Pass Fail: The hell of not being seen as your gender

The man in the mirror: Image by SergeyP, based on an original photo by Joseph Canger.

The following is a response to The Man in the Mirror, an essay by Amanda Roman, in which she describes the anguish of moving through a world that does not recognise her gender, and the devastation that causes within the self. It broke my heart.

For transgender people, the desire or need to be cisgender-passing — easily recognised and affirmed by others as one’s actual gender—is a fraught subject, one which I have made several attempts at, in the past, and failed to produce anything I was willing to publish. Amanda has provided an excuse to try again.

What follows is a rambling and no doubt flawed draft — an attempt to get something out and open for comment. I need to be able to write about passing and stealth and cisnormativity, and it’s hard as hell. It’s one of those risky topics where anything you say is going to be wrong. So here goes…

There is no reason I should have to pass. My gender is my gender. My ethnicity and race are mine. I am of them. No one gets to tell me what I am, what I am not, regardless of how they think I look.

As I move through the world as me, it’s not even sane to characterise what I do — what I live every moment — as ‘passing’. As if I am passing myself off as something other than what I am. The very idea is absurd.

But that’s what we call it: passing.

Oh, I want to pass. Of course I do. Everyone wants to be acknowledged and respected as their gender, as a valid member of their culture, as who they are. Few people want to constantly draw attention. Few enjoy being the subject of unwanted scrutiny, appraisal, rejection, and scorn.

And maybe I need to pass. Maybe I have to, to be safe. To have food and shelter. To pee safely. To not be arrested or beaten or killed. To not be cast out, to die. We are a social species, evolved to maintain group cohesion as a requisite of survival. Exclusion from the tribe is death. I shudder to think what might have become of me, had I failed to pass.

Passing can feel like life-and-death. Sometimes it is.

The whole passing schema is rigged and destructive. Passing is in the eye of the beholder — we have no control over how others choose to see us — yet we are all required by society to own passing privilege or suffer the (sometimes dire, always debilitating) consequences.

Smart, strong, brave people rail against passing as a condition of gender validity, argue publicly against it, condemn its hegemony, and with every good reason. And, in private, these same champions weep, crushed at times by the weight of it all — by the cumulative load of the sirs or ma’ams and the spectre of the man or woman in the mirror, denying us our internal sense of our gender, of who we most fundamentally are. None of us is immune.

But a truly valid identity would withstand external invalidation, right? Would resist challenge and erasure.

Really? Is that true? Can you be unshakable in your wo/manhood in the face of constant external rebuttal? If others fail to see you as fe/male, and you succumb to doubts, does that mean you’re not really fe/male after all? Can you be brown if everyone sees you as white?

In her response to Amanda’s essay, Galen Mitchell (whose insight and rhetoric I admire greatly) says that —

…seeing is not the only road to believing, and…you can be yourself regardless of whether other people see you.

I hear this an awful lot — in regard to self-actualisation generally, and to passing specifically, but I wonder — is this true? Is it possible to ‘be yourself regardless of whether other people see you’?

As an absolute, I’m going to say not.

In my experience, self-image is a mix of internal compass and external reflection. Transgender people more than most know the horror of a serious mismatch here. I admire Galen’s strong mind, and I imagine strong-minded people like her are able to cleave more toward their internal compass, are more resistant to contradictory reflection from outside.

(But not immune, I should think. And I bristle at the suggestion that I should be unaffected by social exclusion, as much as I bristle at the suggestion that such exclusion is the fault of the excluded.)

I am a different sort, exquisitely sensitive to external pressures of conformity. I experience excessively strong feelings in response to approval and disapproval, acceptance and exclusion. For me, rejection feels like existential threat. (I doubt I am unusual in this.)

I invariably conform to the feminine stereotypes of the culture I inhabit, be that European or indigenous American. I could argue that this is self-expression, ‘me doing me’, but I doubt it: I lived a long time in each of the above cultures, and the feminine stereotypes for the two are radically different — was my performance of each really ‘me doing me’? Hrmph.

For me, passing as my gender, being a convincingly cisnormative female of my culture, being easily accepted as a woman in the world of women, feels like a matter of survival. And I behave accordingly.

As matters have turned out, I am a convincingly cisnormative female. But it was not easy getting here, and it is not trivial to maintain.

I am not particularly passing-blessed, physically speaking. I have all the masculine tells. We did not have facial-feminisation or voice surgeries 30 years ago, and I certainly could’ve benefitted from both. I did not pass easily or quickly, and getting there was exhausting, uncertain, and scary. Even having had a relatively feminine presentation for much of my pre-transition life, it was many months on hormones and living full-time as a woman before I consistently passed.

As it turns out, being generally accepted as one’s gender has less to do with one’s physique than many think. Acceptance and inclusion are cultural phenomena, and culture is performed — as costume and behaviour.

When it comes to being read as female, I may not have been especially blessed physically, but I did have one huge advantage: when I was at school, in my teens, I had studied The Method, and I was reasonably good at it. I would spend a week or two in character, 24x7, preparing for a role (yes, it was weird): emphasis on speech and physical mannerism (accent, cadence, gesture, walk, posture, likes and dislikes, that kind of thing, down to minute detail). And note the 24x7 part: that was requisite.

I am not suggesting that gender is an ‘act’, but cultural performance (presentation) absolutely is. At first. And no one should expect it to be otherwise. Observe teenagers trying on personae. Observe people entering into a new profession or social group. In time they become the persona they adopt. We all do. I rest my case.

As I read Amanda’s essay, I fear she may be conflating do not pass with cannot pass. On the one hand, you have to work with what you have to work with. On the other, you have considerable choice in how you approach the challenge of passing, what you choose to do, and how intensively you pursue it.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that a failure to pass is down to lack of [whatever] — I have already said that passing is in the eye of the beholder. I have a cisgender friend who gets sir’d despite having obvious breasts and being quite small and fine-boned, simply because she wears no makeup or jewellery and has unusually short hair. We have no control over how others choose to see us.

With that caveat firmly in place, I have this to say about acquiring gender passing privilege —

24x7: As long as one is living part-time in one’s gender (a common phase for people moving into gender transition), it’s going to be quite difficult to make headway in asserting and affirming one’s gender. Every time you revert to the incongruous gender (to go to work, meet family, whatever) you’re setting yourself back to zero, in the perception of those who see you daily, and in your perception of yourself. It’s like ripping up and replanting a seedling every day. It will neither root nor grow, much less flourish. In my day, the gatekeepers (doctors, psychologists, courts) called full-time presentation the ‘real-life test’. They weren’t wrong: to shift perceptions (yours as much as others’), real-you needs to become real-life you. You can’t put on your true persona every now and then and expect to grow into her.

Can’t: I know people who pass ‘against the odds’ — women who are very tall, large-framed, have bad hair; men who are short and dainty and can’t grow much of a beard. Some of them are so challenged that they don’t pass 100% of the time, but they do well enough that their gender is usually validated, and they’re satisfied with their transitions. These folks went full-time without the benefit of passing privilege. They ‘toughed it out’ despite the invalidating feedback. No, they are not ‘made of sterner stuff’ — they cried a lot, they were frustrated and uncertain and scared — they just went ahead and did it, because they had to. And over two or three or five years they found themselves passing. You grow into your culture and your culture grows into you, gradually.

If you are able to consistently apply the effort necessary, over time, you will probably acquire passing privilege. But you shouldn’t have to. But you probably will.

Surprisingly, given the title, this excellent article by Clare Wiley provides a much more nuanced and complete discussion of the complexities around passing.

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Journalist & essayist. Reporting from Cairo.