I’m the type of person to disclose that I’m a transgender man. It definitely depends on settings but generally speaking, I do feel comfortable doing so. I even find it relieving to have my truth open, clear and present from the start. Plus, I figure that if I were to be met with rejection, at least I’m made aware quickly. On more than one occasion though, I’ve received what some trans boys would die for, phrases like “I would have never guessed!” “Nobody can tell!” “You pass so well!” And while those comments are usually well-intentioned, this opens the floor for an honest discussion about passing, by someone who passes fairly often (but not always).
What is Passing?
Passing is a complicated word for most binary trans people, as in, trans people who recognize themselves in the binary of either men or women. Speaking from my own experience, it is simultaneously craved and desired yet dreaded and unnerving. In short, passing is the word to describe that someone appears as their gender. In reverse, someone who does not appear as their gender, and is thus misgendered by others, would be considered to have poor passing.
To some, passing is a way to determine whether they are successfully presenting themselves as the gender they identify with. However, this mindset has two main ways of negatively affecting self-esteem. First, calling a passing good or bad places an emphasis of shame onto an already marginalized group. Bad or poor passing sounds like a failed attempt at their gender, purely by its wording. Second, it propagates a false understanding of trans-identity, and of gender expression in general. In an ideal world, passing does not exist as a term -- there is no need to prove the gender you align yourself with. You simply are. Trans-identity does not have requirements to fulfill, other than being transgender. Seeing passing as a necessity neglects the core purpose of its existence: it is an illusion of safety (particularly for trans women, who still face danger in a misogynistic world) because it implies that if you look cisgender, you will be shielded from violence. Passing is not only a binary term (people do not say that you pass as non-binary), but also one reinforcing dangerous misconceptions about gender.
Gender is not earned, it is lived.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Passing
Though the social politics around passing have its own issues, there are real advantages to it in a transphobic world. Times that I have passed as a cisgender man, I have been able to use my preferred name and pronouns with no problems, ignored by other cisgender men, entered male spaces unquestioned and even provide a bit of safety to my female friends in locations. But I have also learned the other side of it: when you pass as a man, smiling at children is much less acceptable, as the common perception of a predator is male. Similarly, I’ve had to remind myself several times while walking home late after a night out that the woman in front of me, picking up speed every time she glances over her shoulder, is scared of me, a strange man in her eyes. I’ve had to remind myself to cross the street for her peace of mind, because I have been in her shoes.
These examples listed previously describe interactions in everyday life with strangers in public spaces though, sometimes without even speaking. These are not the conversations with people that know you. I am a transgender man who is romantically and sexually attracted to women. If you remove the “transgender”, I become a man who is romantically and sexually attracted to women, otherwise known as heterosexual. For people, especially those who aren’t queer, this seems like a fitting label for my sexuality. I am now a heterosexual man. And even in those spaces, those public spaces where I do pass, I am a heterosexual man.
When I pass, I pass as a heterosexual cisgender man, an identity I have never had and will never have.
Is Passing the solution?
The real shame in this concept of passing is its nature of erasure. When I pass, the world forgets the queerness in being transgender, even if I am a binary trans person, when if that binary identity loves the opposite binary identity. I can never be a man who is not transgender. Yes, transgender men are men, but they are uniquely transgender men. While explaining that you are transgender when non-passing is dreadful, passing leads to an explanation of why you are not cisgender. The “fooling” of others that transgender people are accused of. The incessant feeling of pretending to be like your cisgender peers and the fear of their discovery in the truth. It starts with not knowing certain codes that those raised in your gender would know (such as how men greet each other -- it is not a full on hug apparently) or how certain experiences in your implied anatomy or sexuality do not relate to you.
You pass with strangers? That’s a piece of cake. You are safe, you are accepted, you are respected. You pass with people you know, or better yet, want to get to know? It is breaking their current vision of you for them to see the real you. The reality is that people don’t look at you the same upon learning about your trans-identity.
As a transman, I heavily identify with my label as queer. On a technicality, I may be a heterosexual man. But culturally, I was not taught that I could ever be that. I can only ever be a transgender man who loves women. I always say, in a very fiery tone, that there is nothing heterosexual in being a transman who loves women. What I really mean is, there is nothing heteronormative in being a transman who loves women. Conversations, intimacy, experiences, cultural references, mindsets, health all have distinctly unique aspects when you’re transgender. Passing is a temporary band aid towards a real problem: you will eventually have to disclose. Passing, in concept, is escaping your transgender to leap towards a cisgender identity. But you can never be cisgender, and thinking passing will finally provide you with that peace of mind is utopic.
As a passing trans man, all I have to say is: yes trans men are men. But we are a certain kind of men. A different of type of men. To be specific, as a black trans man, I am an even different kind of man than a cisgender white or black one, and from white trans one. My experiences with passing have led me to understand that while we are all men, there are many mistakes in including all of us, regardless of experiences, in one huge category. Passing, in a transphobic world, has undeniable advantages. But, passing is not the centerpiece of trans-identity. Being binary transgender is so much more than passing.