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Laura Jane Grace. Photo via Wikipedia

On Being a Trans Woman … Who Doesn’t Pass

Not all women look the same — and that should be okay


Mainstream transgender acceptance in the United States has been a long time coming. And it’s got a long way to go.

America is getting more comfortable with a certain class of trans people. In particular, trans women who can pass as traditionally beautiful.

But what about those of us who can’t pass — or don’t think we should have to? Here’s to women with prominent Adam’s apples, five o’clock shadows and deep voices.

Here’s to women like me.

In the 1990s, trans women were punchlines — awareness by way of mockery. It felt like we only existed so the hero of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had an excuse to comically vomit at the thought that he might have liked a trans woman, and then forcibly strip off her clothes and out her genitals in front of a crowd of vomiting onlookers.

At least someone was acknowledging our existence, right?

In that era, trans women in media were usually very feminine — but only to set up the punchline. The big reveal.

In the ’90s conception of a trans woman’s transition, we simply sneaked off for one secretive operation. We’d reappear with bandages on our faces — and slowly unwind the bandage to reveal the most unbelievably, effortlessly gorgeous woman anyone had ever seen.

The trend continued through the 2000s. Popular culture still portrayed trans women as flawlessly beautiful but with a horrible secret — a penis! You heard the transphobic slur “tranny” everywhere.

Trans men got no representation at all. Best I can tell, comedians found the concept of a “man” giving up his “manhood” funnier than they did a “woman” becoming more “manly.”

Things got a little better in the 2010s.

Firstly, we got our first high-profile examples of trans actors playing trans characters. In Orange Is the New Black — the first season, at least — Laverne Cox got to play a nuanced trans woman who suffered for being trans, but also got to be part of a story that wasn’t just about her transness.

Secondly, Caitlin Jenner publicly transitioned and appeared in a glamorous Vanity Fair spread.

Caitlyn Jenner. Alberto Frank/Flickr image

Here’s the thing, though. A major reason Cox and Jenner enjoyed the friendly media coverage they did came down to their ability to conform to a traditional standard of female beauty.

Trans women who can attain a level of traditionally female attractiveness — which keeps them from being obviously transgender — are safe and acceptable. Even if their appearance is merely an accident of luck, wealth or the timing of their transition.

These are the trans people who Donald Trump, our president-elect, has said may use the women’s bathrooms at Trump Tower. These are the trans people who least need protection now that Trump is flip-flopping on those promises of trans bathroom protections.

When Trump announced his plan for his first 100 days in office, day one of that plan involved “[canceling] every unconstitutional executive action,
memorandum and order issued by President Obama.” This includes the directive protecting the rights of transgender people to use gendered spaces in accordance with their gender identity while in public schools.

“Let the states decide,” Trump said on Jimmy Kimmel Live back in May 2016. “I think the states will do, hopefully, the right thing.”

“And what’s the right thing?” Kimmel asked.

“I don’t know,” Trump responded.

The states aren’t doing the right thing. Obama’s directives and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s House Bill 2 sent a clear message — passing laws to keep trans people out of bathroom in line with their gender identity is discrimination.

It compelled many states to back away from discriminatory bathroom laws. Perhaps more importantly, in standing up for trans people, Obama set a positive example for millions of Americans. If Trump cancels Obama’s trans protections, he’ll set the opposite example.

Trans people are worried.

In reality, most trans women don’t look like Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner. Most of us look … well, like trans women. We might have a visible Adam’s apple. We might have real trouble hiding that five o’clock shadow. We might have broad shoulders or big hands and feet. We might be really tall or have a deep voice. We might have a penis.

We’re non-passing.

Laverne Cox in ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ Netflix capture

As trans women, we are told that to gain acceptance, we have to pass for cisgender. We have to be invisible. We have to be indistinguishable from someone who was born a woman.

We are the trans people who most badly need protection in America. We’re the people who get the most badly hurt when the government rolls back our rights. We are the trans people you don’t see in the media. We’re the trans people Trump might not welcome to the bathrooms in Trump Tower. We’re the trans people who could be vulnerable in Trump’s America.

When the media portray non-passing trans women, it’s usually non-trans men who play them. Male actors win awards for their courage in playing trans women. In truth, they’re just reflecting back at the world what the world assumes trans women are.

We’re not women. We’re just men in dresses. The media wrongly depicts us as makeup-obsessed little boys who made a choice one day to become women. We’re never just women who happen to possess some untraditionally feminine attributes.

But here’s how things are changing for the better. Non-passing trans women enjoy wider acceptance when more high-profile trans women come out publicly — and don’t make an effort to pass.

The more non-passing trans people in the popular consciousness, the closer we march to the day when the Trumps of the world take the non-passing trans population as seriously as they do the high-profile passing population.

It’s already happening. Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me!, came out publicly in one recent album, packed her next album with angry trans anthems … and didn’t change her voice! That gave deeper-voiced trans women hope that the wider population might one day take them seriously, too.

Honestly, I don’t pass very well. My voice falters. My stubble is visible late in the day. I’m over six feet tall and I struggle with traditionally feminine movements and mannerisms. I spent a long time trying incredibly hard to pass. I built an audience while trying to pass.

I eventually stopped trying. I’d gained a sizable following and I wanted to be more relaxed in front of everyone. I started posting selfies in which I had visible facial hair or where I’d tied my hair back, exposing more of my traditionally masculine facial structure. I stopped wearing scarves that disguised my manly neckline.

I’m glad I did.

I honestly think America needs more trans people who are open about their transitions. Who don’t try to pass. Who insist that beautiful can mean a lot of different things.

But these non-passing trans people are going to have to brave the Trump presidency.

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