“I have a right to show my colors… Look at me. Look at you,” says Elektra Abundance, a trans woman, to Blanca, also a trans woman, in an episode of the TV series Pose. “I can pass. I can strut down Fifth Avenue when the sun is sitting high as my cheekbones and be waited on at Bergdorf’s, same as any white woman.”
“Passing” has long been a standard, and for some, even a goal, in the trans community. When used to describe trans people, to “pass” means to be perceived by others as one’s gender, not one’s sex at birth, based largely on how one looks, talks, and behaves. It also means to not be perceived as trans.
For many trans people in places where transness and other queer identities are not tolerated, passing may spell the difference between getting through the day safely and getting into life-threatening situations. Passing can also be a source of validation and gender euphoria for many trans people. It means, after all, that they are being recognized by others the same way they recognize themselves.
But many also challenge the concept of passing, even trans people who pass themselves. By definition, passing is measured against the standards of how straight cisgender people typically look and act, but many trans people don’t think these norms should validate gender identities. Passing can also mean the erasure of one’s transness—something that some trans people take plenty of pride in.
Violet Ritchie, 24, from Chicago, presents entirely feminine. She wears items that society generally views as being for women, like skirts, dresses, and makeup. It’s difficult, she said, not to lean into these things as a trans woman, simply because she knows it will help others perceive her as the correct gender. But at the same time, plenty of these things are just things she likes, and she wears them primarily for that reason.
“I know those aren’t the things that make me a woman, but helps with how people perceive me as one,” Ritchie told VICE.
Ritchie often passes, but she also often wears a pride flag in one form or another—like on a pin or patch. She does this, she said, for other trans and queer people.
“I worry sometimes about even passing as cis, because I do want people who are in the community to know that I’m there, that there’s people like you out there. We’re all together. If anything happens to you, I’m here,” said Ritchie. “It’s a nice community to be a part of, and I’m proud of it.”
“I worry sometimes about even passing as cis, because I do want people who are in the community to know that I’m there, that there’s people like you out there.”
For some trans people who pass, wearing a pride flag can mean outing themselves as trans. This is not a problem for Ritchie. Her transness, she said, is something she takes pride in because it has helped her learn more about herself. Of course, it comes with many struggles, but Ritchie said that’s just something she has to own.
“I don’t really care if people can tell that I’m trans, as long as they can tell that I’m a woman,” she said.
Nyko Rodriguez, a 33-year-old trans woman from Manila, Philippines, recognizes that the concept of passing is both helpful and harmful.
“[Passing] makes people accept you faster, mainly because you fit their idea of what a man or a woman is,” said Rodriguez, adding that trans people who do not pass cisgender beauty standards are often ostracized and treated poorly. This is also true, she said, in love—it tends to be easier for trans people who pass to find dates.
But passing can also be harmful, Rodriguez said, when people use it as a tool to impose myopic beauty standards as gender validators in the trans community.
“If you do not recognize the gender identity of another person just because of his, her, or their look, then that poses a bigger problem.”
When Rodriguez was younger, she said that passing was “very important” to her, and that she tried hard to look more like her idea of a woman. She wanted to pass because she wanted to be seen and accepted by society, date more men, and look fabulous. There was also more pressure to pass, she said, because she was a trans person of color.
“It is true that it is very difficult to live as a transgender person of color, and passing seems to be a ‘hall pass’ for us to make things easier,” she said.
But trying to meet other people’s standards proved to be too tiring. Now, Rodriguez said she has taken the pressure off herself.
“Yes, I still express myself as a woman, but I do not try so hard to do so anymore. If I look more masculine at an angle, or if my clothing makes me look more masculine, I learned to embrace my feminine and masculine side,” said Rodriguez.
For Rodriguez, the helpfulness or harmfulness of passing depends on intention—why trans people want to look a certain way, why they do things that might help them pass, and why they feel the need to be more feminine or masculine.
There’s no problem, she said, when a trans woman feminizes herself through things like clothing, makeup, and cosmetic surgery if doing so makes her more confident with herself.
“However, with that said, if your ‘why’ is because you feel shame about being a transgender woman, you feel inferior, you want to hide being trans, for me, it is also forgetting what we want to perpetuate in the first place—which is living proudly as our most authentic self,” said Rodriguez.
In this light, transness is not something to be ashamed of or made to fit cisgender concepts of beauty and identity. It’s something beautiful in and of itself, whether or not that beauty fits, or “passes,” cisgender standards. And that beauty doesn’t rest on aesthetics. It rests on the shared struggles, strengths, and stories of the trans community.
“Being trans is very challenging but it is also very beautiful. We need to be proud of that. I always say that some of the strongest people I know are transgender women and transgender men. Imagine our stories, imagine what we have gone through just to be ourselves. Our stories are very powerful and I just do not want us to forget about those and focus on passing.”
“Imagine our stories, imagine what we have gone through just to be ourselves. Our stories are very powerful and I just do not want us to forget about those and focus on passing.”
Both Rodriguez and Ritchie present as female, and many other trans people find joy in making themselves appear more conventionally masculine or feminine.
But that’s not true for all.
“I prefer to look more androgynous,” said Kay White, 25, also from Chicago. “I was born with female parts but I now have a beard and pretty masculine stature. I still wear makeup at times and I go for more of a pretty-boy look than I do a stereotypically male look.”
White started taking testosterone because they wanted to look more masculine than they were appearing, but now keeps their levels a bit lower than those who transition from female to male. White is nonbinary and prefers the lower testosterone levels because it preserves a bit of femininity in their face, which they like. For trans people like White, transitioning doesn’t come with the goal of passing as either male or female all of the time.
“Being androgynous is just who I am. It just feels right to me. I don’t feel 100 percent male or 100 percent female,” said White, adding that they feel no need to buy into any gender norms.
White said they have no desire to pass as a cis man. They recognize, however, that passing is important for safety reasons for many other trans people. It’s also important, they said, for some trans people’s mental health. Getting misgendered, said White, can take a massive toll on people’s well-being.
Beyond physical safety and mental health, White said passing is an outdated concept that is rooted in outdated views of gender. They see plenty of trans people struggling to appear more masculine or feminine in order to pass, they said, when the question should be less about what other people expect of them and more about how they feel most comfortable presenting.
“Our appearance, mannerisms, and behaviors should not be dictated by what other people want or expect of us,” said White. “The whole point of being trans is to be true to yourself and to break free from the box that society placed us into, because it's not true to us. We shouldn't leave that box just to place ourselves into another box.”
“The whole point of being trans is to be true to yourself and to break free from the box that society placed us into, because it's not true to us.”
Adam Lee, 20, from Worcester, Massachusetts, is a nonbinary trans man who leans more masculine in his expression. But that’s not really something that matters to him.
“It’s easier to present myself as male in our cis-centric society, because if I have to say that I’m a nonbinary man then that leads to all sorts of questions, so it’s so much easier to say that I’m a man and get it over with,” said Lee.
He acknowledged that his views on gender and gender expression come from the privilege of living in a progressive city. “A lot of the time, passing isn’t just some fun thing to play around with. For a lot of trans people, it’s life or death.”
Lee described passing as a “strange concept of cis-normative society” that he doesn’t really care about and arbitrarily pokes at. Lee is perceived as a man around 50 percent of the time, he said, and he’s happy with that estimated statistic. He’s not actively trying to hide his transness—it’s just that it doesn’t always come up. He added that passing is still very much relevant in many cis and straight spaces, but he’s starting to see things change, albeit slowly. For him, “people caring less about gender presentation and correlating it less with gender is a positive.”
When Lee is gendered as a man, he takes it as an affirmation of his gender. When he is misgendered as a woman, he takes it as a reminder that he is, in a way, outside “the system.” Each time he’s gendered, or misgendered, is a little way Lee chips away at the current gender norms, and he’s happy to do it.
“Sometimes I like not passing, sometimes I like being gendered as female,” said Lee. “It’s a reminder that in this cis-normative society that we live in, I’m outside of this binary, I’m outside of this norm that we’ve created.”
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