A gender non-conforming person poses on a bed, representing the problem with passing for trans people.
Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection/Zackary Drucker; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Identity
5 min

The problem with passing

For many, it’s a survival measure. But when passing becomes weaponized by cis people, it’s counterintuitive to our very existence

This summer, the Trump administration added yet another arrow in the quiver of its war against trans people. Through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the government proposed legislation that would provide homeless shelters with the tools they would need to discriminate against us, suggesting a set of visual keys that could be used to determine if someone is trans just by looking at them—their bodies, their faces, their voices—then applying prejudice to what they see.

While this is not yet a law on the books, and though some legal experts suggest it’s unlikely to be enacted, it still shines a light on a larger problem: That trans people are not legitimate without crossing an aesthetic threshold.

It’s why so many narratives suggest transgender people are on a journey—an epic adventure starting with your assigned-at-birth gender and leading to your true self. This sort of journey is a linear story with a satisfying ending: You arrive at the destination fully you, inside and out, both to yourself and to those around you. It’s like Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings, wearily throwing the one true gender in the pit at journey’s end, forever rid of its cursed influence.

But for a lot of trans people, this isn’t the case. There is a common misconception that the goal for trans folks is to pass—to appear by all visual metrics to be the gender they know themselves to be. At its best, passing is an opportunity for safety; that you can move into a crowd and hide among fellow people without the fear of being seen as you are—a tactic employed by many.

But passing is a false flag. To buy into the idea of passing is to buy into the presupposition that there is a visual spectrum to binary genders—a set of guidelines or rules as to what constitutes being a man or a woman. By this same presupposition, we’re also buying into the concept of binary genders with a start and an end: the idea that the journey ends once enough surgery has been done to get you across the finish line.

These rules are often rooted in a colonial standard of physical beauty. When we talk about being able to visibly tell if someone is a trans woman, for instance, we focus on specific “tells”: Are her shoulders wide? Is she tall? Is her jaw square and sharp? Cisgender women can and often do have these traits, but we only view them as tells when applied to trans women. We are also told that as trans women, we need not want these physical attributes if we’re to survive in polite society lest we put our gender under a microscope. We’re held to the ridiculous standard of beauty laid out for women—specifically: to be small, dainty, unassuming—and given the additional hurdle of having struggled through so-called masculinizing puberty.

At its worst, this idea of passing is weaponized against the trans community. Legislation—like the aforementioned Trump shelter proposition, and similar health care legislation that would allow American medical professionals to deny care to trans patients—gives people in power the means to wield their biases like a knife. Passing and tells are tools of the same trickster god, promising safety and danger out of the same hand: Just as we can endeavour to be able to hide, those that would bring us harm can work harder to overturn every stone to ensure we are always visible.

Cis people, meanwhile, often act as the leading authority on passing. Anti-trans people will say that they “can always tell” when a person is trans, even as they share stories about trans men being forced to wrestle against cis women, or the wild theories that famous people are secretly trans (think: The long held conspiracy that Michelle Obama is secretly transgender, or the frequent whispers about Lady Gaga). Even allies fall prey to this rhetoric, saying things like “you look like a woman to me,” despite our lived experience telling us otherwise. We know the world sees us through the lens of colonial beauty standards. If you can’t see us on a Pinterest board, chances are you’re going to make assumptions about our gender. Trans-masculine people are certainly subject to this, as there are always impossible standards to live up to; but it’s trans-feminine people who exist at the unholy intersection of transphobia and misogyny. Women already live under the weight of impossible beauty standards, lest society tear them apart for daring not to look picturesquely feminine; the added wrinkle of a society desperate to point out transness where they see it adds an additional danger element.

But the most glaring issue with passing is that it exists at all. We’ve allowed a patriarchal society to determine what a man or woman ought to look like, and impose those ideals upon trans folks. That’s particularly problematic for those who exist outside a binary gender. Harmful stereotypes dominate the culture around passing where only the most binary survive.

The desire to pass and be read by cis people as a particular gender, then, is rooted in assimilation politics, prioritizing the comfort of cis people and upholding western gender norms. But if the end goal is to look cis, are we not sweeping our identities under the rug in favour of what cis folks have deemed a more respectable presentation? To put it succinctly: “In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as ‘passing’ because we would have progressed past the need for assuming someone’s gender based solely on their presentation,” Naveen Kundanmal, an Indian-American non-binary person, tells me.

And yet, we can’t overlook passing altogether: It’s a safety measure and sense of security for many trans folks—a means of survival. As a Black trans-masculine person in Richmond, Virginia, who asked to have their identity hidden for protection, told me: “Queer and trans folks are heavily involved in community organizing and activism here, so occupying forces are targeting anyone who looks ‘leftist’”—that is, “different.” To pass, in their case, is to ensure safety, security and survival.

But perhaps “passing” is the wrong way to frame this experience—it suggests that there is a checklist for us all and if we don’t have an adequate amount of things crossed off, we fail. For me, to pass is the idea that I will feel some sense of relief; I can exist in a world where I don’t need to manage the expectations of my presentation. What you could say is a desire to be seen as a cis woman is instead a desire to not have to manage my trans identity with my surroundings.

In being trans, the journey is not to a place where we are seen as cisgender people so much as it is a desire for safety and sanctuary within our identities. There is no shame in being visibly trans, nor is there any one way to visually separate trans from cis. Instead, what we seek is safety and acceptance—that we are safe, and that trans and non-binary people can look and act however they feel honours them and their history and still be seen as themselves. We are not simply casting off the genders of our past. We are not passing, we are existing.