“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.