The Tyranny of Passing
by Holly Boswell

The range of human expression we have come to know as "transgender" has been accommodated and even honored throughout the vast majority of history. Why, then, are we being told by our so-called sophisticated, contemporary society to cloak ourselves in the guise of normalcy?

As Leslie Feinberg wrote, "It is passing that's historically new. Passing means hiding. Passing means invisibility. Transgendered people should be able to live and express their gender without criticism or threats of violence. But that is not the case today."

In actuality, the pressure of gender conformance is felt by all people, but the fear and denial surrounding transgender expression is nothing short of tyrannical. As any observer of a transgender support group meeting could attest, if the chosen topic is not somehow already related to our preoccupation with passing, it is the urgent but dreaded subtext-the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room. And for every person present, there are ten more who will never leave their closets for fear of not passing.

But how many would choose to run this gauntlet if they believed they had the choice? If we didn't have to pass, would we still make all the effort? Would we do it just for fun? If passing was no longer required, how would we choose to express ourselves? I have taken this elephant for a ride at three large transgender gatherings. What follows are the composite answers to three questions I posed there: What are the advantages of passing? What are the disadvantages? And ideally, how would you want to express yourself?

The Advantages

These responses were expressed as four discernible concerns: acceptance, comfort, survival, and thriving.

Passing makes it easier for others to accept us. We get affirmed in our new identity. Others treat us as we prefer to be treated, and mirror us back the way we see ourselves. We get to belong, rather than being cast out as misfit. We are allowed entry into previously forbidden worlds. Concurrently, we gain access to new worlds within ourselves which had lacked doorways. We become able to affirm our own expectations of how we believe we should be. We may achieve a greater sense of congruity between our inner and outer being. As we experience deep joy in this, we are less reminded of the unhappiness we felt in our former gender.

We increase our comfort levels and ease of living. Society rewards us for filling its prescribed roles, for successfully assimilating. Those family members and friends who still associate with us can breathe a sigh of relief. Neither do we risk making others in public embarrassed or uncomfortable. We no longer have to keep explaining ourselves to the uninitiated, and seldom have to impose our gender issues on others.

No longer an obvious target, our security and chances of survival are enhanced. We no longer arouse fear in others, and are not perceived as a threat. We experience less hassles and less stares. In fact, we are taken just as seriously as anyone else, and can be perceived as a credible, worthwhile and effective human being. We can get a job, be self-supporting, and even have a decent career.

If we can pass, we can actually thrive. We are granted entitlement to equal opportunity for growth and happiness. We get to experience the joy of creating oneself intentionally from within, amending our birthright. We are privileged to work the magic of altering conventional reality. We are extraordinary beings who, by passing, get to enjoy ordinary functioning in the world. We have a lot more options in life than if we didn't pass-including the option to out ourselves whenever we want, and still not suffer as much.

The Disadvantages

Some were stumped at first, not ever imagining there could be any disadvantages to passing. But soon there was a torrent of grievance spilling forth: deceit and self-betrayal, petty preoccupations, disconnection, the perpetuation of injustice, and the overall cost.

Passing is a lie. However necessary or justifiable it may be, when we create a false presumption-even unintentionally-we are deceiving others. The very premise of our transgendering forces us into dishonesty at every turn. The culture lacks a context of shared experience, and even our language betrays us. There aren't enough words for us. Passing prevents us from showing who we fully are. And as we persist in passing, we must maintain elaborate webs of secrets and lies. We may come to feel that others are seeing less of our essence as we project ourselves through what Sandra Bem calls "the lenses of gender".

Even more perilous is losing our sense of self. We undermine our original purpose of self-revelation when we deny our past, the whole of our truth, and risk losing ourselves in our new gender role. We may mistake our acceptance of the role with true self-acceptance. We thereby forfeit the uniqueness of our being, and cannot show all our true colors. We end up betraying ourselves to gender.

Indeed, there is something about our transgendering that can become an all-consuming obsession. In our passion to pass, we get caught up in every manner of petty preoccupation. We endure the bother and discomfort of every conceivable prosthetic, the extreme rigors of grooming and the torture of ill-fitting, surrealistic garments, all of which must be vigilantly maintained for indefinite periods of time. Passing also requires that we maintain appropriate carriage, affect and behavior, not to mention vocal range. We become shamelessly self-absorbed, all in the vain effort to look good and be liked and accepted.

We transgendered are intimately familiar with the state of disconnection. Though it begins with the alienation caused by gender conflicts, one would expect it to subside after gender-shift. Unfortunately, many who pass report new forms of disconnection, sometimes even feeling disconnected from themselves. They may find themselves cut off from their personal history in their former gender. They have family and friends who can't recognize them so transformed, and don't know how to relate. Some friends are left behind, rather than invited to adjust. They become disconnected from former roles, such as partner, parent, or worker. There is a loss of commonality with those who once shared the former gender, and with former circles of people. Sometimes, there is a choice to not be seen in public with those who do not pass.

Recognizing that, when we pass, we inadvertently perpetuate the injustices of the gender system strikes a deep and troubling chord among transgendered people. There is not happy ending when the slave becomes the master, nor is there any progress when one merely trades one gender for another. One simply inherits the other set of biases, and is subject to new and different forms of discrimination. Passing inevitably reinforces sex-role stereotyping, sexism, and gender duality.

In addition to the foregoing itemization of the price of passing, there is the obvious financial expense of counseling, hormone therapy, electrolysis, various surgeries, and legal fees. There are a host of health risks-some known, some yet to be anticipated-associated with these bodily interventions. But there are also less tangible costs incurred by passing, like having the effectiveness of our political statements compromised. Others can't learn from us and benefit from the uniqueness of our gifts if we pretend to be ordinary and hide ourselves. And as a final word of caution, "passing" is a precarious set-up for "failing".

The Ideal

Whether we choose at this time to pass or not to pass, what we really want is the same as what everyone wants: acceptance, respect, love, and freedom.

We transgendered want acceptance, respect, and love from others for who we really are. We want to accept, respect, and love others from our truth, for who they really are. And we want to be capable and supported in accepting, respecting, and loving ourselves as we really are. We want to be equal with all beings in this regard.

We want to be free of fear and shame and persecution. Free from any gender designation or role expectations. Free to reintegrate all the parts of ourselves that have gotten separated. Free to explore and become fully ourselves in body, heart, mind, and spirit. Free to play any role at any time-for fun and fulfillment, and in service to others. And we want the freedom to remain fluid and to change at will. The only "passing" we really want is the freedom to pass on through to true selfhood. Isn't it possible that this is what everyone wants?


Lannie thanks Holly for permission to post this wonderful article, for having Lannie at one of her workshops, and for the pleasure of her acquaintance.