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.
A person is hiding, or in denial about, a key part of herself. Person accepts true self. Person shares identity with the world. Person lives happily ever after.
This is the “coming out” story and we all know how it goes. The closet is a state of shame, while coming out of the closet is a state of pride. Coming out is synonymous with living a healthy and authentic life.
For trans people, coming out is more complicated. It has two very different meanings for us, particularly transsexual folks.
We first come out when we share our true genders with the world. Because our genders contradict our assigned sex, we are by definition trans when we say “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” This is the coming out that declares our transition. It’s pretty close to the coming out narrative.
Later, after transition, “coming out” can mean something different entirely: sharing not your gender identity, but your transgender history. “Coming out” means revealing a part of yourself that was hidden. Before transition, the trans aspect of my identity was apparent–I was visibly gender variant–but the man part wasn’t. Today, the reverse is true: people can tell I’m a guy, but they can’t see my gender variant history. So I come out when I tell people I’m trans. This second coming out is a reversal that completely rewrites my relationship to disclosure.
Far from being a radical act of authenticity, coming out after transition can actually limit one’s ability to be seen. People may think of me very differently when they learn I am trans. They may lose the ability to see me as a regular person. They may no longer see my gender as legitimate. They may start to think of me as a something other than a “real” or “normal” man. Something about me is suddenly queer (pun intended). They may begin scrutinizing my face, body, speech and manner, searching for signs that I am “really” female. I may be conscripted as someone’s own personal Trans 101 instructor, facing an onslaught of nerve-wracking queries about my identity, all other trans people’s identities, my medical history, my genitals, my reproductive capacity, my sexual practices, and so on. And that’s only on the benign end of the spectrum.
I am forced to choose between two imperfect impressions. If I don’t disclose my trans status, others are willing to see me as their version of a man. They misunderstand my life experience, because that image does not include being trans. If I do disclose, they are willing to see me instead as their version of trans. Again, they misunderstand me, because this image does not include being an ordinary man.
None of my options is ideal, and not through any fault of my own. Others are simply unwilling to see my whole self: really a man, really transsexual. So I make choices. I reveal some aspects, hide others. These choices shift from one situation to another.
Is it a stance of pride to expose myself to the prying questions of every ignorant person I meet? No. Is it a stance of shame to make careful choices about my privacy, discussing personal topics only with those I trust? Hell no.
Coming out was a first step toward a whole, authentic life. I no longer live in a closet. But when I come out a second time, I risk stepping into another closet, this one fashioned from others’ ignorance. The painful thing is that this carries a palpable step backward in terms of being seen for my true self. People who understood my gender reasonably well suddenly fall apart in dizzy confusion.
First, coming out was my ticket to living as a man. Turns out the ticket is roundtrip–punch it again and you’re back where you started. Back to the netherworld between sexes. Back to the badlands where few dare tread.
Flanked by closets, I make my life right here. Out of the closet, into the corridor. It’s not exactly roomy, but at least I have somewhere to go.
I am in my first semester of grad school, and I have struggled with how open I want to be about my trans status. On the one hand, being trans informs my perspective and is part of the reason I chose this field (mental health). Transgender issues come up from time to time in class, so there are opportunities to mention that I am trans and share my thoughts. On the other hand, I don’t want being trans to define me in the eyes of my classmates, especially because I am in a small program where I will take many courses with the same people.
I want to help educate my peers about transgender people–as future counselors, it is crucial that they are well-informed–but I don’t want to feel like I have to at any given moment. My program (and the profession) are heavily female, so I also have a some anxiety about being seen as “not really a man” if I disclose in a room that’s 75% female–like it will rub off on me or something.
The choice was sort of made for me a few weeks ago when someone outed me in class. The person responded to a comment I made with a question about how being transgender affected my experience.
I mentioned my trans status in front of this classmate and a few others during the admissions process, but had not brought it up in class. The classmate in question is supportive, but is not versed in the issues and etiquette. I suspect that almost everything this individual knows about transgender people, they know from one brief conversation with me. Apparently, they did not realize that it is not appropriate to mention that someone is trans* in front of a large group, when they have never mentioned it.
I was flat-out shocked after hearing the comment; it took me a few seconds to respond. My heart was racing, and I was not able to pay attention for the next 15 or 20 minutes of class.
On reflection, though, it was a not a bad experience. No one in the room so much as batted an eye, and everyone seemed genuinely curious, attentive, and respectful. I am not sure if someone, ahem, had previously discuss my trans status with other students, or if the group is really just as considerate and unflappable as befits future mental health professionals. Although what my classmate did was shitty and inappropriate–not to mention dangerous in many situations–it’s a relief to have gotten it over with. It’s nice to know how people will react. No one has treated me any differently. I haven’t mentioned it again, though.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? How do you navigate identity and openness in the different spheres of your life?