To Pass or Not to Pass
So I recently read an article on my friend Dara’s website (www.darahoffmanfox.com/) about the concept of “passing” as a transgender person. The article itself was rather good but it, along with some of the comments made by other readers, has gotten me thinking about the concept of passing. As a deconstructionist at heart, I feel a strong desire to take this concept of passing apart and examine how it works. I wish to know where all the pieces came from and how they function in tandem to create this social phenomena, and it truly is a phenomena. You can barely read anything related to gender identity and transgender topics without stepping in the proverbial muck of passing or not passing. It is everywhere, but why? Why is the concept of passing so important or so pervasive to the conversation of gender identity? Why do we as transgender and cisgender people feel a need to analyze a person’s passability or non-passability either in thought, in conversation, or in practice?
I find even myself critical of whether or not my exterior is passing or not passing, but where does this mechanism of self-criticism come from? Why are so many of my fellow gender non-conformists so concerned with the same self-criticism?
There are a great deal of questions to be asked and to be answered around this subject, but let’s begin simple and just define passing. Wikipedia defines it as: “[referring] to a person's ability to be regarded at a glance to be either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman”. The Queer Dictionary defines it as: “to be perceived as the gender you identify as. It’s typically, but not always, used in the context of a trans* person discussing their experience in the public world”
If we can accept that those two definitions roughly describe what “passing” is about, then the next step in our deconstructive efforts is to look at the individual parts of that definition. The key, I believe, to both definitions is the concept of perception. Passing is an effort for a person to be perceived as a desired something (passing can refer to other social situations separate from gender, such as social/economic class, race, etc.).
If passing is the effort to be perceived as a certain something (in this case a man or a woman), then does that mean that a transgender person doesn’t pass as the man or woman that they are aspiring towards until someone else enters the equation? Can I “pass” as a woman when I am by myself, or must I enter into a social situation before passing or non-passing becomes a factor? When I look in the mirror and I see myself in the reflection, I know that the person I’m seeing is a female. I know her name is Emma and that she has always been a female, but does that mean I’m “passing” as a female? The logical answer, at least to me, is no. The reflection I see is the person that I physically am, and that person is a female. I cannot pass as something when I’m inherently already that thing. I can’t pass as an American when I am already an American. So when does passing or non-passing arise?
I conclude, and I don’t expect that it is a stretch of the imagination for anyone else to conclude that passing only becomes an observable phenomena when another person or people is/are perceiving me. Passing, therefore, is based completely on the perceptions of others, which means that it is a social dynamic. If the phenomena ceases to exist when one is alone, then that means it is a socially constructed phenomena. Now, I can probably hear some of you saying or thinking, “but Emma, you can still worry about passing or evaluate passability when you are alone,” to which I respond, yes, passing can exist when one is alone, but only when one is assuming an outside perspective, thereby artificially creating a social situation. When I look in the mirror and I evaluate whether or not my appearance is passable as female I must create a lens of socially constructed gender norms that I’ve accumulated throughout my life experience in order to do it. I must, essentially, evoke a hypothetical social situation before “passing” can be evaluated.
Think about it this way: If I was the only human on earth, then my definition of female would be the “normal” definition of female. I wouldn’t have to “pass” as female because I would just be a female; there would be no need to alter my appearance to adhere to some socially agreed upon standard of femaleness.
So, why is it important for us to understand that “passing” is a socially constructed phenomena? Understanding that passing is a social construction/phenomena tells us quite a bit about it actually, but what are social phenomena?
Ask.com has a great definition: “Social phenomena are any external influences on living organisms. These influences include behavioral influences, historical influences and developmental influences. They have been observed in humans and animals. Social phenomena change the way an organism behaves. Due to external influences an organism, including humans, may change or adapt their behaviors. Over time these changed behaviors can become permanent and become a part of the organism's life and their DNA” They cite Markey as the basis for their definition, which you can read more about here: https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Markey/Markey_1926.html
So, taking that definition of a Social Phenomena to heart, we can see that the concept of “passing” is an external behavioral/historical/developmental influence on a person. In short, “passing” is something that society has created, which in turn changes the way an organism (in this case a transgender person) behaves. I know you might be thinking, “but Emma, this isn’t really all that profound,” but I really want you to think critically about this for a moment. If “passing” is a social influence that changes the way a transgender person acts, then doesn’t that mean that “passing” is a socially constructed manipulation by the gender binary system to be or act a certain way?
In other words, isn’t the standard of passing just another binary-based social control over what is and isn’t male or female? On the surface that might not seem all that dangerous, but if you are willing to get your hands a bit dirty by digging into this idea, then you’ll quickly find that all is not as “okay” as it might seem. The gender binary social system is the very same system that has ostracized and dehumanized transgender and gender non-conforming individuals for as long as we can recall. It is the system that has basically set up a huge social power differential between those who conform to their assigned gender and those who don’t. These power imbalances manifest in higher murder rates, in higher poverty rates, in higher suicide rates, and higher workplace/housing discrimination rates for transgender/gender non-conforming individuals vs. cisgender/gender conforming individuals. People who do not conform to the gender binary have, historically, been viewed and treated as lesser than those who do conform. Passing is simply an extension of that very same power imbalance.
A transgender individual who does not adequately “pass” hetero-cis-normative standards for their identified gender is viewed as lesser than a transgender person who does “pass” the hetero-cis-normative standards. They are subject to increased bullying, increased risk of depression and suicide, and increased risk of assault or even murder, all because they don’t “pass” well enough.
If “passing” is really just a social manipulation from a system of power disparities, then why do we as transgender individual place so much emphasis on it? Is passing a personal preference to conform to a socially accepted and propagated ideal, or is it simply an effort to reduce risk of injury/oppression? Where does the realm social coping mechanisms end and personal preference begin? Can they even be separated, or are they mutually dependent?
I, personally, believe they are mutually dependent. Passing is a personal preference to aspire to an accepted ideal which spawned from a social coping mechanism. When one chooses to adopt and adhere to a standard of passing or not passing, then one is setting out a personal preference to cope with socially constructed power imbalances, but is that our only option? Do we, as transgender individuals, have to make that choice? Do we have to worry about whether or not we pass? Only the individual can truly decide for themselves, but my answer to those questions is no, I don’t have to worry about passing.
If I permit myself to stand on the slippery slope of the passability standard then I am, in effect, upholding the very system of power imbalances that has dehumanized and ostracized people like me for centuries. By accepting their standards for what I should look like, then I am also saying that it is okay for social norms to dictate what is male and what is female, instead of relying upon the self-efficacy of individual preference and identity.
By agreeing to the binary social contract of passability, am I not giving away my social power by subjecting myself to the perceptions of others, perceptions which are not only impossible to predict and frequently change from one era to the next, but are downright frustrating to even try to define? If passing is the ultimate social control of cisgender norms and expectations, then the gender binary says that I, one who is identified as “not male”, must therefore begin to display mutually agreed upon social queues, actions, and clothing of their definition of female (the only accepted gender when one is “not male”) before I will be socially validated. If I choose to be “not male” and “not female” by playing with the boundaries of gender identity or carving out a space for myself by rejecting their tenets of gender absolutism (the idea that male and female genders have an inherent and definable existence), then don’t I forfeit my right to social acceptance, power, and resources in their system? Why must my gender identity be an all or nothing game of social acceptance? Why must I conform to the norms of others who do not understand and can never experience this gender identity that I have?
To me, accepting passable and non-passable as benchmarks of my social and individual validity as a female or a male is akin to the impoverished people of a third world nation worshiping an unruly and oppressive dictator as being just and kind, even as that dictator carries on a lavish and rich lifestyle of never ending food and drink. (I admit this may be a radical opinion, but bear with me). By adhering to the standards of acceptance orchestrated by a system that has historically done nothing but delegitimize people like me, are we not laying the groundwork for further oppression? The more transgender individuals spend their time, energy, and money desperately trying to “pass” the standards of commonly accepted man-ness or woman-ness, the more stratified this benchmark for legitimacy becomes. The more transgender and non-conforming individuals who willingly carve out a space for themselves and claim self-efficacy of identity, regardless of hetero-cis-normative standards, the less stratified the benchmark becomes.
In other words, the more trans individuals resist the urge to cope with social power imbalances by conforming to the standards of the system that created those imbalances, the more legitimacy they can ultimately achieve outside of that system of imbalances. When power is achieved outside of the system of imbalances then that imbalanced system must then either falter (which it probably won’t, not for a long time, at least) or it must evolve to more adequately accommodate and balance those new positions of social power.
Has anyone else noticed that the more open transgender people have become about who they are and what kind of respect they require, the more the trans revolution (my term) evolves? The more icons we have in the media who brazenly admit that they are transgender instead of trying to “pass” under the radar of gender policing, the less power those gender police have. The more we come out of hiding and say, “I’m here, I exist, and I am just as important as anyone else, regardless of my gender identity or your standards about it” the more the cis-normative social structures start to crumble. We start to see increasing numbers of gender neutral clothes, advertising, bathrooms, sport policies, and employment/housing availability. The more we claim our own legitimacy instead of adhering to the standards of cis-normative legitimacy, the less powerful cis-gender legitimacy standards on gender become.
This conversation isn’t complete, however, unless we address the personal choice aspect to passing and not passing. This social contract exists, at least in part, because transgender individuals have a desire to be seen as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. I, being mostly female, do aspire to look much more like a typical female, but I believe there is an important distinction that must be made about the motivation behind this aspiration. It is one thing to change one’s appearance to soothe gender dysphoria, and to create a reflection of one’s self that one can feel happy and proud of and another to seek acceptance by adhering to social norms. I wear a wig and makeup because I enjoy doing those things and enjoy the way I look in them, NOT because I’m trying to achieve social acceptance as a female. I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking I’m a cisgender female, I’m simply acting out behavior that I find enjoyable and appropriate for the gender I know inside. I do it to gain a degree of emotional relief from the oppressive feelings I have about my body.
The important difference between what I am doing, and what one is doing when they are trying to “pass” is that were I ever to be approached about my gender or asked about my gender, I would never tell them I was a woman (ciswoman). I would tell them I was a transwoman, because that noun gives me a different kind of social power and puts me in a different social context. I am not a person who is trying to deceive others into thinking I was born a female because I feel compelled to do so in order to gain social validity; I’m upholding and asserting a non-conforming gender identity that suits my own needs and desires. Acceptance has then become something that isn’t asked for, but is asserted or demanded. I’m not opening the door for them to argue that I’m not a woman or that I will never be a woman, I’m telling them that I am a transwoman, a gender identity that they cannot assert doesn’t exist or isn’t valid.
I understand that this choice I’ve made won’t work for everyone. Many transgender individuals wish nothing more than to live a life as the gender they identify as and I can’t blame them. Many of them want to adhere to the cis-normative passing benchmark, for any number of reasons. I’m not saying that what they are doing is wrong or bad. All I am saying is that there are other options, and those other options have a greater chance of achieving social viability for every transgender person instead of just an individual. No, I’m not saying they are selfish for making their decision to aspire to individual social acceptance in the cis-normative system, I’m just saying that what they are doing might not be the best way to advocate for other transgender people to gain the same level of acceptance outside of that system, and that’s okay. Aspiring to be a gender outlaw like I do isn’t the road for everyone, and I’d never shame anyone for making the choice to adhere to the passing benchmarks; I’m just hoping that the social standards and consequences of “passing” passes away during my lifetime and people like myself and countless others won’t be delegitimized for looking like something other than the “either or” standards should we have to or choose to.