The language around the trans experience is ever-evolving. Transexual gave way to a more (for many) accurate term, Transgender. Surgery is now labeled as re-affirming rather than re-assigning. Etc. So, too, I think the time has come to put another commonplace term to rest: passing.
Colloquially, passing is used as a way to determine whether or not people “can tell” someone is trans, and instead reads them as cis. It’s a term we use in our own day-to-day, and one people use in reference to us. It’s never quite sat well with me, though.
The idea of passing has a lot of negative connotations. The first, most troubling aspect, is that it sounds like a test. You’re passing, or you’re failing. It also presumes that the goal of every trans person is to be perceived as cis. In addition, it feeds into the well trodden, completely bullshit concept that trans people are trying to trick you by passing themselves off as something they’re not. Lastly, it puts the onus on the trans person. YOU pass, YOU don’t pass. It’s to your credit or your fault.
Instead, I propose a shift that more closely aligns with the concept and language of gender literacy, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is exactly what it sounds like: the way we perceive/read gender markers and expression.
If, instead of saying “I do/don’t pass most of the time,” we were to shift to language more like “People do/don’t usually read me as femme/masc,” it accomplishes a few things: It takes away the idea that your identity is a test that you are either succeeding or failing at. More importantly, though, it puts the weight of the encounter on the observer, not the observed. In so many instances, how someone perceives you is much more about them than it is about you, so why are we still using language that forces us to shoulder the burden of said perception?
There are many trans people who are read as trans, and will never be read as cis, and their identities are no less valid than those of trans people who do. The language around passing supposes that they are. A trans person doesn’t have to “pass” as cis to be read as their gender.
I’m under no illusions that encounters where I’m properly gendered have more to do with people reading me as cis than the gender markers I’m either wearing or portraying. As long as I’m properly gendered, I don’t much care. That they read me as a trans woman matters little to me so long as they read me as a woman.
As the trans experience evolves and finds more nuance in the way it is discussed, I think it’s important for us to continue revisiting well-entrenched phrases and concepts, and challenging them. Specifically, I believe it’s time to put ‘passing’ in the past.