Do I Pass?

July 29, 2014

I consider myself a trans ally. Depending on how you define “activist,” you might even consider me a trans activist.

I have trans friends, belong to trans support groups, share articles about trans struggles and persecution on social media, bitch slap trans hatred when I can.

Do I PassBut, when I see a “Do I Pass?” post on social media I cringe. Not because of what it means to the author as much as what it means about what the author experiences outside “safe” trans space.

Often, in these pictures, I see a very worried face looking back at me — a beautiful person desperately seeking acceptance for who they are.

I believe the need to pass grows out of the gender binary — strict definitions of what “men” and “women” should look, sound, and act like.

I could be considered a cisgender woman and I don’t fit within the gender binary. Neither do some of my other cisgender friends. Why in the world must we hold trans people up to a standard that many cisgender people can’t meet (or don’t want to)?

As Quinn writes on his blog, “We need to change this narrative that implies that transgender people want nothing more than to ‘pass’ as cisgender.”

In some ways I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. If I’m given the choice, I identify my gender as FemDom — put that in your binary where you will. I definitely don’t accept the presentation/constructs assigned by society to the female gender. I’ve been mistaken for a man on the telephone. I choose to use initials rather than a first name, so I am constantly referred to as “Mr.” and “he.” I prefer to wear men’s clothing because it’s more comfortable and practical. I don’t wear makeup because it takes too much time and money to do so, especially since I’m allergic to all but the most expensive cosmetics. But, I’m not considered butch because I wear my hair curly to my shoulders and feminine jewelry.

I have trans women friends who are more tomboys than femme. I also have very femme trans women friends who I didn’t realize were trans until they felt comfortable enough with me to confide that fact. I have watched friends transition from male to female and from female to male. And, I’ve seen many of them try too hard to meet artificial binary standards while they were doing so.

If you’re not comfortable in your own skin, how do you find a gender expression that does make you comfortable? Especially in a society that’s so stuck on a binary that it slaughters people who don’t fit on one end or the other?

I remember a few years back I worked as a volunteer checking identification for an excursion. An older woman approached me, dressed in a smart, classic skirt suit. Her hands shook as she handed me the driver’s license that identified her as a man and a letter from her doctor explaining she had a gender identity “disorder.” I wondered how hard she had to consider whether or not she wanted to go on this wonderful expedition because of the pain of dealing with the paperwork. I was just grateful she ended up at my post and not with someone who may have scorned or interrogated her. She was frightened, close to tears, and it wouldn’t have taken much to terrorize her.

When I first met a dear friend, she wore skirts, heels, and makeup to work and spaces that she probably didn’t consider safe. Over the years, she relaxed her style and dressed more casually. At one point she confessed that I had inadvertently helped her become more comfortable wearing clothes she preferred because I demonstrated that identifying as a woman does not obligate one to wear apparel that society defines as “feminine.”

The question “Do I pass?” holds disproportionate weight in the transgender community, generating myriad emotions. Some ask because they desperately want to be accepted by their family, their friends, their colleagues, the clerk at the grocery store, as the gender denied them at birth. Some ask because in a society where “trans” is justification for violence, there’s safety in passing. And, some ask because they want confirmation that how they appear to others matches the way they feel inside.

Even a trans person who “passes” 100 percent of the time will occasionally seek a confidence boost by asking. They might post their pictures on social media without explicitly stating the question, but their facial expression and response to comments confirm that need. Deep inside, especially if they’re early on the transition journey, they can still fear someone outing them as who they used to be.

But everyone who asks the question “Do I pass?” shares an insecurity that they don’t meet artificial gender constructs.

How do those of us who are trans allies, activists, and even those trans men and women more secure in their gender presentation respond to the question “Do I pass”?

Let’s start by not holding trans men and women up to a standard many cis women and men can’t meet. Let’s not allow artificial standards of beauty, that almost no one can achieve without Photoshop assistance, prevent us from seeing the allure in anyone who doesn’t attain them. Let’s not confuse gender identity with gender expression and force people into a binary that prevents them from being themselves.

But, most importantly, let’s remember it really isn’t any of our business whether or not someone is trans unless they choose to share that information with us. If someone tells you they are a woman or a man, just accept that, even if they don’t dress, talk, or act like you think a woman or man should. And, if you mistakenly address that woman with a deep voice as “Sir” or the man with breasts as Ma’am and they inform you that you’ve misgendered them, just apologize and don’t make the same mistake again. Nothing else required.