A few months ago, sitting on a tram at lunchtime, I noticed a young girl staring at me with her mouth wide open. Staring back, I thought: There's nothing like the puzzled look of a child on public transport to tell you you're not passing.
But the thought made me pause and consider this moment between us from another perspective. What if I was the first trans woman she'd seen? After all, I probably was. I smiled warmly back at her.
Following Caitlyn Jenner's and Laverne Cox's respective Vanity Fair and Time covers, there's been a lot of discussion about society reaching a tipping point for trans visibility . But honestly, as a trans individual, I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean for us. It's naive to assume two cover stories dedicated to glamorous American trans personalities in 12 months represent a tangible step forward for trans lives. Realistically, it demonstrates a tipping point for cisgender people thinking they've reached a tipping point.
While recent trans stories in the mainstream media may help with issues around trans visibility, the way the public has engaged with these cover stories has placed an enormous emphasis on the cult of "passing." To "pass" is to be perceived as the gender with which you identify. But our increasing obsession with it is a dehumanizing social construct, as it hinges on other people's idea of what trans women are expected to look like.
From desirability to public safety, to pass is to receive certain privileges. And since I transitioned, these opposing sides of visibility—to be openly trans and covertly pass—have stuck with me.
In my first month of transition, I was holidaying in Las Vegas. One evening I walked the strip and was laughed at the whole way. Everybody was on vacation, and I was just part of the show. Passing a 50-meter animated billboard opposite Caesars Palace, I looked up to see a beautiful female cabaret performer. The image was captioned "You won't believe… she's actually a man!" I was crushed.
It was the point at which cisgender people's fascination with the physical transformation of transgender lives became totally evident to me. Society simultaneously places an importance on trans women who pass and ridicules those who don't.
Some of the most harmful things said to me pre-transition by ex-partners and former friends were observations of my masculine features that in their minds rendered me unable to pass. My eyes were too deep-set, my neck too thick, my nose was big, my chin pronounced, I was too tall. They assured me I'd make a much better-looking man than I ever would a woman, so why would I want to wreck that?
These critiques were born from the expectation that all trans people have to pass, and they create their own debilitating narratives of self-hatred. They are the voices that still needle me when I look in the mirror or when I feel myself being studied by an aggressor in public. They are the anxieties that paralyze trans women and manifest as depression contributing to mental illness and suicide.
The inability to pass often renders us prisoners in our homes, as not passing in public can lead to being the target of ridicule and violence. We only need look to last weekend's transphobic bashing of Sydney musician Stephanie McCarthy in Newtown to be reminded of the other side of visibility.
There is nothing glamorous about the erasure, poverty, and murder that define our experiences.
Normativity dictates who and what gets wide mainstream attention. But these "cover stories" are not the real trans experience. There is nothing glamorous about the erasure, poverty, and murder that define our experiences and permeate our communities. This is what annoys trans folks about our much-talked-about visibility, this tipping point—it's so edited.
On my way to work today I considered what I want from visibility. I hope that when somebody passes me on the street they don't think, My God that's a man. I want them to think unconsciously, That's a woman , or even better, That's a trans woman. Because I'm proud I'm trans, and I don't care about passing. We can present any way we choose, and a space in public consciousness needs to be made available for all identities of trans individuals.
So next time you see a trans woman in the street, at the club, or on a low-resolution JPG of the cover of a magazine on your phone, take another look at us. See us for who we are. Now that would be a milestone.