When someone makes a gender transition, they may change how they look and act. They do this to match their gender identity. Sometimes the changes they make will cause them to “pass.” That means other people will not know they made a gender transition. The idea of “passing” is hard to talk about, and it causes a lot of fights.
The concept of “passing” is has a long history. The idea of “passing” can make self-acceptance harder. I try to avoid using this term.
Passing can be part of a binary of pass or fail. It also can mean to trick someone, as in passing yourself off as something you are not.
“Passing” gives others the power of deciding if our identities are real.
But “passing” can sometimes make life easier. If others do not agree with how you identify yourself, it is hard on your self-identity and self-acceptance.
In the same way that gay people who can “act straight” or black people who can “act white” are able to be accepted by the rest of society more easily, trans people who can “act cis” will likely face less harassment, discrimination, and violence. They will often have an easier time finding work, friends, and intimate relationships. In the same way that a “straight-acting” gay person has the choice of when to come out to someone, we have the choice of when to come out. This can be empowering. If you are accepted in your gender and decide to come out to someone or don’t think of it as a shameful secret, you have the power and control.
“Passing” and “attractiveness“
“Passing” and “attractiveness” are not the same thing. You might have one, or the other, or both, or neither. Attractiveness has its own set of advantages (and disadvantages). I know several “unattractive” transgender people who “pass” better than the most “attractive” trans people.
When I first wrote this site, I wrote it like the self-help books from the first wave of feminism– these awful “Dress for Success” type books that that were required reading for female executives in the 1980’s. They told you how to dress as a totally asexual drone that mimicked male office attire: frumpy navy blue suits with sensible shoes. Its was required at the time and sometimes still is.
Those books were “elitist” as they only helped mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly college-educated women. Those women simply lucked into being among the privileged few who had a chance of benefiting from corporate capitalism at the time.
The same is true for anyone who “passes” or anyone who is “attractive.” You are not better. You’re just lucky.
As with any civil rights movement, some trans people will have to wait to get the acceptance currently enjoyed by those who can assimilate. Does that suck? Yes. But the sad truth is this: right now, it is more likely that someone who can assimilate into mainstream society will be able to enjoy the privileges of mainstream society. Does that make them better? No. Just luckier. Right place, right time.
A note on “stealth“
A reader asked:
In your glossary you say that going deep stealth means that you can have a regular sex partner without him knowing that you had a sex change. I was wondering if this was actually possible and has it ever happened?
This can and does happen, although it’s very rare, and harder to do since the internet came along. Among those who can, many will have too many personal or professional contacts who knew them before or heard of their transition to make a life of “deep stealth” practical.
“Deep stealth” is a house of cards that can come tumbling down unexpectedly. Someone always knows your status. While it is possible to start totally over by moving and all of that, people are always going to wonder about your past at some point. Then you have to decide if you are going to make up a story. As soon as you start making up a past or not telling people certain things (lies of omission), you run the risk of having people find out later that you don’t tell them the truth.
Because a long-term relationship (whether a friendship or an intimate relationship) has to be based on trust, many people feel betrayed when they find out about someone’s past that’s been kept from them. The question of when to tell is a very difficult one and must be considered very carefully and based on your own conscience.
There are a lot of people who claim to be deep stealth who aren’t. Some of these have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” thing going on, where their partner may wonder, but the partner never brings it up. The longer you’re with someone in deep stealth, the more of an invented history you have to put out there. This is fine for some, but it’s not really conducive to trust.
Most people live somewhere between totally stealth and totally out.
Thoughts from others
“Who was I now – woman or man? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices; it could never be answered if it had to be asked.” – Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
“[…] People who don’t conform to masculine or feminine stereotypes are probably more vulnerable to violence on the street, but queers who “pass” gender muster are still vulnerable to discrimination solely on the basis of their sexual activities. In fact, the reaction to such a person, who is viewed as a mole and a deceiver, a traitor and a liar, is sometimes much more intense than attempts to punish feminine gay men or butch dykes.” — Patrick Califia-Rice, Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism
Evan Urquhart (March 30, 2017). Why Passing is Both Controversial and Central to the Trans Community. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/03/why-passing-is-both-controversial-and-central-to-the-trans-community.html