[Content Warning: slurs]
PASS (verb) judge
- to express a judgement or opinion about something, especially a person’s behaviour or appearance
To pass as trans means you fit the cisgender ideal of your gender, i.e. a transwoman would be indistinguishable from a ciswoman. This judgement is never made by the person themselves, but by the people around them. It is seen as some sort of achievement, as the end goal for all transpeople, the only way to be truly happy.
The judgement I usually receive?
You Shall Not Pass.
My response to this? So what.
Let’s roll it right back to the beginning, so we can look at where this notion of passing comes from.
- Statement 1: Gender is not a binary.
- Statement 2: People can and often will move along the spectrum at different times.
- Statement 3: There is no designated aesthetic for any point on the spectrum other than that fed to us by the media and advertising.
Statement 1: Gender is not a binary
This is one of the crucial parts to pulling apparent the notion that trans people who don’t “pass” aren’t “true” trans people.
[Note: when I talk about education systems, I am talking about Scotland unless I state otherwise.]
In science classes and sex education classes we are taught what happens to the bodies of men and women from childhood through puberty into adulthood. There may be a quick aside that trans people exist, but that’s all the information we get. Non-binary individuals are, to my knowledge, not even mentioned. (I left school in 2007, so there has been time for things to change, but I bet my boots it’s not by much.)
Gender is not a binary, but rather a spectrum.
A lot of people find this a hard concept to get their head around.
If you envision this as a line, you have 100% female (cis-feminine) at one end, and 100% male (cis-masculine) at the other. And a lot of space in between. There are various labels that go in that space – agender, bigender, genderfluid, genderqueer, androgyne, the list goes on.
It is important at this point to note that gender does NOT equal biological sex. Gender is the expression, and the part that actually matters. Society places so much importance on biological sex that it does a lot of harm to a lot of people.
Here’s another fact: men can have vaginas, and women can have penises.
So whilst someone, let’s use me as an example here, may be assigned female at birth due to genitalia, my gender has moved from cis-feminine to genderqueer, and stayed there despite me now knowing I’m a trans man.
I know this is a tricky thing to keep track of, but bear with me.
The following is my personal experience, and will not apply to every trans person.
My gender identity is genderqueertrans male because, whilst I do identify as male in a lot of ways, I do not identify as entirely masculine.
What this means in practice is that whilst I might have a haircut and wear glasses that have been classified “for men”, and wear a binder so it gives me the silhouette I’d like beneath my “guys'” shirt (I have D cup boobs, they are horrendous when dysphoria kicks in), I will still wear make-up, which has been assigned female, and my tiny feet mean I mostly have to buy “girls'” shoes.
The result sometimes ends up being what is classes as “androgynous”, and at other times leads people in the street to yell “fucking tranny” at me, because that’s a necessary way to interact with strangers. Mostly I just look like a guy who wears make-up from time to time. And, apart from the yelling, all of this is fine, as it is me expressing me.
So what does the mean in terms of “passing”? In the sense of the stereotypical traditions of gender, I don’t. I don’t look or sound or act stereotypically male, and so a lot of people will tell you I’m not a “true” trans man.
A lot of these people who tell me this are cisgendered. A lot of them are from within the LGBTQIA+ community. A few of them are even from within the trans community itself.
Statement 2: People can and often will move along the spectrum at different times.
The flippant comparison I’ve seen for this is “people change their haircut all the time and people accept it, why can’t they accept gender changes?”.
Whilst this can be valid, as a lot of gender comes down to outward expression, it is a massive oversimplification.
For a lot of people, their gender expression changes as they learn more about the spectrum and themselves. Because this information isn’t taught in school, a lot of people find the answers they are looking for in other sources, a lot of time from the internet, and this can take a lot of time. I was at university before I discovered the full extent of the gender spectrum, and 25 before I was able to contextualise what I was feeling and come to the conclusion I was transgender.
It can happen at different times for different people: some people know when they’re a child, some people after puberty or later. Some people transition one way only to transition back at a later date. And that’s only trans people, there are so many other people on that spectrum.
I know genderqueer people who’s outward gender expression changes on a daily basis. Some of these people are trans, some are not. All of them are valid.
So what does this have to do with “passing”? As I said before, I don’t in the traditional sense of appearing cis-masculine, and I likely never will. This leads to harassment for a lot of people. More seriously, a lot of these people are denied vital medical care as a result. “Transgenderism” is still considered a mental disorder, and you need a “diagnosis” to be able to medically transition or legally change your name. Many medical professionals still work on the assumption that gender is binary, so if you don’t “pass” as your stated gender, they can deny you care.
Statement 3: there is no designated aesthetic for any point on the spectrum beyond what is fed to us by media and advertising.
This one is easy: there is no hard and set way to present as “male” or “female” or anything in between. A person’s gender is what they tell you it is, no arguments.
This is the one that often ends up causing the most problems. For so long, through childhood and particularly in the advertising we are subjected to through the media, we are taught women are supposed to be slim, wear make-up and totter about in ridiculous heels, whilst men are (at the moment) bearded, muscular and have almost a uniform, be it for work or play.
All of this is bullshit.
If we could do away with the stereotypes of gender, we could do away with the notion of passing altogether. Trans people would’t be expected to look or act a certain way, and a lot more spaces would become safe spaces for non-cis people.
So to summarise, repeat after me:
Gender is not binary.
Gender expression is personal.
A person’s gender is what they say it is, no arguments.
A trans person does not have to “pass” to be “true” trans.
One last point, because this comes up a lot: a person’s gender does not equal their biological sex, and a person’s gender does not decide their sexuality. Those are topics for another day.