Passing as a (cis) woman

“You don’t look like a transsexual”

“You look very convincing”

“You look just like a real girl”

There’s a lot of discussions out there about how a trans person can pass as a man or as a woman. These range from straightforward passing tips to more complex debates about the value of passing, and what we even mean when we use the word.

Passing to me seems to be about two things: it’s about making sure that others see our gender as we wish them to, but it’s also about survival (disappearing in order to make sure we don’t become targets). As such, although I’m inclined to argue that we should try and downplay the importance of passing in trans communities – after all, not everyone can pass, and you can spend so long worrying about it that you barely end up leaving the house – I think people have every right to work towards passing. Anything that minimises public harassment has to be a good thing.

One thing I don’t think we really talk about enough though is what we’re trying to pass as. I hear a lot of talk about “passing as a woman” or “passing as a man”. A couple of conversations with friends over the past few days though made me realise that it’s not really about that. It’s about passing as a cis woman, or as a cis man.

This distinction is important. I look at friends of mine who are trans women or trans men, and I see women or men. If one of these trans women doesn’t “pass” though, others are inclined to see her as a man. She is likely to conclude from this that she doesn’t look like a woman. Surely though, she does look like a woman, because she is a woman: by definition any given woman looks like a woman.

Cis-ness is invisible. The erasure of trans people in our culture means that the models of “man” and “woman” are inherently cis. This is why trans women don’t just have to assert their identity in order to be accepted as woman: they also have to look cis. It’s not enough to fit within social norms and roles as a woman, to undergo hormone therapy and surgery. It’s not just about having breasts and a vagina. It’s about looking like you were born that way.

I think it’s important to talk explicitly about passing as cis. When we’re talking about “passing as a woman” we’re always imply “passing as a cis woman”, but we don’t think about what this means. It’s as if we’re saying that cis people have a monopoly on how sex and gender should be defined and how it should look.

Obviously we’re years away from being able to do away with passing. There are things we can do to change people’s perceptions on the issue though. I used to think the comments at the beginning of this entry were compliments: I now realise that they’re transphobic (and the last one is misogynist). They’re basically praising someone for not looking trans, as if there’s something wrong with looking trans.

We need to point out to the people who make these (usually innocent) comments that looking trans doesn’t make a person any less of a man or a woman. For that matter, looking like a man doesn’t make anyone less of a woman, or an androgyne, or a genderqueer. We need to do away with the idea that people have to look, dress or act in a certain way to have their identity accepted and supported in queer and trans spaces. In short, we need to do away with outdated, sexist ideals of how people should act and what they should look like. We should bear in mind that looking cis doesn’t make someone look better; it just makes them look cis.

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14 Responses to “Passing as a (cis) woman”

  1. Phoebe Says:

    Bang on. I’ve been using the phrase “passing as cissexual/cisgendered” and “passing as non-trans” quite a lot over the last couple of years because what most trans people really mean isn’t much about people seeing your gender. Most of us try to present in some way as a member of our gender. Presentation is a pretty solid way of communicating that identity to the outside world for people with conventional genders. Nevertheless it’s still common for people discussing passing to not include that presentation being correctly understood by people you come across. Instead it’s almost always about that presentation being seen as a non-trans one by people you meet.

  2. J McK Says:

    Indeed. I try and say “passing for cis”, just because it is what it is. Doesn’t take a genius to work out that you’re a lot less likely to be strangled with your own t-shirt if you look cis. Breaking that social trend will take dedication and sacrifice. There’ll be more murdered before that happens.

    Those of us who identify outside the binary and try to look the part are getting nowhere fast though. People seldom question the origins of our identities, instead they dismiss them out of hand. “You can only be a man or a woman”. “You’re just trying to be special”. “You’ve misunderstood yourself”.

    It’s also rare that a random person will ask you your gender or pronouns. If they can’t be sure then they’ll just default to male pronouns “so as to cause the least offence”. This practice validates the notion that male identities are superior and is in fact the most offensive thing about it!

  3. misha Says:

    I feel I must be ready to apologise at a moments notice
    for my body
    my existence
    my very presence being a threat to the perceptions of the cis-binary world.

    It’s so fucked up.

  4. Dreki Says:

    I think another problem with passing is that it implies only passing as the right gender. A lot of trans people pass as cis- just not as the right gender- and that’s just as important for being able to disappear to avoid being a target, even if it isn’t seen as being “as valid”. I think that, especially with gatekeepers, the safety aspect is ignored WAY too much.

    One of the requirements to get bottom surgery is that you have to live 24/7 for a year, and any deviation from this is seen as “doubts”. This completley ignores people who are still in a position where they have to pass as a cis person of their mis/assigned sex for their own safety. That might be fine for people who easily pass as cis of their gender, but if you don’t and you live in a dangerous area- why is that reason enough to withhold medical treatment?

  5. eternalstranger Says:

    Wow. You bring up some incredibly good points that I hadn’t thought of before.

  6. Lizzy Says:

    Surely this a basic issue of philosophical logic? What does it mean to “look like” something? If we’re comparing two individuals, as in the statement, “James looks like John”, then the answer is obvious. We compare each of their attributes for equality. If they both have blue eyes, both have long hair, both have broad shoulders… etc. then they are fairly “alike”. But what does it mean to compare an individual with a set? To test the assertion, “Julie looks like a woman”, we begin the comparison by noticing that Julie has green eyes, but what colour eyes do “women” have? There is no unique answer to this question. One answer, the one that you have proposed, is that an individual x is like a set Y if x is a member of Y. That’s reasonable, given that you can’t get any more “like a Y” than being identical to one of the Y’s!

    But that isn’t the meaning that’s most often meant by the utterer of such a phrase. Usually people take “x is like a Y” (for suitable x and Y) to mean that x is like some object that is manufactured by calculating the average value over all of the Y’s for every attribute that a Y has. Basically by, “Julie looks like a woman”, we mean that Julie looks like the mathematical average of all women or “the average woman” if you insist (nobody looks identical to the average): average length hair, average height, average weight, etc. Clearly, since there are many, many more cis people than trans people the characteristics of “the average woman” are dominated by the characteristics of ciswomen. However, if we lived in world where 50% were trans then “looking like a woman” would automatically no longer mean “looking 99.99% like a ciswoman” but instead naturally be interpreted by everyone as “looking 50% like a ciswoman and 50% like a transwoman”.

    Thus, once we understand that looking like a set really means looking like the average of that set, then “looking like a woman” is no longer a misleading phrase at all because it just comes down to the overwhelming imbalance of the numbers. That is not to say that defining comparison using the average is the best way of defining comparison, but it does seem to be the one that has been democratically selected as the default interpretation (or, “socially constructed”, depending on how you want to spin it).

  7. Passing as human in “Buffy” « Trans Youth Takes On World Says:

    [...] to endure being misgendered every day. I’m very lucky these days: I suspect that I “pass” as a cis woman around 99% of the time. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m always gendered correctly: now and [...]

  8. On “Passing” - Queereka Says:

    [...] 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 [...]

  9. Passing as cis: why I’d love to stop shaving my legs, but don’t « Writings of a Trans Activist Says:

    [...] thinking “urgh, she’s actually a man!” This is somewhat irrational given how well I pass as cis, but the fear is real, and [...]

  10. Revising the self III: History, cistory » Zinnia Jones Says:

    [...] – Writings of a Trans Activist: Passing as a (cis) woman [...]

  11. 10 year stealth chick Says:

    what’s the point of going through transition if not to pass? no transgendered woman ever thought as a young boy “some day I want to look like a trans woman” No, I wanted to look like and be accepted as a regular normal woman, and I do, and it has saved my life. passing as cis is entirely the point of transition. Do not let resentment distort your view of what normal is. trans is not “normal.” trans is about correcting your self to match the norm. This is not what non-passers like to hear, but it is the truth.

    • Ruth Says:

      The are many reasons to transition – e.g. for some it’s more about being percieved as their preferred gender (so, a social thing), for some it’s more about being comfortable in their own skin (which can be more about your relationship with your body, rather than your relationship with other people).

      Whilst there are still a lot of very terrible things that happen, we live in an increasingly trans-positive world. For a lot of people I know, this means they can move through the world in their preferred gender and recieve respect from others regardless of how well they pass as cis.

      I don’t resent anyone – I’ve been so much happier since I started being open about being trans! Of course, that was the right decision for me. Presumably stealth was the right decision for you, and I respect that :)

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Hi! Ruth, Yeh, I’m with you on your reflections, despite displaying trans behaviour from birth and later having those psychological feelings and physical abnormalities confirmed by both Genetic and Ultrasound examination, the pathway proved unbelievably slow and difficult. After experiencing menopausal symptoms to my G.P. in Feb.2002 it wasn’t until Jan 2009 that I finally received GRS. Followed 13 months later by NHS Funded Breast Augmentation.

    However since those times I have become more phylosophical in trying to understand the tremendous pressure NHS.professionals are under, more importantly for the Pathway to eliminate patients for whom GRS is not the answer, which also endorses the need for the Real Life Experience. Having researched 200 Trans Females over a 4 year period for my forthcoming autobiography ‘ A Boy In White Ribbons’ Diaries Of A Transgendered Child. (Self explanatory) I found that GRS wasn’t a ‘one size fits all! Nowadays I work with Local Authorities, The Police and other agencies and I preach patience, take your time, experience all there is before surgery, place your faith in the NHS Professionals as they are so experienced, and gifted…but they don,’t make NHS Policy, they just try under difficult circumstances to work to it.

    As for Cons.Surgeons James Bellringer and Phill Thomas, a day never goes by where I fail to thank God for there care and talent in making me a happy, fulfilled, and more understanding woman. I explain to many Trans females that GRS is not a quick fix, it’s for life!

    Helen Beck
    Trans Mentor, Merseyside

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