Note: “Passing” is a concept that exists in several different marginalized communities. For example, it can be important for people of color to pass as white to avoid violence, and it can be important for Jewish people to pass as non-Jewish amid antisemitism. In this article I specifically cover the way “passing” relates to being transgender.
“Passing” is an inherently broken concept. You can only “pass” as something you’re not. To say a trans woman “passes” as a woman, is to say she isn’t really a woman. It is much more accurate to describe how one is read, not if one passes. “I was read as female at work today” is a lot more accurate than “I passed at work today”. Think about it: When cisgender people are misgendered (which happens often), is it accurate to say they weren’t passing? Does anyone ever hold cisgender people to the gold standard of passability? It never happens. Why do you think that is?
Gendering is an active process done by the observer, not the person being observed. When someone is gendered, they are being read as one gender or another by the observer. It is the observer’s beliefs, socialization, and cultural norms that decide how they gender someone when looking at them. Social gender is a collaborative act. Society constantly redefines which cues mean what, and its members adjust their appearance to fit the norm. The language of “passing”, however, unfairly places the onus of “proper” gender presentation on the person being observed. It says to trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming people, “if you’re harassed, it’s your fault!” It falsely describes gendering as a passive, natural process and encourages victim-blaming. It is never a trans person’s fault for being misgendered or victimized, but “passing” makes it so.
The definition of what “looks female” or male changes on a regional basis. What gets a person read as female or male in one area may have the opposite effect somewhere else. The observer often operates on limited information. Cisgender women who are tall, muscular, or have short hair are often misgendered on the street, because in the absence of other information, most people assume those traits mean “male”. When the observer sees enough cues to assume the woman is cisgender, however, all the non-conforming traits are brushed aside in favor of her “true” gender. Cis is equated to “legitimate”, so even though gendering is a messy process that nobody gets quite right, all the inconsistencies and flaws of gendering are swept under the rug among cis people. Inconsistencies are typically only used against a person when that person is trans.
“Passing” normalizes cissupremacy. It does not mean “looking like your identified gender”. It means “looking cisgender”. If you are a woman, you look like a woman. Period. The reason cis people misgender trans people is because they have been taught the wrong gendered cues. They have been incorrectly taught that bodily traits coded as masculine equate to maleness and male identity, and the same for femaleness and female identity. When cis people are educated on trans issues, they misgender trans people less often based on appearance. (They stll misgender people, however, because appearance is a terribly convoluted means of determining gender.)
There are many reasons trans people modify their appearance. One reason is to get read as cisgender, which is a necessary survival tactic in a world full of people who want to harass us, discriminate against us into poverty and homelessness, and murder us. Some changes trans people make to their bodies have more to do with basic survival than personal body issues. However, trans people also modify their bodies because of dysphoria. This reason comes from within, and has nothing to do with how others view us. Usually it’s some mix of two, and they can be hard to tease apart in some situations.
The language of “passing” hides this subtle distinction, and changes transition into a game of approximating cisgender people, who are upheld as superior. In reality, most trans people transition to ease dysphoria. Trans people often get read as cisgender after changing their bodies to alleviate dysphoria, but this is a side-effect, not necessarily a primary goal. Some trans people don’t experience dysphoria and/or don’t value looking cisgender. Nor should they be required to.
Think about that the next time you describe yourself or another trans person as “passing”. Did you pass? Or did people read you in a way you wanted them to? Do you “look like a woman” or a man, or did you change your appearance in a way that makes others correctly assume you’re a woman or a man? Is it healthy to prioritize looking cisgender over fixing dysphoria? Is it a good thing when people assume gender based on appearance? Are there situations where appearance is a terrible way to determine gender? What can we do as a community to ensure we are all treated with respect while navigating the reality of cissupremacy? I think an important step is to drop “passing” from our collective vocabulary.