More Thoughts on Passing

I originally wrote Saying “Fuck” to Passing over a year ago in December of 2020, where I discussed issues relating to the notion of “passing.” In addition I wrote about my attitude concerning it, and how successful I was in adhering to it. This post will look at my current thoughts on the whole “passing” thing, and what my current attitude towards it is. Somethings will remain the same, but there are bound to be some changes in both views. These changes have come about because of my maturity as a woman (see Stephie’s growing up for an exploration of this), with continued thought, and a wider experience with passing itself.

To those that do not know what the term “passing” means within the transgender community: it is the ability to be seen as the gender you identify as and not as the sex your were assigned at birth. I write this from the perspective of a transgender woman. This is necessary because I have no experience in passing as a man. This is not to suppose that transgender men do not desire to pass. I am sure they do. I know some transgender men in online support groups, but have never been in conversation with them on the issue of passing. I also do not approach it in regards to non-binary or gender diverse persons. Not that these individuals do not have desires to pass. I am sure that many do.

Passing can be widen beyond those who are transgender or gender diverse persons. I am sure we are not the only ones who have been misgendered. This happens much more to transgender persons, though. From my perspective I desire to be seen as a woman. The major way that I can tell whether or not I am passing in any one encounter is if I am gendered correctly. If someone calls me ma’am or refers to me as she or her, that is a sign I have passed. That I am seen as a woman. Of course, the opposite can happen, and I will be called sir or referred to as he or him or his. Fortunately this does not happen very often anymore. And is mostly do to my voice. I will have more to say about my own relationship to passing later.

Being verbally gendered is not the only sign that I or others might be passing. Often I find men (mostly) holding doors open for me, allowing me to cross the street, or allowing me to go ahead of them in line. Of course, this does not necessarily mean they are seeing me as a woman, but I believe it is much more likely that they do. These incidents are not the only social clues. I have found women tend to smile or say hello, where before they would not. They also engage in conversation much more often then they used to. Also compliments, mostly by other women, signal that I am being perceived as a woman.

So, this is my basic experience as I encounter others today after two and a half years of transitioning, including almost two years on feminizing hormone treatment (commonly referred to as hrt). It feels good to be perceived as a woman and bad to be perceived as a man. Although, my gender identity is not dependent on being perceived as such. Also the intensity of these feelings of being perceived is less. This goes for both the good and the bad. It used to be upon being correctly gendered I would have an internal “yes!” And often, I would have some gender euphoria. When misgendered I would be very disappointed. I now take the good in stride and the bad with far less negative feelings.

I will explain how this change has come about later, but now I would like to focus on my key question—should I or anyone else be expected to pass? My quick answer is absolutely not. Passing or not is going to happen regardless, but we often do not pass because we do not meet some societal standard of femininity.

Let’s face it, unless you do not see it for whatever reason the beauty standard is all around us. The fact that most women don’t meet these standards does not mean it is not harder on transgender women. We can be too tall, our shoulders to broad, our faces to masculine, our Adam’s apple protrudes, or we have no womanly figure. This on top of not being overweight (actually not even close), our skin is not radiant, or aren’t dress in a highly feminine way. Get the point. We are graded as if we are pieces of meat. Not prime forget about it. Not choice still a no go.

And, this standard is deeply ingrained in most people that live in “western”* style countries and beyond. It is so ingrained that we don’t even realize most of the time that we are judging women in this way. It is so ingrained that we as women judge other women by it. And finally, it is so ingrained that we will even apply it to ourselves. I personally testify that this occurs within me (although it is sad to admit it). I will bet that if I see two women—one looking according to the standard and another who is not—I will judge the first one more attractive. And, guess what? I turn this standard on myself. I can look at my face with and without makeup, and will guarantee I will find the made up me more attractive.

No one deserves to be looked at according to these standards. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it did not also put a dent in our self-esteem. To be constantly reminded that we do not measure up can take a heavy toll. It can keep some of us in the closet. It can lead to the feeling that we are unable to transition out of concern for numerous potential dangers. Some will even develop imposter syndrome, where they feel that they are not really what they identify as.

The closet is both a comfortable and an uncomfortable space. Comfortable because we don’t have to encounter the world, only ourselves. However, for most of us we are dying (this can be literally) to live our lives in the gender we identify as. It is uncomfortable, sometimes very uncomfortable, to have to live a life that is not you. Some say living as your “true self” or “living your truth.” When this does not seem possible, and having to pass is a large part of this, discouragement can reign. There are other things besides passing that enter into the decision to transitioning. We also have to consider family, friends, work or school, medical treatments, and the general milieu where we live. But, passing adds a layer that can complicate all these issues.

There are other real world consequences. Suicide or attempt suicide has its highest rates among the transgender and gender diverse population. I have heard figures in the 40 to 50 percent range. This is a shame. Suicide can become the only solution that seems possible. I have tried and almost succeeded for other reasons. The hopelessness just eats at the heart of you. I survived to live a very good life which eventually led to discovering my womanhood. I am driving home this point because there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. I did not think so, but I finally reached it. I would say that, as difficult as it is to believe, the future is open. I did not see it, but it is true. I hope that this maybe be a chink in someone’s suicidal armor. So when someone says passing doesn’t matter, it does! {I myself thought that that would be a gateway. Maybe it was (I will discuss this further later on in this post).}

Another consequences to “living your truth” can be loss of family. I am fortunate not to have this issue, and I am still supported by my partner. Think how hard it is to lose your family or close friends who have become like family. Rejection hurts. If you have a transgender or gender diverse child, please do not reject them. You will eventually see their truth when they are able to start living it. I am almost certain that my partner help me to start living my life as the woman I am. But, again passing can factor into these family issues. When all they can see is your birth sex/gender it may be harder to accept their loved one. I feel it help passing help my partner to see the real me.

Losing friends can be especially difficult. These are often your go to people when the world around you sucks. If you have a transgender or gender diverse friend, reach out extend your hand and you heart. They need it. They deserve it. Being friendless makes life cloudy without any sign post in the fog of life. See pass their birth assignment. So be a friend.

A lot could be said about the need to pass at work and at school. The more you interact with others at work or school the deeper the pain of not passing will be. Employers and school administrators do your best to create an open and caring policy towards your transgender employee or student. If only these spaces were more open a transgender persons life would be a lot smoother, and the need to pass would be lessened.

Passing is such a big deal that we are willing to undergo medical treatment. This often involves taking hormones or hormone blockers to reverse the hormones your body is issued at birth with a booster at puberty to change secondary sexual characteristics (for transgender woman this is growing breasts and becoming hippy along with giving the face a more feminized look†). There are surgeries to change the genitals, for breast reduction or breast augmentation, facial surgeries to feminize a stronger masculine face, and to reduce the Adam’s apple. All of these are considered gender affirming surgeries. All surgeries are subject to risks. Recoveries must also be dealt with, especially with vaginoplasties, which takes a life time commitment for maintenance of the vaginal canal.

Another issue with medical treatments is the gatekeeping process necessary to obtain medical assistance. For hormones the standard is becoming to be able to give informed consent cleared by a therapist in a letter. Some places I hear will just have you sign the consent form, and your on your way. When it comes to surgery things are more strict. Most surgeons require two letters stating that you have gender dysphoria and are mentally stable from qualified mental health professionals with one usually having a Ph.D. Also you need to have been on hormone treatment for a year, and sometimes you need to be living as your identified gender for a year. This is the criteria for vaginoplasty; I am not sure of the requirements for other surgeries. The gatekeeping used to be a lot worse. You used to need to be considered passable, be a heterosexual, and be willing to leave your old life behind. Far fewer were okayed for surgery because of it.

So the ability to pass used to be a requirement for surgery. But, on the whole it is still a requirement society puts on a persons’ gender appearance. And, the pressure on transgender women is even greater, or so I imagine, thinking back to my earlier days of transitioning. That was a major goal to get to the point that my appearance would not out me or get me clocked.‡ Over time this slowly receded as a prime goal (see more on this below). How do we change this? To be a more open society is at least part of the solution.

What community you live in makes a big difference on the pressure to pass. If you live in a liberal area you are most likely going to have far fewer issues being accepted, but still the underlying requirement to pass is there. Things change on the opposite end of the spectrum. I am talking about conservative areas. Here passing maybe a ticket to safety from assault. Having to pass has very serious problems in this arena. You are more likely to be discriminated, abuse, or face physical violence. Unfortunately, the state of affairs is far worse for transgender woman of color.

Do you really want to be responsible for being a part of this bad behavior towards transgender people. Even if you don’t actually do these things you can help by voting for those willing to fight for transgender rights. If you are more politically active then lobby. If you see abuse either help or seek help. In general be supportive of the transgender community and to individual transgender persons you know. This maybe hard to do, especially in conservative areas. Maybe you can make things better.

Above all do not judge people on their appearance. That is the core of the passing issue. If people weren’t judge on appearance, and face it we all do it (some worse than others) this the passing issue might not arise, or at least have a far lesser impact. Just try to limited your impact on others based on their appearance. I am talking about all people here, not just the transgender person, but especially so for them. Please use their name (chosen/preferred^) and proper pronouns if known.

+++Okay, you may have been waiting for this. I will now talk about my own relationship to the notion of passing. First I will say that I have been talking about passing as a social matter. But, individuals often wish to see a passing person in the mirror for their own self-esteem (via the standard). It can be difficult to see a gender that does not align with how you want yours presented.

I, like most other transgender women I have known personally or via online media, suffer with an internal (how they view themselves) problem with passing. The suffering could now be in the past for me, but not fully. From the the beginning of my transitioning I wanted to see my body as feminine. Before hormone treatment this was next to impossible. I had no breasts and a straight line figure. My hair was cropped short and my hair was receding with a bald spot at the back of my head. Typical results of androgenous alopecia.

I suppose I could have covered up the mirrors like Jewish folks do when sitting shiva (a traditional mourning period). But, that was not possible even if I had lived alone. The only option at the time was to try and focus away from the many flaws to concentrate on the few traits I could be proud of. This is mainly my legs and my skin overall. I would also visualize what I wanted to see myself as. Remarkably, I have become that image. Still, mirror times can be highly dysphoric.

Even after I have had significant results form hormone treatment there is that thing downstairs. It was necessary to develop tools to ease my bottom dysphoria. These came from two sources. One was reframing. This was to see my privates in a new light, like it is just a nuisance, which it was and still is. I have gone through multiple reframings depicted in My Bottom Dysphoria. But, hormone therapy gave me a gift. The gift to refocus on to the parts of my body I do like.

So, it is or at least was important to myself to see myself as being able to pass, but there was the big bad world outside the door. In the beginning I would claim that it was essential that I would be gendered properly (the biggest clue to passing). I lived to hear somebody calling me “ma’am.” This would create such a good feeling—gender euphoria. But, when they would call me “sir,” I had a terrible sinking feeling. After awhile I began to pass more and more, and my confidence grew.

But, my voice would betray me. I remember going to the counter to order some donuts for my girlfriend and I and was greeted with “may I help you ma’am.” I told her what I wanted, and she wrapped them up. But, when she handed me the donuts and my receipt she said “thank you sir.” The only possible reason I could think of was that my voice outed me. This was confirmed because if I was not very careful with my voice I would and still do get misgendered on the phone.

Gradually, I started to pass more and more, even over the phone, but not as much as in person. I am sure that the results from hormone treatment pushed things along swimmingly. The act of passing almost 100% of the time in person came about around the same time I decided I was not dressing and applying makeup to pass, but my new goal was making myself look nice. It really seemed to be a sea change. Now I do view myself as a woman (because I am a woman), so looking nice means looking nice in a feminine way. Alakazam! I passed much more often.

But, there was still my voice. My feminine voice training was interrupted at a local university, so I made practically no improvement from there. With concentration I can apply most of what I have learned, but someone asking me to repeat something or asks me a question to clarify something or to speak louder since they couldn’t hear what I said (speaking loudly can drop the pitch of your voice quickly), or where greater thought is required, I lose it. I must keep some of it because it is rarely a deal breaker in person, but still can be on the phone.

Not to long ago I was misgendered by my voice. I did my usual correction. But, shortly after I was thinking more about being misgendered by voice. My thought was the problem was theirs if they could not recognize me as a woman despite my voice. I should not have to alter my voice at all to be gendered correctly. In person my appearance alone should suffice, and on the phone I introduce myself as Stephie. An obviously feminine name. Even if I didn’t pass because of my looks, it would still be their fault. I mean I would still be wearing skirts and other feminine appearing clothes and makeup.

Even if someone mistook me as a crossdresser (I Don’t Crossdress), they should give me the benefit of the doubt and still gender me as a female. That way the harm would be less as I would think a crossdresser would not be so easily offended being called “ma’am.” Some might even take it as a compliment. If they do take it as an insult then a quick correction is all that is needed, and the damage would not be as great when being misgendered as a transgender woman—the harm to a transgender woman would be much greater. It can be devasting to take hours getting ready to meet the world, making sure everything is just right, checking twice even thrice, and then hear the dreaded “sir,” or over hear someone talking about you and here them refer to you with he/him/his pronouns.

Misgendering is the fault of the person gendering, and not the fault of the person being misgendered. So, my current attitude, which is not 100% bought into by myself, is to basically go back to what I spoke of in that previous post on passing and say “fuck ’em (to myself and not out loud, which could lead to violence against me). I am who I am and I will not let anyone take that away from me. I have worked too hard to make myself into that woman I envisioned to let anyone to destroy my hard earn persona.

How did I manage this feat of mental gymnastics? In a word I matured (Stephie’s growing up). Among the things that have change (for the better) I now derive most of my affirmation internally. This is help along with an intense since of my womanhood (I Have Always Been). I had become a self-confident person once I escape a life plague by depression and anxiety about eight years ago. It allowed for my gender exploration and later on gender recognition. It took awhile to gain the confidence in regards to my womanhood, but it came.

Still I am not totally immune to how I feel when I am misgendered. I will correct the person if I feel it safe to do so. I will even talk to management after three times if this person is employed in a business. The fact is that I feel less hurt, then I felt at the beginning of presenting as a woman. If I have a negative emotional result, I quickly shift to my internal sense of being a woman, and thus feel affirmed.

So, I covered a lot. This will be my longest single published post. I will close by saying it is unfair to judged a transgender or gender diverse person by their looks. This is on do they pass as their gender. It can range to being disrespectful to hurtful to actual discriminating acts, and to verbal and physical violence, including sexual. This might sound trite, but just be kind to people and treat them with respect.

† Unfortunately it does not change how your voice sounds, which can be change with voice training. It will also not eliminate hair growth, although some find significant reduction, but usually not on the face. Many if they can afford it go through the painful process of electrolysis, especially on the face. Also, the genital area as prep for vaginoplasties.

‡ Outing is the act of you or someone else revealing your sex assigned at birth (Never Ever out someone without their expressed permission). Being clocked is when someone can tell (or at least thinks they can tell) your sex assigned at birth.

^ I personally do not like either of these adjectives. It is really just their name. Yes they chose it, not like when others change their name via marriage. You don’t refer to it as their chosen name. Preferred is often a choice when the name someone uses is not their legal name. But, really there is nothing preferred about it. It is their name even if not recognized legally.

* I use this term realizing that it is also often made to be the standard of the world. But, I really do not know of a better description that does not judge those meeting whatever standard that does not divide those with and those without the standard. I am beginning to think that this is the way out brains works. Create a standard, divided the world, and select. This maybe how our brains typically work, but it is not inevitable, nor does it make it right.

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