For most people, the process of assigning gender to others is completely unconscious. Your brain puts together a number of cues, some obvious and others so subtle you aren’t fully aware of them, and in the vast majority of cases you come up with a near instant determination of either male or female. From that moment on, you will confidently refer to this person as she or he, group them with either men or women. For most cisgender people this process happens so smoothly, and is so rarely in error, that they never even think about it.
For transgender people, however, being unconsciously grouped with the correct gender (rather than incorrectly taken for members of our birth-assigned gender) is something most of us worry about quite a bit, at least at some point in our lives. The commonly used term for a trans person being correctly gendered by strangers is “passing.” But passing is a contested term because it contains a contradiction: It implies there’s something false or surreptitious about being seen as our authentic selves.
Despite this, trans people have created a great many websites devoted to passing and subreddits for trans people to post pictures and solicit opinions about how they’re succeeding at it. The trans community also engages in ongoing discussions about “passing privilege” (a term for the benefits that come with being taken for cis by cis people), and the extent to which the pursuit of passing is a legitimate goal or a sign of bowing to cis-normative standards. At one extreme, there are trans people who have cut ties with anyone who knew them pre-transition so that they never encounter anyone who thinks of them as deviating from the cisgender norm. On the other side, there are trans people who completely reject cisgender norms and present their gender in intentionally confounding ways, a practice sometimes known as “genderfuck.”
Most of us fall somewhere in between. For me, after about a year of weekly testosterone injections, strangers will usually gender me correctly as a male, but I wouldn’t cut ties with my past to avoid being misgendered by friends and family who knew me pre-transition. Before I passed, I longed to be perceived as male, obsessed about it, and made my wife crazy in my clumsy early attempts at forcing it. Now that the time has come, the experience of other people spontaneously and effortlessly seeing me as a male is everything I hoped it would be. It eases the nagging discomfort of dysphoria, allows me to finally stop standing out in a crowd, and I feel subtly but profoundly at ease when I my male identity is taken as a given by others, rather than undermined by them.
Passing feels great (at least for me), so why isn’t it the first priority for all trans people seeking acceptance? After all, even conservatives struggle to articulate reasons why trans people who appear cisgender belong in the wrong bathrooms. Social conservatives’ biggest problem with transgender people isn’t that we exist, but that we don’t police the boundaries of our identity strictly enough for their liking.
The trans community generally rejects any standard for inclusion other than a trans person’s own self-determination. We treat a transgender person who is closeted and presenting entirely as their birth-assigned gender as neither more nor less trans than one who has had multiple surgeries and passes in 100 percent of cases. As a rule, we don’t recognize the authority of doctors or psychiatrists to determine who is or is not genuine, either. In fact, trans advocacy has consistently pushed in the opposite direction, for fewer gatekeepers, and for the inclusion of non-binary people (who seek to expand gender beyond the categories of male and female) under the trans umbrella.
Trans people who pass as cis aren’t the ones conservative groups seek to conjure in the minds of fearful voters, so why doesn’t the trans community embrace some sort of passing standard?
For many of the more politically active trans people, this idea is anathema because it imposes cisnormative, binary standards of male and female appearance on transgender people and their bodies. But, there’s a more practical, gut-level reason why the trans community shies away from gatekeeping and boundary enforcing, which is that transitioning is frightening, difficult, and often very expensive—and even the most effortlessly passing trans person was once on the other side of the process.
We’ve all wondered if we could convince other people to believe what we were saying about ourselves, or whether a doctor or a shrink would take us seriously. We’ve all worried at some point along the way that we weren’t passing or might never pass. Some trans bodies are more easily read correctly than others, some trans people have more resources to put into changing their bodies than others, and some trans people are more successful at accepting their deviations from cisgender expectations than others. But all of us have wondered and worried and struggled with the prospect of passing. To reject those who can’t yet be gendered correctly, or those who never will be, would be to reject our selves.