Passing as What? All About Passing Privilege

Well over a decade ago, as a young and barely- out⁠ trans woman, I turned to the internet as a source of knowledge and wisdom, only to immediately come across websites and forums full of advice, tips and arguments about how to “pass” – that is, how transgender⁠ people can present themselves in a way to be read as cis – and of course who did and didn't succeed at that.

During the years I lurked on these pages, it seemed like this idea of “ passing⁠ ” existed as a sort of competition – one where we gained credits for performing gender⁠ the right way, almost just to prove that we could. These threads were full of people just like me - early in their transitions or not having started to transition⁠ at all, hyper-aware of our perceived physical flaws, and eager to learn how we too could win.

Why is passing seen as important?

Historically, passing was born as a mechanism of ensuring one’s safety, not only out in the world, but also in accessing the services that made up medical and surgical transition. Many transgender people had to jump through hoops including time “living as” men or women for at least a year before receiving any care at all, a process only slightly improved in some parts of the world today. While these standards are changing, an older generation of trans people are accustomed to view passing as “necessary” usually due to their own experiences in that kind of climate.

When people talk about passing, they often assume that we are/are not passing as a gender: like, you are not trying hard enough to be a woman, whereas in fact no matter how I appear and present, I am a woman, I just may not be seen as a cisgender⁠ one.

We see this still today in how people refer to transgender people as “identifying as” their gender, while cisgender people “are” their gender. Janet Mock writes in response to this prejudice, saying: “I'm not passing as anything, I'm being myself."

In environments like the communities I found shortly after coming out, it was almost impossible not to place so much importance on the idea of striving to “be my gender,” when all along I was my gender — just with a few parts of my body I wasn’t happy with. I internalized a sense of hatred for girls who “passed” more than I did, assuming that if I achieved the physical attributes they had, I would finally be as happy as I assumed they were. And yet, after many years, I look back and realize that they were likely no happier than I was, and instead had found other things to fixate on and dislike about themselves, and other reasons to experience internalized transphobia⁠ (this is not to mention that it’s not just transgender people who do this)!

Not only this, but the point scoring we were playing at – the one I used as a standard to evaluate myself – was not one that cisgender people were required to do to be seen as attractive, let alone be seen as their gender in the first place. Cis people are allowed -- within limits, yes, but still allowed -- to play with gendered expectations and not have their gender disbelieved (even if it might lead to someone being rude or homophobic to them). Transgender people are given far less latitude, and in some cases are even required to fit far more binary⁠ assumptions of appearance.

It’s a sad reality that we live in a society that often refuses transgender people medical care, housing or indeed basic respect if we don't meet what the people dishing out those services consider to be an adequate attempt to look cisgender. I'm far from the first trans person to have lied to mental health professionals so I could start hormones⁠ as fast as possible, for example, and many transgender people respond by internalizing this requirement, myself included.

Still, there is a system in place that rewards many of us for looking and acting certain ways. Being read as cisgender by others can make life a lot easier in many regards, while clearly causing frustration and issues in our community. So how do we tackle it?

The question of passing, who could, and who couldn’t, felt very pressing.

My experiences, and those of other LGBTQI+ people, can be explored through the concept of privilege theory, an idea that explores how some experiences are taken as “normal” and how that changes the way we think about people. “Other” and different experiences are seen as differing from that norm, and therefore assumed to be wrong. One example of this might be how men are seen as the norm and women are seen as differing from that norm, and it results in women being seen and treated as less trustworthy, deserving, or able, a phenomenon we call sexism⁠ .

Though imperfect in many ways, privilege theory can provide a useful way to understand how different members of our wider queer⁠ community exist in relation to one another; as for instance when a cis lesbian⁠ and a trans lesbian are treated differently.

What happens when these shorthands for discussing power dynamics no longer serve us adequately? For example, what happens when a transgender person is assumed to be cisgender by others, and how do we talk about this in relation to other power dynamics? This is where we enter the thorny territory of “passing privilege.”

Passing describes when a person is able to be seen as a member of a privileged identity⁠ group that is not their own, and it also comes up with race, sexuality, class and other categories. Key to this term in its original context is that it does not denote a value (e.g. when one doesn't pass, one does not fail), but simply describes a state of being. As it relates to transgender people, the concept of “passing” means people (and strangers in particular) assume that someone’s gender matches that assigned at birth.

As we move through the world, many of us assume the gender of others around us implicitly – reading visual, audio and social clues to denote which pronouns (or in the case of some languages other than English, which nouns and verbs) are the best fit for the strangers around us. When a transgender person is said to “pass” or “not pass” as cis, people rely on these markers to make that call.

You may be starting to understand why such an idea, and indeed such a term, is so complicated!

“Passing” has a contentious place in transgender discussion, as the word itself conjures up images of deception, fakery and gender imposters, while still referring to an experience that some transgender people have and/or want and others do not. That's not even to mention that “passing” only becomes more complicated when someone's experience of gender is not a binary one. So how do we begin unpacking this experience and the loaded way it's discussed?

Who has privilege?

It should be no surprise that transgender people come in all colors, shapes and sizes – after all, we are people, and humans as a whole are a wonderfully diverse lot! As a result, discerning who “has privilege” and who doesn't is more complicated than just a yes/no tick box, and depends a lot on why we're asking in the first place!

Privilege is more than just a thing that some people have and some people don’t, it’s also where that power comes from, and why people might seek it. When we talk about the privilege of “passing,” we’re looking at who among us (binary and nonbinary⁠ alike) meets and does not meet a condition that has been placed upon many of us in order to survive. In the case of some nonbinary people, this can be a compounding frustration, as someone may be “forcibly passed” as a woman or a man, when in fact being gendered as either of these is a form of erasure.

It’s safe to say that all of us still live in societies that gender strangers without question, and it’s a sad but frank reality that until we live in a world where transgender people experience full support and inclusion, passing and/or forcible passing confer safety, and by extension, privilege. “Not passing” can result in real and violent forms of discrimination and harm.

And yet, as we talk about privilege, we need to be searching for the root problem here: it’s not simply someone’s appearing to be cisgender that provides privilege. In a world that justifies the murder of transgender people for not appearing cisgender, people who “pass” are less likely to be murdered, a situation that is hard to classify as solely a form of power over others.

It sometimes feels like we’re all lobsters in a boiling pot, and until we kick over the system we’re all at the mercy of, our differences are only a matter of degrees.

It’s my dream that one day we will reach a place where everyone can experience and express their gender freely— whatever gender they were, are, or may be. Maybe then, we can disentangle the idea of “passing” from the weight it holds today, finding new language or ideas to explore what presentation looks like in a world where the stakes aren’t anywhere near as high.

In truth, transgender people exist all over the world in different cultures, classes, and contexts, and to say that the reasons each of these people may want or need to appear to be cis are complex doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. This is the tricky way that passing privilege exists — nebulous and difficult to define. And yet it is in these spaces and these futures that I believe we will find the beauty and joy of our diverse experiences. No matter how we currently appear or hope to in the future, we are becoming the tools we can use to change the world, and in the process hopefully we will make make comparing and competing about the different ways that each and every one of us is beautiful a thing of the distant past.

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