I remember the first time I went to a bar, when I was 17 and the drinking age was 19. It was a big production. I dressed, made myself up and styled my hair differently. I was aware of how I spoke and what I said, how I laughed, how I moved and walked and what gestures I made, how I stood and sat, what I ordered and how I paid. I did get served, but didn’t enjoy my drink. I was constantly scanning the room trying to tell if I passed as older. Were people smirking at me? Would I get thrown out? Was I doing anything that would give myself away?
This feeling of dread at being caught is the closest I can imagine to what a transgender person must feel when they go public with their new identity. In the trans world, passing means being treated as a gender that’s not the same as your biological sex. At our house this is something we’ve discussed many times, both with respect to our transgender child, and simply out of general interest.
I’ve already written about how I was raised, as someone with female biology being raised as a cultural female, i.e. in the usual way. As it happened I didn’t have a big disconnect there, but have a growing empathy for those who do.
There are all sorts of ways that people begin passing as another gender. Without citing sources, things that come to mind are:
For Those with Male Biology
- Wearing make-up, scents, jewellery and accessories associated more with women
- Dealing with facial hair, whether bushy eyebrows or a five o’clock shadow
- Wearing clothes that are ascribed to women, such as skirts and dresses, tops instead of shirts, pantyhose or tights, high heels or ballet flats
- Wearing fabrics, cuts and colours that women more often wear
- Wearing female undergarments and breast forms
- Using shapewear to look curvier
- Minimizing and/or disguising the male crotch area
- Growing hair long or wearing a wig that is female-identified
- Speaking in a softer, more modulated voice
- Allowing oneself to be the recipient of courtesies and compliments
- Learning how to respond to male attention as a female, including flirting behaviours like twirling your hair or giggling
- Learning culturally-accepted ways of doing things like sitting and walking
Or this very same passing list could be used by a male-identified person of the male sex who just happens to cross-dress or do drag performances.
For Those with Female Biology:
- Ceasing to wear and use things associated with women, such as skirts, dresses, tights, heels, make-up or handbags
- Moving away from decorative and fragile clothing and accessories to more robust ones
- Getting in the mood to go out by shaving and using men’s cologne (regardless of facial hair status)
- Adding in fabrics, cuts and colours more associated with men
- Adding particular items that were intended for men, such as vests, ties, cuff links, or wing tip shoes
- Buying men’s clothing and footwear, which are made to fit “typical” male-shaped bodies (e.g. waist to hip ratio)
- Binding the chest (with double sports bras or compression shirts)
- Packing (giving the appearance of having male genitals in one’s pants)
- Getting a “man’s haircut”– maybe at a barber shop
- Speaking in a deeper, perhaps more authoritative voice
- Acting more culturally male by initiating interactions with women, showing courtesies and giving compliments, asking someone out on a date and “showing them a good time” (i.e. orchestrating the evening towards an intended effect)
- Acting more culturally male by competing and games of one-upmanship, such as guys’ horseplay
- Learning culturally accepted ways of doing things like sitting and walking
This one is even more complicated because while someone following these rules could be a drag king performer, they could do many of these things and still be female identified butch. And women seem to have more leeway for simply looking androgynous.
Not one of these things would brand you as a man OR a woman, nor would they mark you as queer or gay or anything else. But taken as a group, a male-to-female trans person might be more likely to pass as female if they do more of the things on the first list, and a female-to-male trans person might be more likely to pass as male if they do more of the things on the second list. Depending on who is viewing them, and what their hang-ups are!
You could very well be saying, “Hold on, I do some of those things and I’m not MTF or FTM!”
And that’s exactly why I’m writing this post. Gender expression is not a set of instructions. Yes, there are societal norms. And certain MTFs and FTMs want to follow the rules and experience success by stepping into one role and leaving the other behind. Some will go on to hormones and/or surgery. Others will always have or enjoy the state of being in-between.
If it’s hard to pass as 19 when you’re 17, how much harder must it be to pass as man when your birth sex was female and you’re 5’2” and busty? How much harder must it be to embrace being in between and wear two matching dangly earrings and carry a purse while you use male pronouns?
Just like becoming a manager after being an employee, you Fake It Until You Make It. Just like buying your first house and feeling like you’re a pretend adult, yes, you eventually become one. Showing a new gender, like any transition in life, takes practice and luck and genetics and sometimes modern medicine. But most especially courage. Right now I am thinking about the trans people in my life and admiring the bravery they display every day along with their new clothes and voices and silhouettes.
If you are cisgender, has anything happened to help you understand what trans people must experience?