On “Passing”


When I disclose my transsexual status to someone unused to being around trans* people the second most common response I get is something like “Wow, really? I never would have known! You totally look like a normal guy!” The statement usually is accompanied by a shocked expression, but once in awhile it’s a condescending smile.

It is meant as a compliment, and it isn’t one. Ever since this started happening to me regularly I have tried to find an appropriate response. The person saying it wants to hear “Thank you,” since they intended it as a compliment. To be honest, that often has been my response, because it’s the easiest one. It gets the weird, uncomfortable, awkward moment over quickly. Other times I will try to brush it off with “Well, testosterone does that” but generally this only makes them restate the non-compliment again, so it’s incredibly ineffective. They think I’m being modest, while I’m actually incredibly uncomfortable.

A few times I have pointed out that statements like that aren’t really compliments. They indicate a few things that make me uncomfortable. The first is that there is something about appearing to be cis-gendered that is somehow better than looking like someone who is gender-non-conforming. This blog post from Writings of a Trans-Activist makes this point much better than I could, so I suggest you read it.

The most direct reason that I’m uncomfortable with this is pretty simple: complimenting me for looking like a cisgendered man feels like an insult against my trans* friends who appear more gender-non-conforming than I do. It makes it sound like I am a better transperson than they are. I am not. I am fortunate that my transition has allowed me to look they way I want to look – I like what I see when I look in the mirror. That isn’t something to compliment me for though – it is a combination of luck and time (9.5 years on T).

All of my trans* friends deserve recognition for the struggles they have, but I especially want to recognize those who go out into the world each day knowing that people will see them as different – perhaps even as a threat to their heterocentric cisnormative world. They have it harder than me, and it is they, not me, who should be getting pats on the back.

Don’t compliment me for having the easy route.

Feature pic is of my friend Chris W. Used with permission.

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  1. Benny, I was just thinking about something very much like this.

    I just spent my first weekend as myself, and my main concern was, of course, about passing. But this got me thinking about the fact that I am very lucky my genetics made it easy for me to pass. The sad truth is, I have almost zero backbone, since I was determined not to go out in public without confidence in my “passibility”. Without the luck I’ve had, I wouldn’t have the strength to be myself.

    Your words give very due credit to those who stand in the face of society and dare to be themselves. Thank you.

    “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
    -E.E. Cummings

  2. This may be old hat here, but:

    One problem with “passing” is that people who successfully pass never raise the consciousness of the people around them. It’s the people who don’t pass — whether as straight, as cis, as native-born, or as whatever “normal” category — who expand people’s ideas of what can be considered “normal.” For instance, I think the USA is where it is today with same-sex marriage precisely because we’ve had 30-40 years of straight people being confronted with the reality of people they deal with on a day-to-day basis being gay or lesbian. I think those who don’t pass (whether by choice or necessity) deserve respect for fighting for what in the long run benefits everyone.

    (Not that it’s up to anyone else to tell someone who can pass that they should not. Not passing has costs, often enormous ones, and it’s up to the person who’d have to pay them to decide whether it’s worth it.)

    Another aspect of “passing” is that, if done thoroughly, it in some sense amounts to hiding or erasing part of what you are. If you’re a trans man, being FAAB and having lived part of your life as a girl/woman is part of who you are, just as for an immigrants to the USA, however many years they may have spent in the USA and however well they may have learned to dress, act, talk, and sound like native-born USAans, their native language, culture, landscape, even climate is still a part of who they are. And while, say, the clerk at WalMart doesn’t need to know you’re trans, I would think it would be oppressive to feel that you need to make sure (s)he doesn’t.

    • You said “One problem with “passing” is that people who successfully pass never raise the consciousness of the people around them.”

      What, exactly, do you think it is I am doing? Both here, in this post, and when I am disclosing my transsexual status to people, aren’t I raising consciousness? I teach classes on transgender issues to cisgender audiences. I blog about my experiences as a transman. I come out when appropriate in my day to day life. If these things are not raising consciousness then what is?

      When making a claim that a group of people “never” do something, it fails to recognize those of us who, in fact, are doing exactly that thing.

      As much as I don’t like the term “passing” all that much, I do. I pass. People do not know i am trans unless I tell them. That is how I want it to be – but that doesn’t mean I DON’T tell them, when appropriate.

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