Why Pass?

Theeegreatdane laments that so many trans guys are hyper-focused on “passing”:

It really saddens me that many of these young trans* guys only care about “passing.” They post a multitude of photos of themselves asking other guys if the world will read them as being a cis-male. To me, only caring about “passing” degrades a lot of what it means to be a trans* person. But I also recognize that this is my personal experience being a queer trans* person who doesn’t identify as being a man. […]

All of this is fine except when it’s not. It’s not okay when these guys get depressed and angry (and sometimes worse) that someone in the group does not think that they “pass.” It’s not okay that a majority of the FTM community wants to live stealthily and not make their identity as being a transgender person known to the world. I understand the stigma, ostracization and rejection associated with being transgender. Only a few states in the US have anti-transgender discrimination laws that protect transgender people’s rights and jobs. Wanting to be seen as cis is defensive and protective for these guys, so in this respect it is not their state of mind, but the institution (and this it universal, not just in the US) that needs changing.

I appreciate theeegreatdane’s take on this. Discrimination and second-class-citizen status are huge parts of the motivation to “pass,” and it is very sad when trans people feel like shit because they don’t look a certain way. I share their hope that someday, “passing” will be unnecessary.

I’d like to add a few observations from my vantage point as someone who keeps my trans status relatively private. Just for the record, I am not trying to refute any of what theeegreatdane says; I just want to add another perspective.

The problem isn’t just that we may be fired or worse for being out as trans. It’s also that our ability to inhabit a male role is conditional on passing (being read as cis men). There is simply no space in our communities to be read as men and as trans at the same time. The gender binary works under a logic of opposites–categories are mutually exclusive. The extent to which we are viewed as male is the extent to which we are not viewed as female or a third gender. The reverse is true for trans women; being viewed as female depends directly on not being viewed as male. In the logic of the binary, “not female” and “male” are near synonyms, as are “female” and “not male.”

This is why I usually put scare-quotes around the word “pass.” Like many trans folks, I feel the term implies some kind of duplicity or deceit–passing for something you’re not. We’re not doing that; we’re living openly in our true genders. It not our fault that others demand we conceal our trans histories or forfeit our gender identities.

I also think “passing” implies more action on our parts than it actually entails. Yes, most trans guys deliberately cultivate a male appearance and worry about how they look and whether others can see they are male. Can you imagine how freaked out most cis men would be if they thought being read as female were a serious possibility?

However, as a stealth-ish guy myself, one thing we don’t typically do is go around actively trying to convince people we are cis. “Hi guys, I’m Josh, and just fyi, I was totally not raised as a girl”? Not so much, except perhaps for the safety reasons theeegreatdane notes. What we are doing is trying to convince others we are male. “Hi guys, I’m Josh.” It’s everybody else who figures that if we appear male, we have XY chromosomes, were declared a boy at birth, etc. The flipside is that therefor, in order to be viewed as male, we must look like we have XY chromosomes, etc. (Not that you can actually tell by looking, of course.) If you accept that trans men are indeed men, their is no “passing” going on here, just the wish to be gendered correctly–a wish we share with most of our species. Guys who are early in transition tend to be highly anxious about this, while those of us who’ve lived as men for years tend to mellow out about it.

I’d like to note that I don’t stop being a vocal advocate just because I don’t share my trans status at work, with all my friends, etc. I continue to call bullshit when I smell bullshit, and I bring up trans issues as often as I can. For example, during a recent workplace training on diversity, I asked my 150+ coworkers and supervisors to be aware of transgender issues, since the training made no mention of us. Coming out as trans would have been one powerful way to do that, but I didn’t want to–it just didn’t feel right. Speaking out from my position as a straight dude (presumed to be cis) is another powerful way to do it. People responded very well to my comments, and a few made a point to thank me for bringing trans issues up. I think my comments on transphobia, homphobia and sexism are especially effective in reaching other men. Too often, only women and visibly queer folks speak up. This story is just to illustrate that “passing,” including an intense desire to be viewed as any other guy, need not be at odds with trans pride and advocacy.

I hope for a world where where we can be trans and men or women at the same time, no contradictions. I do think trans folks coming out and sharing our histories is a key part of this. That lets people get to know us, and people who know us don’t hate us. However, we can’t embrace a part of our identities that isn’t there. For some of us, myself included, being trans feels above all like an unjust political circumstance. It is a core part of who I am–but it’s not a core part of my gender identity or expression.


  1. hayleesomeday

    Thanks for this post. I really like your perspective a lot. I think about passing all the time. Like you said, it’s that someday I want to be seen as my real self, not that I want to “deceive” anyone. I would absolutely love to “pass.” However, the likelihood of that happening for me isn’t too great for multiple reasons. I’ll keep my fingers crossed but the truth is, I might never completely “pass.” So, I certainly hope that we can also move public perspective and opinion forward to the point where I could someday exist in public and not have to worry about social difficulties because I don’t match everyone else’s expectation for a woman. I think “stealth” people are perfectly awesome, acting in their right, and have great potential to help the rest of us as well. I have no problem with it. I think your example of how you brought up trans issues and leveraged your social position to possibly improve things at your workplace is a perfect picture of that. Thank you.

    • rimonim

      Thanks Haylee! There are many for whom “passing” is not an option–a huge part of why we need to work for a world where we can be visibly trans and be respected. I hope that as you transition, you will be recognized for the woman that you are and able to move through the world in peace.

  2. janitorqueer

    I really like your points; very thoughtful! I do wonder though, along the lines of what theegreatdane is saying, if more people would want to be more visibly trans – that in actuality, that identity, or an identity somewhere in between genders, is their authentic self – if it were more socially acceptable. And we’re not there yet…

  3. Lesboi

    As janitorqueer said, “And we’re not there yet….” We have to get into the game first to be able to write new rules or expand the old ones. I think this battle will be won on both fronts….trans people living out and proud as well as the stealth trans folks who speak up for our rights on the local level. The out folks hit the larger population while the stealth ones work close to home on equality. I really think that transgender rights are the next human right war and our day for living visibly and having equal protections and rights is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

  4. Khai

    I love your plea to educate and change the world around us so that anyone can be male or female and trans at the same time. I understand the inherent battles that’s faced there– that a trans person is somehow less a person than a cis one. :/ I’m sorry that’s something you face.

  5. theeegreatdane

    Hey! Thanks for sharing your perspective. I really enjoyed reading this and it has definitely given me more insight and makes excellent points that I neglected to mention.

  6. Pingback: Flocks and Herds | Tangled Web

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