Passing - Part III

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

On Passing

by Robyn Walters

? 2001 by Robyn Walters. All rights reserved.

A central theme of Holly Boswell and Jessica Xavier?s thought-provoking articles seems to be that passing is no longer politically correct. Passing is portrayed as a betrayal of the transgender community. Taken in the context of two-spirited people and of complete freedom of gender expression by the gender queer, not wanting or needing to pass makes a certain amount of sense. In the context of a transsexual living life in a manner true to himself or herself, however, it does not.
Holly quoted Leslie Feinberg as saying, ?Passing means hiding. Passing means invisibility. Transgendered people should be able to live and express their gender without criticism or threats of violence.?

While I certainly agree that anyone who expresses gender beyond the narrow norms of society has the right to do so without fear of ridicule, discrimination, or bodily harm, I don?t agree that passing is always a case of hiding. In general, a full-time or post-op transsexual isn?t trying to hide; rather, he or she is trying to live the truth of his or her identity in the proper gender. Even so, not all of us who pass go to great lengths to deny our chromosomal history.

Although I pass and don?t draw attention to myself in public, I?m open about who I am. Why? Because I feel the need and the obligation to teach the public?often one waitress or salesperson at a time?that transsexuals and crossdressers are real people, not Jerry Springer constructs.

Holly goes on to say, ?When we create a false presumption?even unintentionally?we are deceiving others. Passing is a lie.? She listed six disadvantages of passing: Deceit, self-betrayal, petty occupations, disconnection, perpetuation of injustice, and overall cost.

A crossdresser who passes for an evening at the club and then returns to his heterosexual male life has indeed deceived those who perceived him as a woman. But what harm has he done, other than con some gentleman into opening a door for him? A full-time or post-op MTF who passes isn?t deceiving anyone. People merely see what she truly is?a woman.

Petty occupations and overall cost? Well, a crossdresser may spend lots on sexy outfits for his excursions and primp for hours getting the makeup just right, but the full-time woman soon learns it ain?t the clothes any more, and the need for makeup diminishes rapidly as electrolysis works its admittedly expensive wonders.

Self-betrayal and perpetuation of injustice? A crossdresser?s passing does eliminate an opportunity for the public to get used to the idea of a man in a dress. However, under certain circumstances that same crossdresser might reveal his situation and try to educate the public. This happens when 150 transpeople mix with the townspeople of Port Angeles, Washington during Esprit each May. Port Angeles is one redneck mill town that has welcomed a crowd of trannies for 12 years.

Disconnection? This is a problem that doesn?t limit itself to passing. Most of us who are transgendered have experienced disconnection, whether it be loss of family, friends, or employment. The disconnection phenomenon can be lessened by education and political action, but the impact on a spouse or partner is visceral. For some wives, the knowledge that a husband of 20-plus years is a gender bender or, worse, a woman, creates a fight-or-flight reaction. Her world is destroyed. Some, of course?those who are blessed?grow from the experience and remake their world with their husbands. The same is true in the FTM world.

Holly states, ?It?s time to move beyond the bipolar model of sex and gender based solely on anatomy.? ?How much longer,? she asks, ?will the invitations and licenses to our gender destinies be granted solely on the basis of our genitals? Probably only [until] we stop asking permission from external authorities to become authentically ourselves.? Jessica, speaking of passing in terms of the passing privilege of those born to the gender, says, ?Transpeople who live full-time know when they begin to pass in their new genders, since gender recognition becomes obvious from the validation of so many social clues. Unfortunately, that awareness has motivated only a few of us to our own privilege?and to fight transphobia as best we can.?

Acceptance and tolerance of our gender destinies relies on more than external authorities such as the Standards of Care, counselors, and doctors. It lies in the education of our society, of our religious leaders, of our political leaders, and of our friends and families. Jessica and Holly are correct that we have an obligation to ourselves and to those who come behind us to remove the stigma of being gender blessed. In my opinion, this has little to do with passing and everything to do with education. Some are called to the front lines of activism and advocacy. Others live their lives quietly. But they also serve who stand and wait. It is incumbent on all of us to reach out in some way to show we are decent human beings worthy of respect.

Holly concludes, ?Whether we choose to pass or not pass, what we ideally want is the same [as] everyone else: acceptance, respect, love, and freedom .... We don?t have an honorable place within our culture. Maybe it?s time to reclaim one.?

I agree. Look for me. I?ll be the conservatively attired older woman marching beside you.


On Women, Men, and Nobody Else

(with apologies to Kate)

by Judy Osborne

? 2001 by Judy Osborne. All rights reserved.

Usually I love strolling along with Holly Boswell and enjoying the wider horizons she brings to my consciousness, but this time I can walk only half way with her. Holly?s ?Transgender Revolution? piece seems to be attempting to stuff two unconnected ideas into an unruly theory that simply will not come together for me, no matter how hard I try to make the pieces fit.

The second part of Holly?s essay, subtitled ?The Tyranny of Passing,? pairs beautifully with Jessica?s ?Passing as Privilege.? Both are enlightened and thoughtful and deserving of a reader?s rapt attention. The problem for me was the tangled path that led through Holly?s ?third gender? thicket before I came upon her lovely vista of passing?s tyranny. The two separate issues, the self-diminishing custom of passing, which Holly nails very adequately, and her proposal that the transgender world is capable of creating a third or more genders, even of redefining gender itself, feel falsely conflated and confused in my reading of her logic.

Some years ago I got attached to Riki Wilchins? similar touting of transgender?s promise to lead society into a ?deconstruction of gender? Nirvana?a new world where people could wander down their own unique paths of gender and sexuality; a world in which patriarchy and misogyny no longer could exist because gender no longer would exist. Riki so inspired me with her clever thoughts that I carried her menacing sword along behind her for a while and spouted her stuff to the diminishing number of people who would listen to me. I got cured, detached, pretty quickly.

I don?t choose, as Holly proposes, ?to define [myself] outside the culture and the gender it imposes,? nor do I want to be one of the ?transgendered people [who] are redefining gender.? I want to be a woman?as much a woman as I can learn how to be during each and every remaining moment of what I hope will be a long life. I love my women friends and the way we talk, sharing and affirming and checking each other constantly and really listening and rarely interrupting and never one-upping and giving constant feedback that we?re getting what each of us is saying. I love the good cheer that comes to women in casual encounters. I even love having a door held open for me. I don?t like being discounted or interrupted or not being taken seriously or not even being heard by men, but that goes with the territory and I do my best, along with my sisters, to end that rude injustice.

Like many others in the transgender community I don?t want to alter gender traditions. I do what little I can, along with my friends, to pull the two distinct genders into more equal parity in terms of society?s benefits and privileges, but I?m very certain I?m not alone among MTF?s in wishing to be a woman instead of someone ?free of gender.?

My wish has come true. I can accept that I don?t have all the qualifications. I never had a girl?s life-changing first period nor the ability to suckle a baby nor the unsettling experience of learning first-hand how power relationships evolve among girls. I?ll always be handicapped. I?m a ?third sex? in that sense, I guess. I?m glad various cultures found places for us, often sacred ones. I?m glad too that we?re not offered that same humane provision in our culture because if we were, perhaps I would settle gratefully into a third-gender status and not stretch myself to be who I really want to be?a transgendered woman.

Being a ?transgender woman? feels profoundly different to me from what Holly calls ?reinforced sex-role stereotyping? or a ?fallacious linkage between biological sex and gender expression.? Lots of my friends and acquaintances going in both directions live as open and out transsexuals here in Seattle, the place I know best. They transition on the job, write articles and letters to editors and politicians about our issues, make speeches, serve on civic committees and commissions, don?t feel shy about going somewhere with one of us who?s not passable. Even my landlady is a transsexual who inspires me daily with her open dealings with irate tenants and leaks and a whole variety of maintenance workers. Every now and then one or a few of these folks take a vacation in Thailand and come back tanned and happy after a month spent mostly at a beach villa on the Straits of Malacca. The revised genitals some bring back as unique Thai souvenirs make very little difference to their new owners subsequent lives, except in bed. Friends never even know anything?s been altered?except for tanned faces glowing in contrast to Seattle?s customary pallor?unless a proud new owner decides to tell. There is no inherent linkage, fallacious or otherwise, between biological sex and gender expression?there never has been.

We who were socialized as boys can be women?happy, swingin?, expressive, nurturing women. It just takes a bit of effort. Typically, parents and cohorts slapped us down pretty hard when we dared to show anything feminine. We did cars and baseball and shoot-em-up games instead of dolls and hopscotch and pajama parties. Now at last we can discover and embrace our femininity?it?s harder to get the hang of it after life?s patterns have settled in, but it?s fun and intensely affirming to bring out the feminine person cloaked inside each of us and help her gain new friends. Lying down in front of a surgeon for a few hours won?t do it.

So how do we begin? We ask questions and start learning to sound and look and act like other women so our every little action won?t constantly remind friends of our differences, but we don?t try to pass or be false to our background. We find joy and richness in women?s company and don?t exploit women any more. We study the little cues women constantly give each other. We begin to notice when we?re responding in guy ways and stop doing that. We take more and more excursions away from our community?s cocoons and gain more original-woman friends and ask for their help and their advice, and eventually we begin to get accepted as women by women. You know when that happens?it?s my own personal definition of when we become women. It has to be an honest process. Our prior lives must be part of who we are for our honesty and openness to shine through, but we do become women with women friends and woman activities. That?s what my MTF transsexual friends around here seem to want. I don?t know anyone who would rather be third gendered.

Our society really is divided into two genders (and I am talking genders, not sexes). My woman friends want no part of being like a man?zero. They?re feminists, mostly, some also lesbians, women all the way through. Men?well, you know how they feel about acting the least bit like a woman. All my years in the trans community have convinced me that the transgender world feels much the same way. Our men struggle mightily to be women and our women leap tall buildings into manhood. A very few hardy souls slip gracefully into androgynous roles between the conventional genders. I admire them, but they?re the exceptions that prove the rule.

It?s wishful thinking to imagine we?re going to ?redefine gender,? ?transcend gender,? or, in Riki?s words, ?deconstruct gender.? Transgender peccadilloes and persecutions occasionally do result in something fun and sweet like enabling two women to get married legally in Texas. Still, newsworthy events like these are but tiny blips in society?s gender traditions, and they usually cost us dearly. Society loves gender as it is. Even from hundreds of yards away, our gender presentations signal our roles in the mating dance of life, and that?s fun?we love it?as a society, we?re not about to give up that joy or alter those traditions. To suggest the transgender community can pull off such a revolution is giving ourselves far too much importance.

Passing? No I don?t want to pass, but I am a woman, a transgender woman, and I?m proud of that! A person can go as far into the traditions of the other gender as she or he wishes and still be real and honest and open about being transgender. Being out and being a third gender are two different issues.

I love knowing about the two-spirit and third-gender traditions in lots of societies. I admire the tolerance, the understanding, and the spiritual respect for the individual that created such roles. I admire even more the beautiful way in which Holly brings this and other aspects of our spirituality into our lives. Perhaps if I had been born into such a society I could accept a third-gender role and love it. I wasn?t, and my struggle to carve out a place for myself in this dualistic society is a journey within what I know about gender and my own need to fit into its existing order. That?s all I can do. I pretty sure it?s all the community can do.


To Pass or Not to Pass: That is the Question

by Virginia Stephenson

? 2001 by Virginia Stephenson. All rights reserved.

October 24 was my last day at work as a guy. I had Thursday and Friday off and returned to work on Monday the 29th as a woman. I had looked forward to this day for some time, and had planned it carefully to make it a life event. Now that it was upon me, it was all I thought it would be, and more.

With each new step along the way, I feel more free, not a captive of anything other than my decisions. The world opens up, possibilities become infinite, and life becomes magical. With every person I meet, I feel it is a universally appointed time to touch another in some way, and I know what Quinten Crisp meant when he said the whole world was his stage.

The look I?ve cultivated over the years is in place. I look professional, put together, feminine. Few will decide I?m a nontransgendered woman. Most will look at me with wonder and curiosity, which is just what I want, because I feel I?m a special person and have something to offer everyone I meet--a view of the world that is a little different, a different way of looking at gender roles or at our culture in general. I may even be entertaining.

If I was 5?7? (I happen to be 6?4?) and could pass as well as the next woman on the street, look at all I would be missing. I would be blending in. I would have to work to be the center of attention, to distinguish myself in dress or behavior or speech.

There was a Centaur in mythology, called Chiron. Chiron was half man and half horse. The Centaurs were a fun-loving group; in fact, they had a rowdy and bawdy reputation. But Chiron was different. He was a healer and a teacher, and was sought out by the people of the age for his wisdom. He looked different from all other folk, but that made him special. Rather than use his great frame and size to harm, he used his specialness to help, teach, heal, and counsel the people. His difference became a vehicle for his gifts to shine and change his world.

The drive to pass has become the Holy Grail of the transgender community. Could it be we are settling for second-best? Several months ago, I had scheduled cosmetic surgery. A week before the surgery I asked myself, ?Why do you want to have this surgery?? Some of the old answers came to me: I would look more like a woman; I would be making my body like my inner self; I would look more beautiful; I would be more passable. These all seemed reasonable. With two days to go, I looked in the mirror and tried to imagine what I would look like and mentally compared the look to my life goals. I asked myself, ?Is this necessary?? The next day I called and cancelled the surgery.

Am I saying we?re wrong to have cosmetic surgery or SRS? Absolutely not?but I am saying we?ll be more sure in grasping what our lives are all about if we will accept ourselves the way we are without surgery, and love ourselves, and walk with our heads high, and be proud of who we are. If we find that place, then we can handle and rejoice and find peace in all the surgeries we want.

I?ve been in the transgender community for a relatively short time, just five years. In that time I?ve seen trannie after trannie go into surgery or strive for the passing look, or transition, or whatever, with the fairytale notion that on the other side things would be better, problems would cease, life would be wonderful, and their hose would not run. Well, folks, it doesn?t work like that!

We?re a part of a grand and wonderful evolutionary jump our culture is taking away from the old failed patriarchal society and toward a future of sharing and rejoicing and embracing variance and difference rather than fearing it. To be a part of this wonderful adventure, we need to think differently. We must realize we?re a part of something larger than ourselves and our community, and embrace our specialness?not try to hide it.

To pass or not to pass? I?ve made my decision.


Stealth and Passing

by Susan Blewitt

? 2001 by Susan Blewitt. All rights reserved.

I cannot understand the choice of so many transsexuals to live in stealth. Who wants to live in untruth? I certainly don?t, and I fail to understand how anyone in his or her right mind could, assuming that he or she was mature and of good character.

It?s true I don?t pass well. However, my attitude toward stealth is not a rationalization. Thanks to Dr. Ousterhout?s work on my face, coupled with the fact that at 5?8? and 135 pounds I have a body favorable for female presentation, I get feedback from mainstream people to the effect that I make an attractive lady. I think it possible that within a couple of years I?ll be able to pass fairly well, for the cause of my inability to pass is not pronounced male physical qualities, but voice and behavior, which can be learned. I?m quite new at female presentation, having done it for the first time on an airline flight last January, when I flew from Chicago to San Francisco for a surgery date with Dr. Ousterhout. Thus, while I?m lousy at passing, I?m not resigned to the fact that this will always be the case.

If I become passable?which is not terribly unlikely?I will want everyone who knows me, even casual acquaintances, to know I?m a transsexual woman. I?ll want this primarily because in a general way I prefer living in truth, and secondarily, though still importantly, because I feel I owe this particular truth to others. I feel it would be disrespectful to others to allow their false belief that I was nontranssexual to go uncorrected. I feel it would be a betrayal of their trust.

I know that having people think I was nontranssexual and being treated as such would be pleasing to my ego. I?ve passed often enough to be acquainted with this pleasure. But the pleasure stealth would provide wouldn?t be worth the lessening of my character it would entail. I would lose self-esteem. I wouldn?t love myself as much. In my relationships with others, I want to be regarded as a person who has a sense of honor, a person who can be counted upon. Thus, the pleasure I stand to gain is weighed against what I would lose. The intelligent choice is clear.

Thirty years ago, when ?impersonating a woman? was a crime in every state, when being clocked would likely mean a trip to the county jail, the choice of living in stealth was rational. But public attitudes have changed enormously since then. Thirty years ago it was excusable for a transsexual to keep his or her friends in the dark about the past. If friends were to learn the truth, they would not feel betrayed, for they would understand the powerful social forces that made the betrayal necessary. Today those social forces are not so strong as to render stealth behavior excusable. Today most mainstream people would feel their trust had been betrayed, and their esteem of the transsexual?s character would drop.

I think in large measure the thinking of the transgender community regarding passing, and especially towards stealth, was formed in earlier times, when there was powerful stigma to contend with. This thinking hasn?t caught up with the better social conditions of the present today. Apart from that consideration, I can?t understand the choice of so many transsexuals to live in stealth. I assure you, I personally have no such desire.


Passing Transsexual

by Dallas Denny

? 2001 by Dallas Denny. All rights reserved.

I am a passing transsexual. That means that wherever I go, in whatever situation, whether I?m getting my car repaired or giving a presentation at work or sharing a hotel room with a co-worker, whether I?m all dressed up or hot and sweaty in a t-shirt with no makeup, people don?t read me as transsexual, but believe me to be and accept me as nontranssexual. Neither my appearance nor my voice nor my mannerisms tell them I?m transsexual.

Unlike some transsexuals, I don?t really care who knows about my past. I just live my life, surrounded by those who don?t know, those to whom I?ve disclosed, and those who have learned of my transsexualism from others or from my various activities and writings in the transgender community. Whatever happens, happens, and is just fine with me. No one can hurt me by outing me, yet because I can pass I?m able to participate fully in life?s rich banquet without fear of finding myself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation because I?ve been read as transsexual. Unlike many of my friends, I don?t have to survey the environment to see if I?m in a ?transsexual danger zone.? With equal ease, I can hike the Appalachian Trail, go to the corner grocery store, wander into a seedy country bar, apply for a job, or dine in a fine restaurant, never having to wonder if anyone ?knows? or if those people at the corner table are laughing about me. Indeed, as I go about my business, even when I?m passionately advocating about gender issues, I rarely think about my own transsexualism, for I?m not reminded of it by the actions or words of others or by my own body. My life is, from moment to moment, very little different than that of a nontranssexual woman of a like age. I find I prefer it that way, for as out as I am, I?ve no real desire to do gender education and outreach every time I go to the supermarket. I don?t have the energy, time, or patience to primp and survey my appearance before stepping out?nor do I need the drama of being clocked; I just want to grab the milk and eggs and bread and go home and make french toast.

Now, I?m not claiming to pass at all times and under all conditions. Because my name has been widely linked to gender issues in print and on the Internet and because I?ve frequently left copies of trans-related material on the copier at work, I often have no idea who knows and who doesn?t, or if anyone knows at all. If anyone wonders or has figured it out they aren?t talking about it, which is just fine by me, for I don?t want it to be all about my own transsexualism, but about gender issues in general. The result is the same, whether my transsexualism is not known or just not talked about. I?m in control. I decide when and to whom to disclose. And that?s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it.

I?m Just Lucky That Way

Although I?m glad I pass, I don?t ascribe it to any particular virtue on my part. My passing has nothing to do with my inner goodness. I pass because my most predominant masculine characteristics were amenable to change, and I changed them. I had facial hair, for which an effective removal technology existed, and a body which produced testosterone, for which an effective opposing technology existed. I was lucky, for I had no physical features which would have made it especially difficult to pass. I wasn?t overly tall, I had no adam?s apple, my voice wasn?t particularly deep, I hadn?t lost my hair, I had little body hair, I didn?t have a thin upper lip or heavy brows or a square jaw, I wasn?t overly tall, my hands and feet were on the small side for my height. Those are features which were determined by chance, in a game of genetic roulette, when sperm met ovum. I was fortunate; although I had my share of male characteristics, the game of life happened to give me a body which could be whipped into shape without too much expense or effort.

At one time, I was proud of my ability to pass, but I eventually disabused myself of that notion. Now I?m merely grateful, for it makes my life easy and safe. I know I pass only because of chance, and I recognize my ability to pass doesn?t make me superior in any way. I?m not ?more? transsexual than others because I happen to lack secondary sex characteristics for which medical science hasn?t devised effective treatments?but I am, as I?ve said, grateful that by a combination of luck and technology I?ve an appearance which causes others to respond to me in ways which generally help rather than hinder me as I go through life. It?s convenient and comfortable to have the option of telling others rather than having them inevitably figure it out for themselves, for when people know, interactions change subtly; everything they say and so and everything I say and do is influenced by the transsexual issue.

I feel for those who, despite their best efforts, don?t pass, but however much I sympathize with their predicament, I?m not ashamed because I happen to pass. I?m not at fault because I can pass any more than they are at fault because they can?t. I?ve no obligation to render myself nonpassable for their sake. On the other hand, I wouldn?t be much of a human being if I turned my back on them?not because they?re unlucky and I?m lucky?that?s merely a matter of perspective; I might in fact be the unlucky one because my life is more of a deception?but because the thing that drives us is the same. We come from a common place, and our issues and enemies are the same. People who give those who don?t pass a hard time would give me a hard time too, if only they knew I was transsexual; they don?t like me any better, they merely assume I have a history which in fact I did not have. Those who deny employment to those who don?t pass would deny me a job, too, and those who would be happy to kill them would be as happy or even more happy to murder me. I would be a fool if I ignored this, if I permitted myself to believe the evil people out there love me because I pass. They don?t. It?s for that reason I?ve spent the past 15 years as an activist. It?s for this reason I don?t choose my friends for their ability to pass, why I don?t mind being seen in public with those less passable than myself.

Non-passable transsexuals face tremendous rejection and have great difficulty in finding or keeping employment. Obviously, a post-transition life characterized by discrimination and hostility from others is far different from a life in which one gets a job and is treated with consideration. It?s difficult not to be impacted when one?s life contains a large measure of unpleasantness. A few of my non- passable acquaintances have become cynical, pessimistic, aggressive, beaten-down, and just generally nasty because of the way they have been treated. This exacerbates their problems. A pleasant personality can defuse difficult situations and can result in acceptance whether one passes or not; on the other hand, no one wants to be around someone who is unpleasant, whether they pass or not. The world being as it is, those who don?t pass and walk around with a chip on their shoulder because of it tend to find life doubly difficult. But of course, the world being as it is, the most personable and pleasant nonpassable transsexual may wind up jobless.

Those who pass can easily put it all behind them, choosing to deny their history and experience and avoid those they consider less passable than themselves. Many do, and a few go to great lengths to reconstruct their lives in such a way that they completely disavow their transsexualism. This is of course intellectually dishonest, but more than that, it?s dangerous, for they enter what I?ve called ?the closet at the end of the rainbow,? building relationships and careers which can come to an abrupt end if and when (and it?s usually when) they?re outed or discovered. They base their lives on the lie that they?re nontranssexual, and forevermore must spend their time and energy patrolling the ramparts. They live in a state of hypervigilance, filtering everything that happens to determine if they?re in danger of being revealed. Who among us hasn?t run into one of these deep-in-the-woodwork transsexuals in public and watched them freeze in their tracks, shrinking within themselves as they pray we don?t notice them, and that if we do, we won?t speak.

I?ve little patience with those who consider themselves superior because they can pass. I?ve even less with those who consider themselves superior because they don?t. Both viewpoints are merely constructions of subjective realities which conform to the genetic hand dealt in the poker game of life. We are each working from an n of one. Our experiences speak about our individual lives, and have no meaning when applied to others who, after all, have their own experiences.

We?re real transsexuals, and our lives are equally valid, regardless of whether we pass.