One of the most common questions I am asked from transgender people starting their journey, is, “What can I do to pass as a man/woman?” I cringe at this question every time. Whilst I understand the desire to be seen correctly, I find the term ‘passing’ to be very problematic. In this blog, I want to discuss why the term passing is unhelpful. I also want to share how the term can be rephrased to help boost confidence in our gender identity.
In the early days of my gender transition journey, I was desperate to be seen as the man I knew myself to be. My gender dysphoria was agonizing. Therefore I was willing to do whatever it took so that people would stop calling me ‘she’. I cut my hair short, made sure to only wear clothes that were unquestionably male, and began to police my behavior to squash any ‘female traits’. The result was that I only felt more miserable.
As my transition moved on, I began to realize how damaging the word ‘passing’ had been to my new identity. Far from helping, it had in fact been hindering my discovery and enjoyment of my true male self.
I found myself in this ironic situation where I was having to be something I wasn’t, in order to be seen as the person I truly was.
The term ‘passing’ is used to explain the process of being gendered correctly. Passing involves wearing clothing or adopting mannerisms of the gender you identify with, to signal your gender to others. In doing so, this helps you to be correctly gendered, and therefore ‘pass’ as the gender you identify as.
My issue with being asked the question, ‘Do I pass?’ is not because I don’t understand the pain of being misgendered. I remember all too well, those early days where the wrong pronoun could send me spiraling into dysphoric dispair. Being misgendered is excruciatingly painful and hacks away at our confidence and self-esteem. It is understandable then, that people want to do everything they can so that other people see and relate to them correctly.
My issue with the word ‘passing’ is that it implies we are playing dress-up. It sets up the feeling that we are putting on clothing and mannerisms to ‘pass’ as something else. This is far from accurate. We already are the gender we say we are.
Therefore I prefer the term “being read correctly”. This more accurately describes the process of transition. We are not changing into new people, but rather revealing the person we already are. Thus, we are attempting not to pass, but to be seen. This seemingly subtle difference is actually a powerful tool in reframing our identity and giving us confidence.
When we begin to realize that we already are the gender we identify with, this can give us a huge confidence boost. In the early days of my gender transition, the times when I was most frequently read correctly had little to do with what I was wearing but more to do with my confidence.
Whenever I dropped my doubts and trusted my male identity, people were quicker to get my pronouns right. And, when they got them wrong, I was less easily knocked as my confidence served as a buffer.
Changing the words I used, from passing to being read, actually made me feel more empowered, it reminded me that I wasn’t trying to be male I already was male.
Another reason I cringe when people ask me for passing tips is that I feel uncomfortable instructing others on how to present themselves.
As trans people, we often spend a huge amount of time attempting to live up to other people’s expectations. Before coming out we are forced to be someone we are not. Then, when we finally do come out, there can be a lot of unfair pressure to be and act a certain way.
Coming out is our time to live for ourselves and be who we are. Coming out should be the end of pleasing others. Finding your identity, how you want to express your gender and personality, is unique to you. Therefore I struggle to give ‘passing’ tips because I believe people should be free to find their own version of their gender.
I also struggle to give passing tips as doing so reinforces unhelpful gender stereotypes.
There is no right way to be a man, woman, or non-binary person, there can be a lot of pressure to conform to both cis and trans stereotypes of gender identity.
People are wonderfully unique and varied. Behaviors, clothing, mannerisms, these are not gendered. Society is what genders these things. When we squeeze people into boxes, we restrict them and deny them the ability to be free to express themselves in the ways that feel right to them.
My other issue with the term ‘passing’ is that it forces trans people to have to uphold cisnormative standards. It feeds into the message that the only successful way to be trans and be accepted is to look cisgender.
Whilst some trans people may look unrecognizably trans, others do not. This then risks some people not being accepted, simply because they don’t meet cisgender standards of what gender should look like.
Looking like cisgender people is not the goal of transition for every trans person and it shouldn’t need to be. And, some trans people enjoy looking different. Our only goal is to be comfortable in our skin and be recognized as the gender we are by others, regardless of how we look to others.
I do understand that gender dysphoria is incredibly painful. We often, especially in the early days, need to do whatever we can to alleviate it. Sometimes this means making compromises, such as dressing in ways that whilst not refecting our personality, help to make us seen correctly. I also understand that often, for issues of safety, we may sometimes need to compromise so that we are not in harm’s way.
But, ultimately, our goal should be for these compromises to be temporary. True happiness in gender transition is moving into a space where we can be our complete selves and express our gender in our own beautifully unique way.
Therefore, my answer to the question, ‘how can I pass?’ is that you don’t need to pass, you are already you. A better question is to ask, is how can I be myself? We have spent too many years trying to meet other peoples expectations, now its time to let the real you unfold.
I hope this blog was helpful. Please do let me know in the comments below, I always enjoy reading your thoughts. If you are looking for more information on trans and LGBT+ issues, you can check out my other gender and sexuality blogs. And, for support and advice, check out my resources page.
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