In various transgender blog posts and articles you’ll come across the idea that it’s okay not to pass, that trans men who don’t pass are still men, and trans women who don’t pass are still women. You’ll even find plenty of arguments that it’s wrong to try to pass, or to use the word “pass,” because it’s connected with racist ideas of “passing for white,” or because it implies that trans people are not the gender they claim to be, reinforcing the “deceiver” stereotype and undermining the essentialist “trans women are women” ideology.
I get where a lot of this is coming from, and I’m sympathetic to it. I agree that the old culture of passing was fraught with misogyny and conformism, and that the “deceiver” stereotype has been part of a system of violent exploitation of trans people. I also agree that some people have a harder time passing than others, and that that doesn’t necessarily make them any less trans. I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if trans women were seen by the general public as a special kind of women instead of as “men in dresses.” And people who transition need to do whatever they can to make peace with their new lives.
I have several problems with this line of thinking, however. One major problem is that trans people, particularly those of us on the feminine spectrum, regularly face harassment and discrimination. Passing, particularly superficial passing on the street, can prevent a lot of that. Just last weekend I went out shopping. I think at some point my makeup must have gotten smudged, because I started getting funny looks from people on the street. Nobody said anything, but I imagine that I would have gotten more extreme looks, and maybe comments, if I’d gone out in a dress with no makeup at all on. Passing makes a difference to our safety. It’s fine for people to take calculated risks to show confidence in public, but it’s not fair to expect everyone to do that.
Some of the trans men I’ve talked to say that the safety issue is different for them, although no less important. They don’t get targeted so much for being seen as deceivers, but for being seen as women, and sometimes as lesbians. If they think they pass, they may go to places where they would hesitate to go as women, but where they feel relatively safe as men. Not passing exposes them as women, and thus as potential prey.
Another issue is that for many of us, our presentation is a skill, something we’ve worked at for years, an art or a craft. It takes time and effort to get it right, every time. We deserve to be proud of our work and to be appreciated for it.
Here’s one of my biggest problems with these anti-passing arguments: I didn’t start wearing women’s clothes because I wanted to be a trans woman. I wanted to be a woman. Not just any woman, but a pretty, sexy woman. (Give me a break, I was twelve years old.) I know full well that there are plenty of women who are admired and respected for being smart, thoughtful and caring, but those are things I can do as a guy. What’s the point of being a woman if I can’t be pretty or sexy?
I also know that it’s possible to be seen as a sexy, pretty trans woman. I’m open to that, but it’s not what I want when I feel my trans desire. The desire is to be a woman, and that means the kind of women I envied when I was a teenager: women who were not noticeably trans.
And yes, I know that many other trans women have made peace with the idea of being seen as trans, or not being seen as pretty or sexy. I say good for them, and I say that without sarcasm. But many of them have transitioned, and it makes much more sense to give up on that kind of desire when you’ve decided to live as a woman full-time for the rest of your life. Many of them are also older, and when I get older I will eventually make peace with not being sexy, but not yet.
So yes, it’s great to challenge the deceiver stereotype, and the pressure to pass, and the toxic culture of “passing tips.” But it’s also okay to want to be safe, to be pretty, to be sexy, and to be proud of our work.