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Answer by Jae Alexis Lee, trans woman, researcher, and advocate:
Passing refers to transgender people’s ability to be correctly perceived as the gender they identify as and beyond that, to not be perceived as transgender.
You’ll frequently hear conversations around “passing privilege,” and there’s a good reason for that. Trans people who aren’t perceived as being transgender experience significantly less harassment than trans people who are visibly trans.
It’s a rough thing to deal with for a whole lot of reasons.
Right now, trans bathroom access is a huge focal point of the discussions surrounding trans rights—not that we want it to be, but Republicans have been bringing up bathrooms for the past 12-plus years every time trans people advocate for laws protecting us from employment or housing discrimination because it’s their favorite way to prevent anti-discrimination laws from being passed.
You may have seen memes like this floating around in the midst of this conversation we’re having about trans bathrooms. Or this one. These images depict trans people in the bathrooms that correspond to the genders they were assigned at birth. On the top, a trans man (assigned female at birth) in a women’s room and on the bottom a trans woman (assigned male at birth) in the men’s room.
The message is clear: Trans women are obviously women and trans men are obviously men, and their presence in an opposite-gender facility would clearly be noteworthy. Further, if the gentleman in the first image is legally required to use the women’s bathroom, how does that prevent a male pervert from walking in to the women’s bathroom and claiming to be a transgender man?
These memes, while they make a powerful point, are heavily critiqued by some elements within the trans community because they center the conversation on trans people with passing privilege.
Trans people who pass get more media attention because it normalizes trans people. It makes it easier for people to understand that trans women are women when they’re being shown Carmen Carrera. And easier to understand that trans men are men looking at Aydian Dowling.
When you look at those images, it’s easy to understand that a trans man is just one of the guys and that a trans woman is one of the girls. That makes it easier to fight for recognition of our respective rights to be treated as such. The problem is that this kind of focus on transgender people with extraordinary amounts of passing privilege erases the existence of people without such extraordinary amounts of passing privilege.
Trans people are routinely harassed and assaulted for being transgender. Monica Jones was arrested for what amounted to committing the crime of walking down the street as a trans woman. Because she was dressed for a night out and was visibly trans, she was assumed to be a sex worker. Because everyone knows that trans women are sex workers. Something similar happened to Meagan Taylor for the crime of checking into a hotel as a trans woman.
Some of us pass better than others. People who transition at a younger age are more likely to pass, but more than age goes into it. Not every trans person can afford surgery, and not every trans person can even obtain hormones. The challenges to receiving gender-affirming care are very real, and even if you do have access to that care, there are some things that no amount of money or surgery will change. I’m a 6-foot-tall trans woman, and nothing I do will make me shorter. That means I stand out, and once you stand out for one thing, people pay more attention to other things.
Trans people come in lots of shapes and sizes. There are people out there who say, “I can always tell when a person is trans,” and I’ll be the first to tell you that they’re full of it. Some trans people pass well enough to be taken as cisgender and when they say they’re trans, no one believes them. Likewise, some people focus on the “you never know; you’ve probably already met trans people and not known”—well, sometimes you can tell, and sometimes you can’t. That can even vary from day to day for a given trans person. Am I having a day where my hair is cooperating, my makeup and outfit are on point to help perform gender, or am I having a jeans-and-a-hoodie day with no makeup and my hair in a really basic ponytail? I’m more likely to pass one way than the other.
Passing is situational, and it’s complicated. Some trans people work very hard to pass both because it eases their own dysphoria and because life is safer if you pass. Some trans people push back against the pressure to pass. Some of us are visibly queer and are completely fine with that. Some people dislike the term “passing” as though it’s an arbitrary measurement of our success or failure at—what? Being trans? Performing gender “correctly”? You’ll hear some trans people use the term “blending” instead, referring to a person’s ability to blend with the general population without drawing attention to their gender.
Passing means a lot of things. It gets wrapped up and tangled up in policing the legitimacy of a trans person’s identity. It gets smashed in with pressure to meet a social beauty standard and somewhere in the wibbly wobbly ball of pressures and expectations and feelings we have our own dysphoria that we’re trying to navigate. It’s not just about how the world sees us, but also about how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror.
Personally, I long for the day when the only person for whom I need to “pass” is myself. When it’s just about deciding what to do to alleviate the dysphoria and when the choice of whether or not I wear lipstick today isn’t a part of my safety planning for the day. Somehow, I feel like we’re a ways away from that world, though, so today, eye shadow and low-cut tops are just another piece of my armor for surviving the world as a trans woman.
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