The Painful Privilege Of Passing

The night of my ‘passing,’ I realized I’d achieved in six months what some never achieve their entire lives.

“You are lovely.”

The man was clearly drunk, but still I smiled and looked down at my hands, pretending to be occupied with my nails. It was a gesture formed from years of being uncomfortable with direct eye contact, and one this man noticed.

“You’re very coy, aren’t you?” he continued. I replied with something I hoped seemed nonchalant and he went away, floating on an invisible cloud of cocktail-fueled happiness. His departure finally allowed my best friend and I to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Atlanta skyline. We had left my friends at their loud-yet-entertaining dive bar of choice, to sit here for a quiet moment and appreciate the evening.

We talked, but I don’t remember what was said. What I do remember is being barely able to focus for most of that night, because about 15 minutes before my encounter with the intoxicated gentleman, one of my girlfriends had leaned in and whispered with barely-contained excitement: “Do you realize no one can tell you’re a boy?”

Setting aside the misgendering (which I forgave when I realized, with much amusement, that my friend was very tipsy and very high), I was suddenly overcome with a rush of happiness. We were at the second bar of the night, and there were two male acquaintances who had tagged along with us from the first bar, neither of whom I had met prior to that night.

They had sat next to me earlier, making me self-conscious even though I’d agonized over my outfit before heading out. I suddenly realized that they’d never given me odd looks, had seemingly failed to notice anything different about my voice, and had been quite chatty with me the whole evening. What I had suspected for a few weeks prior to this, but squashed whenever I thought about it, was finally an undeniable reality . . .

. . . I passed.

charley 2

To the uninitiated, this sounds like I completed some sort of test — and in a way, that’s exactly right. Only the test I was passing was rigged from the start, and in some ways intentionally designed to discourage success. In the transgender community, “passing” is a term used to indicate whether or not someone born male or female can successfully “imitate” conventional ideals of their gender of choice to the degree that society takes no notice of their trans identity. As a transgender individual, the effort it takes — or lack thereof — to successfully pass is a constant source of stress, anxiety, and in many cases, serious depression.

In my case, the effort I am required to expend in order to pass is minimal; I am correctly gendered even when I have forgotten to shave and am wearing male clothes. When this happens, I feel incredibly happy and content, but mere moments later I inevitably begin to think of those of my friends who don’t seem to have that luxury . . . and it never fails to dishearten me.

I have had no surgeries, and I have only been on hormones for six months. All the research I had done before I started my transition seemed to indicate that a good deal of patience is required at the beginning; some people spend years on hormones before they are able to pass, and for some it may be a lifetime struggle.

The night of my “passing,” I realized I’d achieved in six months what some never achieve their entire lives. And in that moment, I recognized that I had a very specific type of privilege; a type that carries with it painful implications.

This often-assumed imaginary ideal of what it means to be a woman harms all women — and it harms transgender women in a very dangerous way. When I started hormones six months ago, I began making an effort to invest in the local transgender community where I live. Very soon after attending my first support group, I learned that a well-loved member of the community had just committed suicide.

Although I can’t possibly know why she made that choice, I often wonder how much of her decision to end her life was due to despair over trying to achieve a beauty standard that so many transgender women will never be able to live up to, whether by virtue of the cost-prohibitive nature of surgeries that many healthcare providers still refuse to consider medically necessary, or through physical features that will forever mark them as male.

charley 3

I realize it might be disappointing when I say that I don’t think there is an easy solution to these problems. Some view passing as a symbol of oppression, a game that shouldn’t be played if we expect to change how the system works. I applaud those transgender individuals for whom this approach works. But for many it is not that simple.

Whether through years of being conditioned to think of gender in a certain way, or from genuine personal desire to be true to their own vision of themselves, there are many reasons why a person chooses to pass. One thing that can be said with any certainty is that if we believe in bodily autonomy, we should always respect someone’s personal decision on the matter. No matter what the world thinks, we can always choose to support our friends.

I recognize I have a very specific type of privilege; a type that carries with it painful implications.

That night in Atlanta, after everything was said and done, I crashed at my best friend’s house. There were several other guys living there with him, and the next morning I put on the men’s shirt and shorts I had worn on the drive to Atlanta out of simple fear of being in a dress at gas stations along the way. What little makeup I had dared put on the night before was completely gone after hours of tossing and turning on the couch. My contacts were missing, probably for the same reason, so I put on my glasses, which I tend to think make me look like an owl. I went upstairs to read comic books, and all of a sudden one of the guys living there with my friend walked in, sans shirt. He was startled when he saw me. He introduced himself and I did the same.

“My name is Charlotte, nice to meet you.”

He said it was nice to meet me too, then walked sleepily into the kitchen, ostensibly to make breakfast. It was entirely non-dramatic; just a simple exchange between two people. Maybe it was obvious that I was transgender and he just didn’t care, or maybe I passed, but for the time, it just felt “normal.”

Later that day I drove home in those same clothes, knowing I’d have to avoid calling myself “Charlotte.” At home, after all, I still have to keep up appearances.