trans* identities and “passing”: It’s complicated.

By | May 20, 2015

Here’s an op/ed about the notion of “passing” as it relates to transgender folks. The author, Aiden James Kosciesza, describes “passing” as follows:

The term “passing,” when applied to transgender people, means being perceived as cisgender while presenting as one’s authentic gender identity. There’s a lot of power in that. When people meet me and assume that I am a cisgender man, I am afforded the privilege of choosing whether I disclose my transgender identity, and when. Many trans* folks pursue this power through clothing choices, hormones, surgery, voice training, or even etiquette lessons, and I’m all for that.

Kosciesza takes a stand against “passing,” because it implies that trans* folks are “faking” or deceiving:

To look at trans* people expressing their authentic selves and say that they “pass” for men or women is to diminish their identity by implying that it’s an act. Telling a trans* woman that she “passes” is like saying “You’re not a real woman, but good job faking it.”

If that sounds like a slap in the face, well — it is. Yet both transgender people and their allies continue to use this term, despite prominent advocates like Janet Mock speaking out against it. Even articles that call out the term for being controversial and negative will turn around and use it throughout. The problem is that despite the terrible word we use for it, the concept of “passing” is very real, and creates a hierarchy of privilege that can’t be ignored.

We have to talk about the divide between trans* people who have the privilege of choosing disclosure and those who don’t. It’s a divide as stark as any racial barrier, and erasing the conversation about that difference would be a step backward. But we need to change the words that we use, because the term “passing” perpetuates harmful stereotypes that cast trans* people as imposters.

Ok. I’m a transgender man who is also what many call “pre-transition.”

This means many things. Functionally, what it means is that I haven’t accessed medical options for shifting my physical appearance. (There is an assumption, right there in the phrase “pre-transition,” that I intend to access these medical options–a big assumption, and an incorrect one for lots of trans folks.)

Socially, what it means is that I’m not perceived as my chosen gender–for the most part, if I want people to use my preferred pronouns (he/him/his, plz&thx), I have to ask or tell them to do so. Sometimes I do exactly that. And sometimes, like when I was at the dentist this morning to get my broken tooth fixed and, immediately afterward, when I was at the supermarket buying myself a bunch of soft foods to eat for lunch, it wasn’t worth the effort. Anyway, it’s hard enough to correct people’s pronoun choice when you don’t have a drill and a suction thingy and three hands in your mouth.

So sometimes, people refer to me using female pronouns and I don’t stop them. Can we call that an example of me “passing” as a cisgender woman? More rarely, I encounter someone who refers to me using male pronouns–this happened this morning, when a second dentist came in to toss cement on my new crown and hadn’t looked at my chart or talked with me, but said to the dental assistant “Now make sure he stays still while we get this crown cemented on his tooth.” I smiled all huge through the hands and equipment that were jammed into my mouth: Was that “passing”?

Let’s not forget the racial origins of “passing”–it was originally used to refer to people who are perceived as having a different racial or ethnic background than they “really” had. Usually this term has been used to refer to a person of color who is perceived as white and chooses, for various reasons, not to correct that perception. Often “passing” in this context is framed as “an individualistic and opportunistic practice; a tool for getting ahead,” but it is also viewed by some as a strategy of resistance in which those who “pass” challenge binaristic views of race and racial identity.

I think that in some ways, the “passing” concept among transgender folk can play the same role–it’s a form of subversion, of perversion of accepted gender norms. Passing is definitely not the only way to resist the weird gender assumptions that run our culture, but it’s one tool–and one that isn’t really in the master’s toolbox.

Plus! Janet Mock says trans folk aren’t “passing,” they’re just “being”–but that view seems to refuse the everyday reality of many or most trans* people that “being” relies on others’ perceptions of us. “Being” feels different when people assume you’re cisgender than it does when they assume (or come to understand) that you’re transgender. This is particularly true for trans* folk who are at risk of emotional, social, and physical aggression if their trans* identity is revealed.

So I’m just saying it’s complicated, is all. Maybe a little more complicated than Kosciesza’s op/ed suggests.

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