The Challenge of Passing

Not everyone who identifies as transgender desires to fully transition genders. Some are content to embrace self-recognition and self-acceptance while continuing to live in the gender assigned them at birth. Others prefer to present themselves publicly in the most androgynous way possible, not willing to conform to gender presentation stereotypes. But for those who know they must fully transition to be able to live a completely authentic life, “passing” is paramount. But what does that mean, to “pass”?

Like many words in the English language, pass is a word that carries various meanings depending on context and perspective. The general idea behind transgender individuals passing is to say that they present in such a way that others see them as being of opposite gender than what was assigned them at birth. The coveted goal is to have no one suspect that he or she has transitioned genders – to be readily accepted on sight as male or female.

It’s not the goal that causes concern, however. It’s the meanings and implications behind the term that can be distressing. For example, I have had it said to me that trans persons are passing ourselves off as something we are not. We are charged with being fake, deceptive, and nothing more than actors and actresses donning costumes and playing a role in a performance that takes advantage of other people’s (cis-gendered persons) ignorance. When people take this view, they reveal that they are ignorant of what it means to be transgender, the process of transitioning, the harm in repressing transition (for those who truly need to do so), and may be operating on fear as well as their ignorance. After all, people often fear what they do not know. Naturally, we flat out reject the idea that we are being false or deceptive, and encourage people to consider the term “passing” from a new perspective.

Instead of thinking of it as passing off a bad bill of goods, think of it as passing a test. We all love to live in a world where we can shout out, “Don’t judge!” But the fact is we all judge. We judge hundreds of times a day. We must discern, or make a distinction, between so many things. Can I make it through the intersection before the light turns red? Do I like the taste of what I’m eating or drinking? Do I use the restroom now, or can I wait awhile? Is a movie going to be worth spending money to see in the theater? And the judgements go on. When we meet someone for the first time, we automatically begin administering a subconscious test to determine if we are speaking with a man or woman, and we adjust our conversation accordingly. Passing, for trans individuals, is about passing the gender test in public spaces and settings. We desire to pass the test so that our interaction will be appropriate. This affords us the ability to relax, be comfortable in the moment and what we are doing, and realize our full potential in all we do. In the end, everyone wins. Yet, sometimes the hardest challenge is not passing the test in public; it is passing the test with ourselves.

I have enjoyed passing privileges in public spaces and settings for quite some time now. Yes, there are times when people discern my past, but usually I am free to navigate life’s waters without every eyebrow being raised. I have even had people who were unaware of my past find out about it, and tell me they were stunned – they could not picture me as I must have been before transitioning. Their amazement is always flattering, but despite others’ general acceptance of me as a woman, I still struggle far too often when I look in the mirror. I know that I am a woman, and would argue that I always have been. I see the changes, I feel the changes, I know that I will not be identified as transgender by everyone I meet. But I still see too much of the old person staring back in the mirror. The familiar features that are not going to change may not be gender specific, but because they are still visible, they become markers and reminders of the former identity and the former gender. We, as transgender men and women, are perhaps our worst critic. And, no matter how the world views “passing”, or how well we pass in public spaces and settings, giving ourselves permission to pass is something that may take far longer to achieve.

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