Identity

Transgender Women Explain What It's Like When They Don't 'Look Trans'

When women don't visibly scan as transgender, it can feel affirming, dangerous, and totally unremarkable, all at once.

by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard
25 July 2019, 9:36pm

Photo by Alyza Enriquez

When I was 10 years old, I was a boy that looked like a girl. I had thick chestnut hair down to where my boobs should’ve budded and a dainty voice as yet untouched by testosterone.

My 90-something neighbor used to congratulate my mother on what a beautiful young lady I was becoming. “Oh, Clementine, this is my son!” my mom always quickly corrected. I didn’t know whether I was more embarrassed that I passed as a girl, or that I was embarrassed that I liked passing as a girl.

Thirteen years later, my boobs have budded—courtesy of modern medicine—but my voice has also dropped like a brick. I can now pass, at least, if I'm quiet. When I ride the A train in the morning as all the Wall Street stallions pile in, coyly biting off my split ends and minding my own business, I’m cis...until a source or editor calls me, and I frantically pick up before the train leaves the platform: “Hi, hello—I’ll call you back in five.” My voice’s deep vibrations hang in the air. Eyes turn to me, guys’ eyebrows raise, and girls breathe a sigh of relief that at least the prettiest girl in this car is a tranny.

Passing is a refusal of the nonconsensual boyhood I lived for 19 years—kind of like how, as a baby vegetarian, I ate hamburgers at family barbecues for lack of a better option at the time. Many trans people feel passing is about being perceived by others as their authentic selves. Other trans people can't pass, have no interest in passing, or both: Xris, a 21-year-old Latinx trans woman in New York's Westchester County, will “never be able to pass [as a cis woman] in my current body," she said. "I'm a bearded woman.” Politically, Xris said, she finds passing to be “an act of assimilation.” For her, passing is not about being seen for who one actually is—a woman—but rather being seen as something one is not—cisgender.

In addition to affirming identity, gender passing, when it's physically available to trans women, can be a way for them to access resources they might otherwise not be able to. Its function as a survival practice was first articulated by Black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, like Nella Larsen, to describe the experience of light-skinned Black Americans passing as white, both intentionally and unintentionally, during and after the period of chattel slavery in order to access wealth, privilege, and safety that a racist society would not afford them. They transgressed the idea of racial identity as fixed.

Black and trans experiences cannot be equated, but perceptions of transness, should a person not pass as cis, can result in both discrimination and bias, especially for Black trans women. One in six trans people reported they’d lost a job, and 88 percent were denied “equal treatment and services,” by businesses or government agencies because of their “gender identity and expression,” according to the largest national transgender survey, conducted in 2015.

“People privilege the rights of others based off of how they look," said Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality and a trans woman herself. A study surveying nearly 4,000 Americans found that “a transgender person’s level of gender conformity in appearance, but not their self-identified gender or age, affects how other people perceive of their sex,” and in turn, their “attitudes toward transgender rights.”

Passing can mean the difference between having access to resources, rights, and respect—or not. Working at a national advocacy organization, Branstetter has seen firsthand how this can play out. "One of our staff members was in a meeting with a sitting member of Congress,” she said. “They told the staff member that 'they're not worried about you, because you look like a woman.'”

Some trans women are equipped with a greater sense of agency when they pass. “There’s a part of myself that gets off [on] when I’m in a conference meeting or a seminar and say, ‘I went to an all-boys high school,’ and cis guys go, 'Whoa, what!’” said Lavelle Ridley, a Black trans woman from Toledo, Ohio. “There’s something really powerful, even attractive, about controlling your narrative, or reveal[ing] that part of yourself. The power to decide when you know this thing about me—it feels good.”

The transphobic term for passing within the context of sexual attraction, "trapping," is used to accuse trans women of being deceitful and predatory for not disclosing their identities to straight men. Trans women are often portrayed as traps in "shemale" porn (a slur). For John Phillips, academic and author of the book Transgender on Screen, the unique type of pleasure generated by the shemale genre comes from the “tension of concealing and revealing,” specifically of her penis.

What some guys see as hot about trans women can also be their grounds for violence. Some men realize they're attracted to someone who looks like a girl, but challenges their notions of what a girl is, so they panic. "Trans panic," in fact, was the defense mounted in the 2002 murder case of Gwen Arujo, a 17-year-old Latina trans girl from California. She had been sexually involved with four men at a party who forced her to undress. When they learned she had a penis, they tortured and murdered her.

To reduce the conviction from murder to manslaughter, the defense argued that the “crime [was] one committed in the ‘heat of the moment.’” Like the “gay panic” defense innovated in 1960s courtrooms and most famously used in the Matthew Shepard murder trial, trans panic holds that discovering “withheld” information about the victim’s “true sex” reasonably “prompts the ostensible ‘panic’ that leads to violence.”

"My safety is in being visibly trans," said DJ Jasmine Infiniti, a Black trans woman in New York City. "I was always upfront, even if they approached me in the street: 'You know I’m trans, right?' [Still,] there were several instances where men would be like, 'You were trying to trick me' [and] getting violent.” In 2017, Infiniti was walking in Brooklyn with some of The Girls, including fellow DJ London Jade, when they were harassed. “The guys were like, ‘Ooh, hey, ma!’” Infiniti said. “A woman that was [with them] was like, 'Those are transformers,'” by which she meant transgender people. “The men felt emasculated because they sexually harassed what they [no longer] thought was a woman. They broke my jaw.”

I’ve experienced the dangers of passing, too. One Baltimore summer day, I was trudging alone on a busy thoroughfare. Two guys in a car slowed down, creeping alongside the curb and jeering profanities. Suddenly: “Oh, shit, that’s a dude!” The driver started cackling at the friend who had leaned his head out the window—and who was now enjoying an unexpected reversal in vulnerability. The spotlight was no longer on me, but on the man, whose face ripened into an ashamed blush. To course-correct, he spat, "Fucking faggot," then, "Die, tranny." Ducking into the nearest storefront, I bawled—but I was safe.

Infiniti and I both faced street harassment by men who felt “trapped,” but the disparate outcomes illustrate how violence is not distributed equally. Another Brooklyn trans woman, Islan Nettles, was murdered by a man who was ridiculed by his friends for flirting with her, a girl he had not clocked as trans. Unlike me, she was Black. Being clocked as both Black and trans can be fatal.

“When I’m around other Black people, that’s when I feel most watched,” said Lavelle. Her fear doesn’t stem from the misguided, racist notion that Black men are more transphobic than their white peers—it’s that her transness is more noticeable than her Blackness, since the latter is a shared experience. “In mostly white spaces, I don’t stress about passing. I’m already othered. Already, I stress out about difference. Whatever gender difference they may perceive is already folded into how they see my racial difference,” she said.

Infiniti agreed. “In those instances, I don’t even need to pass. [Non-Black people are] already exoticizing me.”

Vera Blossom, a Filipinx trans and nonbinary woman from Las Vegas, passes as a cis woman. The treatment she experienced before and after transition makes clear for her how racial and gender passing are intertwined. Blossom said she was previously “perceived as an Asian man, which was one of the least desirable categories of men. She wore “four-inch platforms, overall booty shorts, and purple hair, and no one would point," she said. "I was trying to be seen. No matter what I did, no one would look at me.”

Blossom's experience fits with the racist trope of East and Southeast Asian men as undesirable or feminine. After her transition, her Asianness also mediates how she passes: “The attention is coming, whether I want it or not. No one has a lukewarm opinion of me anymore," she said. “Going from an Asian man to an Asian woman: It’s [going from] the ethnicity [and gender] that everyone looks over [to] the one that [people] fawn over.”

I have a Japanese-American father. In high school, when I cut my long hair and leaned into being a boy (albeit a total flamer), I was still interpreted as East Asian, often to racist results. Once, I was in my high school’s library studying with a friend, and I looked over to see she’d drawn a portrait of me. Kim Jong-Sam, it was titled—a mix of the North Korean leader's name and my dead name. In the picture, my eyes were squinted and my face was rounded.

I laughed at the time, but racist experiences like that shaped my attachment to an identity that many did not, and do not, readily see. Maybe the hyper-feminization of Asian men aided me in transition, but as I became a woman, visual signifiers of my Japaneseness vanished from my body. When I changed my name to Sessi, I also changed my middle name to Kuwabara, my obāchan’s—grandmother’s—family name. I wanted to disrupt my ability to pass as white. Becoming a woman was entwined with maintaining my Japaneseness.

However subtle it may be, I’ve been able to choose how others interpret my race and ethnicity. But I’ve had no choice in how others see me as a woman. By definition, in order to be a woman, I had to be trans. In contrast, cis women, by virtue of existing, get to be seen as women. Their being is distinguished from their becoming. For trans women, the latter displaces the former. When people see me as or know me to be trans, my appearance feels footnoted by disclaimers. That’s why passing feels so good to me: my curvy hips, thickened thighs, and softened skin belong to me, and not others’ questions. I get to be a body, and not an explanation.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.