Most queer people are familiar with the concept of “passing,” even if they don’t approve of the term. It can describe a multitude of experiences, from gay men and women passing for heterosexual in dangerous environments to trans people being gendered correctly in their day to day lives. It can also be used retrospectively to explain a queer person’s fervent attempts to pass for cisgender or heterosexual—a roadblock in the journey of self-acceptance that can have lasting effects on that person’s mental and emotional well-being. For trans people, this sort of self-deception often manifests as a paradoxically intense investment in assigned-gender activities, style, and behaviors—for a trans woman like me, it was a period of my life spent trying to be the manliest man I knew.
I didn’t come out as trans until 23, but before that, I always knew that something was wrong.
From a very young age, I suffered from intense anxiety and depression. I was in and out of therapy programs, and I know my mother once had to call a crisis intervention team when I was having a panic attack, though I don’t remember the incident. These panic attacks manifested externally as violent physical rage—never against people but often against any inanimate objects nearby. I’d put my fist through drywall or break a television or game console, or I’d scream and shout and sob.
I knew that something was wrong—but I didn’t know what, and I wouldn’t find out for years. In the meantime, I tried to dispel an intense hatred of my body and inexplicable sense of dissociation by investing in athletics. I played sports very half-heartedly as a child, but in my teens, I joined my high school’s football team and spent any time that I wasn’t isolating myself in my room in the gym.
When I moved away from home, I really dug deep into male-coded hobbies. I learned to fix up my Jeep Cherokee and feigned interest in badass muscle cars and lifted trucks. I maintained an infrequent presence in local gyms, even though none of the muscle I packed on put a dent in my self-hatred. I listened to music that was loud and angry and manly, because folk and pop music were just too soft for a manly man like me.
The further I buried my head in the sand, the worse I felt. It never helped my self-image. It only made me despise myself more and more. But I never took even a moment to question my assigned gender. Many trans people talk about knowing from a very young age, but I was never given the tools I needed to really examine my identity.
When I spoke to Christian, a trans man from New York, about his path to authentic selfhood, he expressed a similar sentiment.
“Part of it was just not being exposed to it. After college, I had a trans friend, and I was like, ‘Oh, this makes sense!,’ ” he said. “But part of it was doing what society wants, too, so, ‘I’m a girl, and I have to be like this.’ ”
Christian told me that he was well-received when he presented as a woman. He wore the prettiest dresses, obsessed over perfecting his makeup, and went out of his way to be as slender and petite as he could possibly be. But that the appeal of social affirmation eventually gave way to a sense of unease.
“It was the validation that I needed, but as I got older I became more and more uncomfortable wearing dresses and stuff, and it really increased my dysphoria.”
I also spoke to Jessica, a trans woman from California, who echoed experiences like my own.
“I wish I had known when I was younger,” she said, “but my parents were extremely religious, so even the idea of being gay was this strange alien concept to me.”
Like me, Jessica entrenched herself in toxic male culture, describing herself as a “surfer dude” and admitting that she “had a bad habit of drinking and picking fights” in her teens—because, as she says, “that was, like, the manly thing to do.”
“I dated a trans girl when I was in my early 20s,” she said, “and together we figured out that I was a woman. I’m happy that I figured it out when I did, but I’d be a lot happier if I hadn’t spent so long pretending to be somebody else.”
I’ve seen the results of this denial first- and secondhand. Spending years trying desperately to blend in as a cisgender person can be needlessly damaging and make it that much more difficult to recognize and accept that you’re trans. Self-discovery and self-acceptance are hindered by a desire to “fit in” and “be normal,” and many transgender people struggle to love themselves for years after transitioning.
A lot of that heartache could have been avoided if I’d had the knowledge I needed to reconsider my assigned gender from a young age. Awareness of the trans community has sharply increased in the past few years—for better or worse—and I’m hopeful that the result is more parents and children recognizing gender dysphoria and taking the steps necessary to avoid experiencing the “wrong” puberty in the first place. I hope that, as time goes on, fewer trans youth are forced to say in the closet. We’ve seen the dire consequences of that lack of acceptance, from self-harm to children and young teens taking their own lives.
Despite the difficulties that we face regarding acceptance as a community, things are improving for young trans people. The wealth of resources available on the internet for understanding and identifying dysphoria, as well as what steps can be taken to socially and medically transition, have improved significantly in recent years.
For most trans adults, “passing” can be a beautiful, euphoric experience. Being gendered correctly by somebody you don’t even know often inspires tears of joy. But some of us associate unpleasant memories with the term. I’ve come to accept the lengthy period of my life that I spent passing for cis, but I can’t wait for the day that trans men and women won’t have to pass as anything but themselves.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.