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In the transgender community, the term “passing” refers to when a person is consistently seen and recognized as the gender they identify as, even by strangers who don’t know about their trans status or history. For many, passing as the gender they identify as serves as a means to achieving gender euphoria (a sense of satisfaction and comfort with one’s perceived gender), the opposite of gender dysphoria (the discomfort many transgender people feel with their bodies, gendered name and pronouns, clothing norms, and more). Passing is also a safety concern in many cases; the less visibly different from the mainstream cisgender society one appears, the less one needs to worry about possible discrimination and violence.
While passing is highly important to many individual trans people – and for good reason – I believe that on the collective scale, this concept is more harmful than many trans people and their cisgender allies realize. It sets arbitrary standards of beauty for trans people which many can’t or don’t wish to meet, erases non-binary and gender non-conforming people, and paradoxically leads to an atmosphere of greater public danger for transgender people.
I used to be a member of a private Facebook support group exclusively for transgender people. It was intended and marketed as a way to share resources, make friends and build support networks, solicit and offer advice and comfort, and share stories, all things that are desperately needed in the trans community. As the group grew in numbers, supportive and helpful posts were quickly crowded out by selfies, invariably captioned with, “Do I pass?”. Most of the comments on these threads were genuinely encouraging and supportive, but I was troubled by the occasional shallow, judgmental reply. Trans people should know, perhaps better than most, the emotional and psychological damage that these types of comments can inflict.
More disheartening for me than the rare insensitive comment was the disproportionate amount of value that the posters of these photos placed on their appearances and others’ opinions of them. They seemed to feel that their worth as trans people directly correlated to how well they could pass for (or, to phrase it differently, pretend to be) cisgender; the less gender non-conforming they appeared to others, the better they felt about themselves. As a trans person, I understand the anxiety, discomfort and outright anguish that physical dysphoria can cause, and I don’t want to take away from anyone the euphoria that can come with outwardly appearing as oneself. But as a non-binary person, I also understand that appearing cisgender and presenting as one’s authentic self are not always necessarily interrelated concepts, and that the concept of passing is especially harmful to those who do not fit traditional cisgender standards of beauty.
For many binary trans people – people who identify as strictly man or woman – being seen and identified by others as your true gender can be a badge of honor and source of pride. It signals that you are finally starting to live and be seen totally as your authentic self and triggers a sense of gender euphoria. But what would passing mean for a non-binary person: someone who identifies as a combination of man and woman, neither man nor woman, or outside of such concepts altogether? What of intersex people who present outside our typical norms of appearance? How can one “pass” in the public eye as a gender which is not recognized by society at large?
For many non-binary or otherwise gender non-conforming (GNC) people, this is a constant source of discomfort. As a non-binary person in a society that exclusively recognizes and privileges binary gender, I am practically never perceived as my authentic self. If passing is the standard to which trans and cis people alike hold trans people, does that make me and other non-binary or GNC people less trans? I reject any concept which rests on the foundation that all trans people must be alike, or that some trans people are more trans than others. There is no rulebook for being transgender; the only requirement is that one is not totally comfortable with the gender they have been assigned by those around them. Transgender people, like any other group, are diverse and varied in their experiences, their goals, their outlooks and their self-expression. Transgender people and allies alike should learn to love each individual for who they are and how they wish to self-express, never look down upon or be made uneasy by those who choose a different path for themselves.
At its core, the idea of passing as cisgender as the end game for all trans people is a concept rooted in cissexism, the belief that cisgender people are inherently more “normal” – and therefore more attractive – than transgender people. In order to be considered beautiful, trans people must cease to be visibly trans; they must assimilate into the cultural standards of the dominant cisgender society they live in. For many non-binary people including myself, this is not an option, and conforming to the standards for either of the two largely-recognized genders causes anxiety, shame and unhappiness. And why should we? These standards are ultimately arbitrary and often rooted further in patriarchal, essentialist ideas of men and women which box each gender in to a handful of immutable traits. Trans people, and non-binary people in particular, have a vested interest in combating these notions wherever possible.
Reliance on the concept of passing not only erases and delegitimizes non-binary and GNC people who don’t feel comfortable or authentic conforming to traditional standards of appearance, but it makes navigating public spaces potentially more dangerous for non-binary and binary people alike. By propping up the language of passing, we are indirectly encouraging scrutiny and judgement based on physical appearance. People who are visibly GNC or in a state of transition are targets for ridicule, discrimination and outright violence, especially in areas of the United States such as North Carolina and Mississippi which now actively encourage citizens to discriminate and deny public access based on perceived gender. Even if one wishes to be seen as exclusively male or female, doing so in our strictly gendered society may require months or years of expensive and difficult-to-access hormone treatments, surgeries and other invasive procedures, wardrobe changes, vocal training, and more. If we encourage people to notice whether someone “passes” or not, what becomes of those who can’t or don’t wish to meet these standards?
I don’t begrudge trans people who want to pass as a personal choice for themselves. We just need to be sure to refrain from judging those who can’t or don’t want to pass for a binary gender. Trans people: do whatever makes you happy and safe, but please don’t expect others to conform to your ideals, because what you wish for yourself should never be a requirement for others. Cisgender people: please be mindful of the diversity within the trans community. Be aware that not everyone wishes to be seen as a man or a woman, and that gender identity and gender expression exist on a large continuum. I strongly believe that it should not be up to transgender people to change themselves to fit into society without risk of violence, but it should be up to cisgender people to challenge their notions of gender in order to make our culture safer and more comfortable for everyone. Instead of judging trans people based on whether or not they “pass” as member of a group they may or may not even consider themselves part of, we should determine success based on the happiness, comfort and gender euphoria of the individual in question. As non-believers in religion, we should strive to challenge our dogmatic, black-and-white views wherever they remain and, as I like to say, smash the binary.