Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of 'Passing'
We talked with members of the trans community in the UK about the pressure of hiding the fact that they're transgender in order to protect their own safety, while also acknowledging the need for greater trans visibility.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK and statistics included are based on UK data.
"All I ever wanted was anonymity and to be almost completely ignored. All I ever wanted was to look no different [than] any other woman around and be able to blend into the crowd," says trans activist Phillippa Scrafton, when I ask her about her transition.
"I think when you stand out as different, in some circles it can be difficult. For me—in the beginning—because I didn't 'look like a woman,' I was very wary of my safety and where I was."
Trans people still find their appearance the subject of intense scrutiny, both in the public and the media. For those transitioning under the attentive gaze of the press, like it's been widely alleged that Bruce Jenner is doing, even the most minor adjustments—a manicure, change of footwear, or new hairstyle—command column inches.
Some people "pass," meaning that they are "read" as a cisgender man or woman, and some don't.
Passing is a controversial topic. The term itself is loaded, tainted with the implication that trans women aren't really women, and trans men aren't really men, but are merely trying to pass off as such and engaging in deception. But despite its questionable etymology, the concept has currency. The reality is that there are those with "passing privilege" and those without—and the difference in quality of life is overwhelming.
Avoiding the disproportionate levels of violence and intimidation trans women experience is probably the biggest benefit of passing. Trans hate crimes are still heavily underreported, yet the UK government's official statistics still registered a year-on-year rise of 54 percent from 2013 to 2014.
"Safety and being able to pass are intrinsically linked," says Phillipa. "I went through a period where all I wanted was to blend into the background and hoped no one would notice." It was only after speaking to other trans people and really listening to some of the abuse she was receiving, however, that Phillipa thought, Why should I live like this?
The threat of violence facing people like Phillippa transcends geography. The US has already seen at least eight trans women murdered this year, while a recent EU report, published in 2014, paints a dire picture across Europe. Of the 6,579 trans respondents, one third experienced or were threatened with violence during the year preceding the survey, and half of this group indicated this had happened three times or more.
With statistics like these, it's easy to understand the huge emphasis placed on passing.
Suicide rates and mental health problems are higher among trans women, with harassment, violence, unemployment, and body-image apprehensions just some of the likely contributors. The overwhelming desire to pass can often be so potent it becomes a problem in its own right, an obsession exacerbating other issues.
"There's a tendency for trans people to think that the most important thing is to pass: do I pass as a female? Do I pass as a male? Am I able to just hide into the corner and not make so much notice?" says Phillippa. "With the best will in the world, that doesn't happen overnight. It takes hormones, surgeries, and cosmetic surgeries in some cases. The reaction some people get is shock, ridicule, or frustration, and that has a knock on-effect, be it isolation, addiction, anxiety, depression, or suicide."
The issue of passing becomes even more complicated in the workplace. Juno Roche, a trans activist and former teacher, spends her time supporting teachers who wish to transition. "I've seen a real division of people who pass and people who don't in terms of employment and ease of employment," she says. "I went into a school once to support a teacher who was transitioning and one of the very first things that the senior team said to me was, 'Oh well, it's very easy because he's going to pass.' Actually they were right, he was going to pass. But what would the conversation have been if he wasn't?"
Even in countries with legislative protection, it's not uncommon for trans people to take sabbaticals from work, hoping to avoid attention and reduce stress. But securing employment in a competitive job market is a tough ask already, without having to contend with the bigotry and ignorance of interviewers.
"They [employers] are too hung up on the visuals," continues Juno. "Until we've all got access to that job market and there aren't trans people sitting at home, not passing, and not having jobs, then we haven't got equality. And if we continue to put emphasis on passing, then those people who never pass are going to find it even tougher to find employment in straightforward industries, the public sector, teaching, or nursing."
Passing undoubtedly makes life easier, but there's a rising number within the trans community who are shirking their privilege. Megan Key is currently the only visible trans person across the National Probation Service, where she's been working for ten years. Her transition became company-wide knowledge when she sent an email to all employees informing them of her decision. A skeptic at first, she is now adamant she won't hide her trans history.
"Before I transitioned I thought, 'I need to pass because I'll get abused in the street if I don't,'" she says. "My personal experience is that I'm no longer concerned about passing. People will see who they want—that's their issue. Thankfully, I've not been abused in the street. I'm 6'2" for a start, and I have quite a deep voice, so there are certain situations where I do pass and certain situations where I don't pass. But I've taken the stance that I want to be seen as a woman who is also trans. I'm proud of my trans identity."
It's an issue that resonates among trans men too, who—compared to the concentrated media focus trans women experience—are almost completely invisible.
"The testosterone plays a major part," says Lee Hurley, a freelance writer who covers all things Arsenal FC. "The effects it has when it comes to masculinizing are phenomenal. By six to eight months, you look just like any other guy on the street—for me, just any other short guy on the street."
Such is its potency, testosterone can alter voice pitch, encourage hair growth, build muscle, and change facial structure. Though hormone replacement therapy can soften the effects of testosterone, the process is most effective before puberty. The longer testosterone has had to work its magic unadulterated, the harder reversing the changes become, impeding the ability of older trans women to pass. But for trans men able to access the testosterone, the fear of passing usually fades with time.
"We have a smaller window, I think, especially for those who do take testosterone," says Lee. "From my experience and from talking to some other trans guys, we do seem to have it a lot easier. For me, being trans isn't so much a lifetime thing—it's a period I passed through to get from how I was born to where I feel I should be. I'm definitely at a point now where I don't feel the need to introduce myself as transgender, as I'm passing every day and people are seeing me as the guy that I am."
With the number of trans people making up the UK's population estimated at less than 1 percent, visibility is essential to normalization; to wider acceptance across society and greater understanding.
With the number of trans people making up the UK's population not even known, visibility is essential to increase acceptance and understanding across society. Considering the endemic discrimination, many of those who do pass aren't comfortable with the idea of being visibly trans (and understandably so), but just as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people encouraged others to come out during the 1970s and 80s in spite of rampant persecution, the trans community is experiencing a similar movement now.
"I know of trans women who could quite easily pass—people in the public eye like Paris Lees and Janet Mock—but I respect the fact that they've chosen to stand up and be counted because, unless they're visible, people will never normalize us," says Megan. "I understand why some trans men and women choose to keep their past to themselves, because they just want to be seen as a man or a woman. And that's fine, that's their choice. But I'm a great believer in trans visibility. I don't see how society would normalize trans people unless there are trans people willing to stand up and be counted."
They don't come much more visible than Paris Lees, who uses her media position to champion trans rights everywhere from Question Time to her column with us on VICE. But while Paris is now a proud, formidable equality activist and one of the most prominent trans personalities in the UK, she's had to overcome the same immense internal struggle with the stigma, fears, and pressures of passing that every trans person faces.
"When I first transitioned, I was really ashamed, and actually the thought that I might not be able to pass successfully terrified me when I was thinking about transitioning, although I knew I had no choice," she recalls. "I spent a lot of time thinking, 'Can I do it, can I pull it off?' I thought I probably could and that was really important, as it is with a lot of people. The lives of those who pass and those who don't are very different. I know that because I've had both."
Passing may make public life easier, but the anxiety still remains, simply shifting from a fear of being visibly read as trans to a fear that people will find out. Passing wasn't too much of an issue for Paris when she was at university, but when one person did suspect she was trans, and brazenly called to confirm it, the panic set in.
"I was absolutely gutted because people didn't know, but obviously this one person had picked up on it. It felt like a leak that I could stop, but I couldn't. I just thought, 'I can't do this anymore it's just too stressful,'" says Paris. "Ultimately, if you meet a thousand people, maybe one of them will pick up on it. And that's kind of fine. I just couldn't deal with worrying about it all the time."
After the call, hiding her trans history was no longer an option. As long as she was keeping it a secret, the internalized shame, stress of passing, and fear of being "uncovered" would persist. While she's now comfortable with her identity and relishes her high profile visibility, the day-to-day desire to pass persists.
"I'm not ashamed of telling people I'm trans," says Paris. "But the fact is, I like being able to get on a train, for example, and not have people stare at me because I'm trans. It's not just vanity, though—it's about safety, and, you know, simply being able to go about your business without people being dickheads. But ever since I took the decision to actually own that aspect of my identity and say, 'Fuck yeah, I'm trans,' my life has gotten exponentially better."
As long as the focus remains on physical appearance, trans people will feel pressured into chasing an outdated, superficial notion of femininity or masculinity, at the expense of money, time, and health. And until the transition itself is celebrated, rather than scrutinized or ridiculed, they'll remain marginalized, locked out of employment, and subjected to violence.
"It shouldn't be an issue," Juno surmises. "The issue should be: what are we passing as? What are we passing for?" She looks on her transition positively now. "I've been on this journey, and that journey has been empowering. I know that I'm stronger than most people because of it and I'm not going to hide my strength away. It's like a birth, a wonderfully open process."
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