Do not pass Go

May 26, 2008

Do not pass GoI wake up in the morning, I get out of bed and drag my makeup on.
I walk out on the street, my every exit’s covered:
I hitch up my pants and I fake it, just like a man…

I’m probably tempting fate here (if I only believed in such a thing, of course!) but I don’t seem to have had much street harassment lately. For me, when it happens, 99 times out of 100 it’s some hairy-arsed neanderthal – male, always male – repeating this time-honoured mantra to his companion (they never attack singly, always collectively), “I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman“. It’s happened to me often enough that I’ve almost come to expect some sort of regular verbal harassment from random passers-by, so to go without for two or even three weeks is almost unnerving…

Maybe I’ve just been lucky and hit a quiet patch, or maybe I’m just passing a little better these days – although I’m aware the latter is unlikely. Whatever the reason, I’m realistic (pessimistic?) enough to know that it won’t last; sooner or later somebody will ‘read’ me, they’ll decide that they have the right to make some crass personal remark at me and I’ll find myself back at square one. So I thought that I would make use of this small oasis of calm to talk about the emotive subject of passing in a little more depth before my self-confidence is once again reduced to nothing.

First of all, let me clarify what I mean when I use the word ‘passing’. Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive definition (link here): “Passing, in regard to gender identity, refers to a person’s ability to be accepted or regarded as a member of the sex or gender with which they identify, or with which they physically present“. However, it misses the key point, which is that transitioning is a matter of survival. “Acceptance” is only part of it. I prefer this definition: “The act of convincing people that you are NOT a transsexual for safety or other reasons“.

Passing is a critical part of one’s transition, particularly in the context of the Real Life Experience. It is a hugely complex affair with many variables, some of which arise from one’s own internal sense of self, and some of which require an abilty to convince random passers-by that one is indeed “a member of the sex or gender with which they identify”, if only for the time it takes to move from one place of safety to another. How a transitioning person feels on the inside may not be how they are perceived from the outside (by themselves as well as by others). The issue of how I am perceived can work both ways: I may feel I’m ‘looking good’ yet will be accosted almost every step of the way – at other times I may feel that I look like crap but nobody bats an eyelid. Small wonder that gender dysphoria, or in my case transsexuality (the extreme form of gd), inevitably leads to intense feelings of anxiety and depression.

It can be (and often is) stated that gender roles, gender expression and gender cues are constructs – but that doesn’t make them any less real. After all, money is a construct, too, and nobody demands that its existence be justified, or believes that it will cease to exist one fine day. Ours is a deeply superficial and judgemental society and, whether I like it or not, I am stuck with a simplistic binary choice in my gender expression. I present as a woman because it’s right for me; it’s a close match to my gender identity. But identity, like beauty, is not only skin deep and judging others ‘at first sight’, on the basis of their appearance does a disservice to all concerned.

The judgemental aspect perhaps deserves a little more consideration. I believe that people judge others from the positions their own privileges afford them. (I have talked about other aspects of privilege in my earlier post, The privileged few). For now I want to mention only the more specific ‘passing privilege’ as it relates to gender identity. Make no mistake, passing carries its own ‘knapsack of privilege’. Those who pass well may wonder what all the fuss is about and are therefore in a similar space to those who are ‘comfortable in their skins’, ie. who do not experience gender dissonance. People in this position, irrespective of whether they are trans* or cis people, may struggle even to understand the concept, let alone recognise that they benefit from cis privilege as a result.

Passing is such an iniquitous thing, though. On the one hand, it could be argued that it “implies that one is being mistaken for something they are not, or engaging in deception”. (Via FTM Guide). On the other hand, such ‘deception’ may make one’s life easier if those who would respond with prejudice, discrimination or abuse are not aware that you are a trans* person. Hence living in stealth. In addition, one may feel compelled to ‘walk the walk’ to the best of one’s ability, however limited, as a result of pressure from one’s medical advisers in order to access medical services such as HRT and SRS.

No information about one’s pre-transition existence seems to be entirely hidden, even though the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has gone a long way to helping protect trans* people in Britain. But if someone is seriously on your case, then anybody’s past – not just a trans person’s – can be uncovered in enough detail to make life difficult, at the very least. The stakes suddenly become much higher when you’re talking about your whole identity, your very existence…

In practical day-to-day terms, passing convincingly can be literally a matter of survival: think of Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo, Sanesha Stewart and many others. Conforming to society’s expectations of those who it has labelled as ‘male’ or ‘female’ – even though we may experience our gender identity in an entirely different way – is a huge and subliminal pressure of its own.

More to the point, I’m just me. Helen. Just another middle-aged woman trying to build a life for herself as she deals with some fairly major twists and turns that have come her way… Unfortunately for me, there are too many people out there, invariably (but not always) the proud possessors of penises, who seem to think they have some inalienable right to demand I justify my existence and choices to them, so that they can deny the validity of my gender. And if I fail, I will – for reasons I cannot fathom – be deemed a threat to their identity and must face the consequences. So until such a time as those people understand that they do not have the right to interrogate me, then I must continue to try and send out the ‘right’ gender cues and signals to get by undetected. I do need to pass, each and every day, if I want to get home in one piece without taking a detour via A&E. Passing is one of the hidden costs of transitioning, one of the biggest, and it is time for this theft of our gender identities to stop.

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©2008 Helen G

One Response to “Do not pass Go”


  1. “It can be (and often is) stated that gender roles, gender expression and gender cues are constructs – but that doesn’t make them any less real.”

    This.

    In Sociology, we call this the Thomas Theorem, formulated in 1928 by William Thomas. In a nutshell, it posits that “situations defined as real become real in their consequences”. To give another example, if a woman is socially defined as a ‘slut’, she will be socially treated like one regardless of whether she is one or not.

    This is something very difficult for some folks to get around, I find. Because it requires a fundamental understanding that Not Everyone Is Like You.

    Great post, I found it very insightful, and a really good, plain statement on what passing is and what it means.


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