pass” just because we happen to land in a range of features (just as available to cis people) that strike you as unexpected and throw a bit of a kink into the totally intuitive guessing-game your brain constantly plays with everyone around you.
What’s really interesting, though, is that despite the degree to which these features all overlap and gradiate, such that there really isn’t any definable “trans look” or “cis look” (so if I catch you saying “looks like a tranny”, “hot tranny mess”, or anything of the sort, I will feed you to my cybernetic velo-cis-raptor, Mittens), is that the line between being gendered male and gendered female can be extremely thin. One has to work to be truly androgynous and genuinely confound perceptions (though it’s still, of course, easy to confound people so ignorant the thought of another human being being trans or intersex never even crosses their minds). I remember that after about three months of hormones, while I was still presenting as male, I very, very suddenly started experiencing “male fail” (that is, being gendered female, referred to as “miss”, “dear”, “love”, etc.). It happened virtually overnight. The overall whole, from the sum of the parts, had suddenly hit the tapping point at which people’s brains started to occasionally find it easier to guess that I was female than guess that I was male. I also remember one day where I was male-failed four times over the course of the day, then was back to being consistently “sirred” the next, when quite literally the ONLY change in my presentation was changing my shirt from a v-neck to a crew-neck.
One of the ways the trans community has started to work around and address some of the complex sociological factors into the issue of passing, and how it reflects and plays in to a cis-dominated system, is to frame it in terms of “passing privilege”. This helps. It reminds us that passing doesn’t make us better, it doesn’t make us more “real” as women or men, it isn’t because we’re more committed or serious or worked harder or anything, nor does it have anything to do with being more beautiful. It’s simply a matter of getting lucky, mostly just lucky with things like bone structure and height and noses, the stuff hormones can’t change. And it does typically operate as privilege… it’s a fortunate set of inexplicable circumstances or traits that make one’s life a little bit easier, particularly in terms of social power dynamics and discrimination. If you have passing privilege, you don’t have to deal with nearly as much misgendering, harassment, Othering, invasion of privacy, etc. You have the option of stealth if that’s what you feel is best for you. You’ll have your gender much more consistently validated by others, and much less consistently invalidated.
But discussing it as privilege doesn’t quite cut it. For one thing, the sociological privileges are not quite as clearly defined as they initially appear, or as intuition would suggest. “Passing”, for instance, is strongly correlated to increased risk of violence. This is due to things like the aforementioned “deception” issue (which, it suddenly re-occurs to me, is already explicitly coded into the term “passing” itself… handy, these implicit associative chains, aren’t they?), and “deception” (via “passing” as “something you’re not”) is very strongly tied to transphobic violence. But more subtly speaking, most murders are not committed by strangers. They’re committed by people you know and trust. A trans woman who is visibly so is going to be alienated from cis culture and individuals. People will harass her much more, yes, but ultimately they’re not going to emotionally invest themselves in her enough to care enough to commit murder. By virtue of her alienation, she’s paradoxically protected from that level of harm, and insulated by her social connections being primarily comprised of those who are already accepting of her gender. Whereas a “passable” trans woman will be able to assimilate into cis communities, and will typically feel the desire to do so, often as stealth, and won’t have any warning or buffer insulating her from letting violently hateful people into her life, trusting them, and allowing them the emotional investment that can fuel violence.
There’s also an element of the “passing privilege” discussion that ends up being used as fuel for internal conflicts and resentment. Speaking from experience, one of the most intensely insulting and frustrating things one can experience in the trans community is having another trans person lashing out at you because they assume from your appearance or age that you “had it easy”. None of us have it easy. And to be honest, I’ve seen a lot more of this sort of behaviour than of the inverse, or people being shunned on account of not living up to some kind of idealized standard of “passing”. Though there is that whole creepy “I don’t want to hang out with other trans women unless they’re super-duper passable because then I’ll get clocked too!” thing.
Yeah…ur… there are a lot of very good reasons I don’t go to trans support groups anymore.
But more than any of that, there’s a hell of a lot of problems in the “passing” concept that simply reframing it as an issue of privilege fails to address. Like what about the question the question of how this relates to dysphoria, and the physical drives of transitioning? Where does the line lie between that which we do simply to ease our dysphoria and that which we do to attempt to “pass”? Is it even POSSIBLE to draw such a line? So if it’s such an extension of the one universality all transsexual people have in common, the desire to adapt our bodies so as to reflect our genders, and so as to feel at home in them, what exactly are we doing when we politicize it? Maybe it’s better to treat “passability”, or the conditions that produce it, as being an issue of dysphoria, and body image. To not allow resentments to fester.
Though that leaves us with the problems that are quite explicitly political in nature, that can’t be divorced from the tension between collective and individual needs. Such as how passability affects our visibility, as a community, along with all the deep importance visibility has to our ability to move forward as a movement. And maybe there’s an important difference between kinds of visibility? The chosen and the imposed?
And that issue of visibility connects back to the subjectivity of the dysphoria. If a questioning soon-to-transition person only ever sees transition through a lens of people who don’t “look like” the cultural standards for their identified sex, that’s a hugely discouraging factor. Not just in terms of feeling like they’ll have to make immense social sacrifices just to transition… but also in terms of developing the impression that it doesn’t matter, they’ll never be able to ease their dysphoria anyway.
I mean… damn. What are we supposed to do here? These are conversations we need to have and need to avoid. Concepts that are deeply personal, intimate and subjective but inherently political in their scope and implications. Privileges that often play out as risks. A stable condition that’s somehow emergent from ridiculously vague, scattered, gradiated, overlapping, non-delineated things. An issue of presenting ourselves as who we really are by not explicitly presenting all of who we really are. The paradoxes start stacking up the very moment you begin trying to wring any kind of answer out of “passability’s” Adam’s-Apple-less neck.
I don’t know… maybe others are right in saying we need to ditch the term entirely. Maybe these paradoxes only appear because I keep trying to analyze a “something” that isn’t really there. Maybe the problem with passing is that there is no problem with passing. Only a problem with humans having a really inadequate way of perceiving gender. Maybe it’s one of those situations where it’s only an important “indispensable” issue because we’ve made it one.
But we all worry about it, don’t we?
Or are we really worrying about something else?
Is it really our worry, or are we just doing the grues’ work for them?
What are we really talking about when we talk about passing?
I’m not sure I passed this particular test.