This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Some names in this piece have been changed.
The concept of “passing” within the transgender community is a touchy subject at the best of times. Many, if not most, transgender people dislike the term itself. They regard the term passing as implying a deliberate deception, when what they want is simply to be at peace with their bodies and their gender expression. A preferred term is blending, meaning simply not being seen or known as transgender.
There’s also the question of why someone must blend to avoid mistreatment and discrimination. The origins of “passing” are rooted in America’s racist past, where being seen as white was crucial to one’s safety and civil rights. Research shows that transgender people who are visibly nonbinary suffer higher rates of anxiety and depression due to factors related to minority stress. Other studies show that transgender people who have gender-affirming facial surgeries (which facilitate blending) have significantly better mental health outcomes than those who don’t.
The medical cost of the latter highlights another ethical issue associated with the concept of blending: namely, that blending may only be available to those who began with privilege, creating an even greater disparity within the community. The medical costs can include hormones, facial surgery, hundreds of hours of electrolysis, mammoplasty, vocal surgery, voice training, and gender-confirmation surgery. Insurance rarely pays for most of these things.
Another part of blending that requires privilege is retconning your past to match your present. Doing this often requires the financial ability to pay for medical care out of pocket, plus the ability to navigate a Byzantine network of administrative ways to be outed with your old name.
One transgender woman described the complexity of such a scrubbing. “I have changed my high school transcripts, my college transcripts, and my entire work history. I legally changed the title, registration, and insurance on my car and my home, as well as my medical history and my health insurance. I have updated the information related to my entire credit history (including decades-old closed credit), and corrected my information with the credit bureaus and hundreds of data brokers.”
Blending can also be crucial to landing or holding a job, and all the benefits that come with it. Sarah points out, “If you don’t approach passing at a job, despite the laws, you will have your résumé thrown in the trash 499 times out of 500.” Cathy, a high-level transgender executive in the energy industry observed, “I had to fully embrace the binary to survive at the C-level of the corporate world. … One of the only reasons I made it was my very strong binary expression.”
At a more basic level, blending is often seen as crucial to physical safety. James, a transgender man, described how one incident made him decide to begin taking testosterone. “One night, while in ‘girl mode’ I was out with a group of friends and was forcibly removed from the women’s restroom. The cops were called, and I was kicked out of the place in handcuffs. That was my real ‘turning point.’ After that, I started HRT and decided to ‘fully’ transition.
It was a matter of safety.”
These issues have been discussed ad infinitum within the transgender community. We recognize the problematic nature of passing, but blending can also be a matter of personal safety and survival.
What has not been as discussed, however, is how and why transgender people are pushed to blend for reasons that aren’t related to addressing gender dysphoria and run contrary to how they would otherwise express their gender: because of their families.
Eva, a transgender woman living in California, described how blending became even more important after her father died: “My newly widowed elderly mom lives in a transphobic red state. Since I help her now that dad is gone, I have to be in that state more often and for longer periods of time. Blending in is paramount for my safety while I’m there.”
Cathy, the executive, has a similarly pressing reason for holding onto her job, whatever the personal cost. “My wife is a cancer survivor and in increasingly poor health from a progressive neurological disease. My career provides the health insurance, and we do not know how long she can work before she is completely disabled.”
As a result, Cathy feels the need to express her gender in a rigidly binary way. “The sacrifice is that I must always dress feminine to be more acceptable to co-workers and clients. I must always wear a moderate level of makeup, it’s 3-inch heels every day, and it’s always being concerned when dealing with conservative people: Do I pass? Do I look femme enough? Are they going to know what I am?”
Other transgender people described needing to blend for their partners’ safety, sometimes at the cost of their queer identities. As James detailed, “I’m dating a genderqueer person who IDs as a femme nonbinary transguy. When we’re together in public, we are a straight couple. For their physical safety and mental health, I don’t correct people when they are misgendered. But it hurts them … we, as a couple, sacrifice our outward queer identities.”
Another sacrifice made to blend is separating yourself from your queer community. If you are not seen with visibly queer people, it reduces the likelihood you will be identified as queer. After a particularly negative experience in a restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, I learned that it is safer to be far away from other transgender people.
Fears of homophobia and violence can motivate transgender people to sacrifice being their authentic selves to protect their straight loved ones. Chelsea is a transgender woman who has a cisgender male fiancé. She describes taking extra steps to blend in order to protect him from gay-bashing: “I have to put a lot of pressure on myself to pass all of the time. We live together, and I am most afraid of him being identified as someone that is involved with a trans woman. I don’t want him to have to deal with it or get killed over it.”
Parents of transgender youth also find themselves quietly hoping their children will find ways of blending via the binary. Mary, a parent of a 10-year-old transgender boy, remarked that, “Sometimes he likes to wear things that are more feminine, though, and I have an internal struggle with it at times. Less so as time goes by, but I worry about how people will treat him if they perceive him as anything other than clearly male or clearly female.”
Dawn, the mother of a transgender girl, echoed this: “I’m much less terrified now that my daughter has long hair. When her hair was short, I was always very anxious in public.” Another parent of a transgender girl told me that, “When she first socially transitioned, she was so happy to be herself, she wanted everyone to know. We had to tell our daughter that not everyone needed to know because it wasn’t safe.”
In a better world, transgender people would be able to seek medical care to alleviate gender dysphoria and express their gender based on their internal sense of self. Instead, many make sacrifices to blend for their families. Sometimes it is in terms of paying for surgery that goes beyond addressing dysphoria and is intended to simply keep them safe. Others significantly modify their gender expression. Many distance themselves from the LGBTQ community—with the loss of support that entails—to deflect attention away from themselves. All of this raises the question: Why are we discussing “passing” when the real issue is fixing society such that transgender people don’t feel compelled to make themselves disappear?