“Passing” is a term used in the transgender community it means that the individual is perceived as the gender he/she identify as. The goal of many transgender people is to “pass” as we can see from the subreddits where they post pictures and solicit opinions to see if they’re succeeding at it. The problem with the concept of passing is that it can be part of a binary of pass or fail (“Those transgender people who show no clear signs of the gender they were assigned at birth pass (as cisgender), while those who do show signs fail to pass”) and that it can also highlight some form of deception (which is used to justify violence towards transgender people, e.g. the narrative that they “trick” others into sexual contact portrayed in medias or the “trans panic” excuse of criminal cases). This concept has two main ways of negatively affecting self-esteem. First, saying that one “does not pass” places an emphasis of shame, it sounds like a failed attempt at their gender. Transgender people are only valid if they pass. Second, it propagates a false understanding of trans-identity and of gender expression in general, as if one needs to prove the gender that he/she is. “Passing” gives society the power of deciding if transgender people identities are real, denying their own self-determination. We could argue that it is a transphobic concept, meaning that if you don’t pass you are not tolerated by society, that being visibly transgender has a negative connotation.
But passing also feels nice, because the individual’s identity is recognized and accepted by society, it eases the nagging discomfort of dysphoria, it makes it easier to find one’s self-identity and self-acceptance and to live friendships and relationships. “Passing” makes life easier, transgender people who pass as cisgender face less discrimination, harassment, and violence and they have better employment opportunities. They can even use the toilet of the gender they identify with. This is the so-called “passing privilege”. It certainly makes strangers more comfortable within the presence of transgender people, but when said people “come out” as transgender in close relationships it is different, it means breaking the current vision of you for others to see the real you.
So, what is the cost of “passing”?
The desire to pass sees some trans people risk their health for cheap, quick-fix surgeries. Passing puts increased pressure on trans people. They have to achieve some ideal body image that for many can be unreachable. This heightens gender dysphoria, mounts up to mental health issues, such as depression, and can increase risk of suicide. Eva, a transgender woman and activist, has spoken openly about cosmetic surgery on her blog, “Square Peg, Round Hole”. “Surgery is a grey area,” she says. “It’s there to alleviate symptoms of gender dysphoria and to correct certain things that you dislike. It’s there to help us, not to define us. There’s a timeline that many trans and non-binary people seem to follow: get a diagnosis, go on hormone therapy, maybe get a boob job and then facial surgery. But you don’t necessarily have to. This only perpetuates the notion that if you want to be an accepted trans person, you are only that once you get to the end [of that timeline].” For Eva, it’s less about the physical, image-focused goal and more about the journey that is transitioning.Acceptance needs to come from within the transgender community to spark real change, Eva recalls that in the transgender community, there is a lot of criticism, and it is not unusual to judge each other on whether they pass or not.“There’s no need to judge if someone doesn’t look as ‘good’ as you,” says Eva. “That doesn’t make them any less trans”. Social media has a part to play in unattainable beauty standards, too.
We all, cisgender and transgender individual, need to keep in mind that passing is not the centerpiece of trans-identity. Being transgender is so much more than passing.