Passing

Dakota Fanning, 19 years old

Dakota Fanning, 19 years old

Harry Styles, 19 years old

Harry Styles, 19 years old

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

A new woman

A new woman (Photo set widely published, original source unknown)

  • 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:

Donnie Collins (Photo: takepart.com)

Donnie Collins (Photo: takepart.com)

  • 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?

26 comments

  1. A very sensitively written post, it must be really difficult, I can’t imagine just how hard it would be. I do remember years ago having dinner next to a couple of transgender, transsexual persons(not sure which is the correct word), who were beautifully dressed and made up and wondering which bathroom they would use. They used the ladies of course. I was also admiring though of the long fake nails that they wore with pantihose. Being a short nailed person, I wondered how on earth you would put them on without tearing holes in them!

    • Yeah, when someone has that hyper-feminine look, it requires far more care than your average, everyday woman’s look. In one article I read, it was referred to as “the Cinderella phase”! I suppose if I dressed that way, I would also feel like I was trying to pass as something I am not!

  2. I really appreciate this post. I think it’s hard too to try not to give labels when we see a male or female in attire or whatever that we stereotype as for the opposite gender. My oldest LOVES pink. Love, love, LOVES pink. We have always encouraged him to wear whatever he wants. In preschool, that was pink, sparkly sneakers from the “girls” section along with a few baby pink t shirts (one from the girls section with a heart shaped pocket). In preschool, it was no big deal. Once he got to kindergarten, it’s been a MASSIVE deal. He wore his pink slip-on Vans (very gender neutral style of shoe) and came home in tears over classmates calling him a girl. My parents had some issue with it when he was younger just out of concern of him getting made fun of/being an early outsider. It still breaks my heart when I see his eyes light up over pink things or jewelry or “girly” toys, but then see the reality and fear set in, and he passes on what he truly loves. I’m not sure how to remedy this other than educating other parents, so they can educate their children. We’ve already read so many books about boys who like to wear dresses or girls are more “boyish”, but it doesn’t help the taunters. Currently, we’re looking into a very hippie-ish charter school that has more students like my son. It’s hard to know when to go into a little bubble to protect your child or try and build up the resiliency.

    • Oh Megyn, I feel for you and for your son. I think it is so much harder for boys (and their parents) to resist the macho culture. I have written a few posts about being more gender neutral with children, but my parenting experience was different – Link’s resistance to their birth gender didn’t come to the fore until about age 12. I am sure the two of you will find ways that feel affirming, and do what you can while staying safe. If I could go back in time, I would have done more things like changing schools.

  3. Your posts on your experiences have actually helped me understand what transgender people may feel as there has been no disconnect for me between my biology and how I was raised. And it’s the same for my immediate family. So it is an issue that I haven’t had much direct experience of.

    • Thanks, Lucinda. Before I knew anything about gender variance, I would sometimes see a person who appeared to be trying to “pass,” with varying degrees of success. I would find myself thinking things like, “He’s wearing too much makeup.” Now I feel more compassion. And use the right gender words more of the time.

  4. EcoCatLady

    I knew a transgender woman at the music school where I used to work. My impression was that she had recently come out – is that the right terminology? Anyhow, she had recently relocated from another state with her partner (female)… The difficulties of it all seemed overwhelming to me, especially if you were trying to transition as an adult like she was.

    I mean… she was a CPA – but how do you get a job when everyone you’ve ever worked with knows you as a man? One would hope she had a few close colleagues who would give her a reference under her new female name, but what if someone just called the human resources department to verify past employment? I was so impressed with her knowledge that I recruited her for our board of directors – but I imagine the scrutiny would be a bit more stringent if you were applying for a job with an accounting firm.

    And what about her partner? I mean that’s no easy situation to be in either. One day you’re a straight woman in a relationship with a man, and the next you’re a lesbian – even though you’re not… Oy vay!

    But… the thing I was thinking about was that she was a fantastic fingerstyle blues guitar player, only she would never sing. I often wondered if this was just because she didn’t sing, or because of the transgender thing. I mean, altering your speaking voice is one thing, but trying to alter your singing voice is another thing altogether!

    Anyhow, that was about 10-12 years ago, so I just Googled her and found a more recent photo. I’m so happy to see that she’s passing much more easily these days than she did back then. Not sure if she’s done things like hormones and electrolysis or if she’s just more comfortable with it all, but it makes me happy to see her looking like she feels comfortable in her own skin.

    • I like your story, Cat, and especially that you spent time thinking what her life must have been like and what challenges she may have faced. I am always pleased by how many trans people’s partners stay with them after they transition – they certainly must have their stories, too!

  5. I haven’t had any direct experiences that might help me understand how transgender people may feel, but I keep thinking about it frequently because of your posts. Most recently, it’s been in relation to gender & schooling.

    The school I have just started working at has the unusual arrangement that the boys are taught separately in ‘all boy’ classrooms, and girls are taught separately in ‘all girl’ classrooms. Boys and girls are free to socialise together at lunchtime.

    It would be horrible to think that there are children potentially experiencing a massive disconnect in these gendered classrooms. On the other hand, some children clearly do find it affirming.

    I’m not sure what to think of this so far. I’m trying to look at “gender” more as a spectrum, rather than an absolute. In that sense, the all-boy classes or the all-girl classes are still going to have a wide range of gender-related preferences, so I’m trying hard not to stereotype my behaviour or the types of activities offered.

    • Oh my! I bet there are kids who are feeling a disconnect and who would rather be with the other group, or don’t feel they belong in either. There are two positives I can think of: presumably, parents are choosing your school knowing about its instructional style, and YOU are on staff and may have the opportunity to educate the other staff when (or before) a conflict arises. I agree with you in that any two boys or any two girls could have more differences between them (in terms of learning style) than a boy and a girl. Maybe if parents are choosing this schooling for their children, they believe their child will benefit either from being in a single-sex classroom because their child fits gender norms or because they’re extra-worried that their child SHOULD fit gender norms. At least you can be mindful of the situation and not force different learning styles on the loud, active girl or the delicate boy, and have the chance to speak up if there is nasty peer behaviour.

  6. The natural....at research.

    Hi,
    Being a researcher, all of my experiences are with the one person in my life who is transgendered, are most importantly done, with no emotions. (That way I do not put my personal ideas, prejudices, habits, or any aspect into the information I am collecting.)
    However, while studying this, I am that transgendered person, who I have studied the most, even in religious areas of endeavor.
    What I have found, correlates (agrees totally), with what every other proven researcher has found to be provably true.
    (Objectively, has the data to prove whether or not they are correct, shared the data, and shared the methodology, plus have submitted the work to others, who have since checked it for errors and found……..none!)
    I have found that the condition, transgender, is resistant to all forms of long term change. I have also found that the stress and the difficulty is disabling sometimes. All of this agrees with the condition being always in a person, like the color of their hair, or the color of their eyes, which change slightly with age, but in not another way, are they not permanent also.
    Also, after the study of me, objectively, I have found the exact same responses to the stimuli, of being the opposite gender on the outside of your self. All of their responses, (once calibrated for accuracy and also for error to see how much is known, mathematically), of all transgendered are essentially the responses of every other transgendered person in the world.
    Thus, if I now put on my emotion, thinking and feeling back on, I can respond to what exists and actually feel.
    It is quite a burden for them, mostly done in silence, out of fear of reactions of others, including governments and institutions.
    I am, and so are all the others, one of the last most universally hated minorities in the world. Yet, and no you are not getting my name, so in somewhat complete secrecy I will give you an idea of how much of a contribution to others and to society in general I have done, or not.
    While putting my mother through her three businesses so she could be allowed to not starve to death, I gave up three careers. In the hardships of life, I now can help soldiers handle their own PTSD. I can also help others with ADD and ADHD, successfully. I have helped many a company solve their problems, then left rather than taking up space and money, but, I was really just bored, after all the problems were solved. I had two shooting trophies, for novices in ROTC. I spent years and years, before I got totally burnt out, working with the homeless, the mentally unstable, seven days a week, all while maintaining a full time job and supporting two other people and a house, which is totally paid off. I at the lowest level and retired, albeit early because my body gave out a mere six months before, I was allowed to officially retire. Okay this can go on a long time. I think you get the ideas. Transgendered people, either hiding because of the illogic of it all, society, their parents, their friends, their religion, or not hiding, are just real people with real contributions, to others also.
    One sad thing for me, is that as much as I am this girl in a male body, no matter what I do in this present age, I like others, cannot be female bodily. At best, except there is one case so far, just one where a heart transplant equivalent, using a uterus of a deceased person, has in fact been put into one transgendered female. If rejection issues could be solved, or if like bladders that are missing in children, if these could be grown in a lab, using the person’s own DNA, then this condition would be ever so much more tolerable, not only for my condition but for every male out there, who, is residing against their own knowledge that it is wrong for them, in a male body.
    Males in female bodies, go through everything that I did.
    So, yes it would be nice, to not have at least society making our lives harder than they actually are right now. It would be.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to tell your story. I think you are saying that being transgender is a biological trait that makes you what you are, the same as every other trait that expresses itself. Despite this, you deal with shame and secrecy while trying to live in an intolerant society. You raised a good point about making a contribution to society. One part of you is about being transgender and getting along in society. Another part of you – the same person – is enriching society through work and helping others. I would be interested to know if you think that hormones and surgery can make a person who was assigned male at birth, to be “female enough.” I wish you well in your retirement and I am glad you share your story with others.

  7. I never heard the term cisgender. I knew the cis / trans stuff from organic chem.

  8. What a shame we still find ourselves having to live our lives by what other people think and expect and feel we have to conform and fit into what society expects or become disconnected. Male, female and everything in between should be fine as we are all human beings. My only experience of feeling that I don’t belong was being a very skinny ginger haired teenager who got teased by everyone so I cannot imagine what it must be like to be transgender.

    • So true. Our culture has become more accepting of differences, and I can only hope we continue on that path. PS – I am completely baffled by the UK “anti-ginger” sentiment – we don’t even use the word ginger as a hair colour in North America.

      • Not many children over here have ginger hair – I was the only one in my school at the time and I was sure made to feel different. I never went a day without being called some name or other. Now I am older I love my hair as
        a) I don’t have to use hair dye to get this colour and
        b) I am not going grey early!

      • The few kids at school with redder shades of hair would get called Carrot Top (they must have meant just carrots!) or people would say they had a fiery temper, but there was no sense of abuse to it as you hear about in the UK.

  9. Emmy

    I want to thank you for writing these posts. I think gender is an important topic to discuss and whenever I read one of your posts on the subject I can’t help but think how blessed Link is to have such a loving parent. I truly wish more parents were like you.

    • Thanks, Emmy. Besides it being a topic near and dear to our family, I can see that for lots of people it is just an unknown, and they don’t really know what to say or what words to use around a trans person. I think that starting the conversation online is a good way to develop some comfort around gender differences.

  10. Dar first I loved your story of trying to pass for older. I did the opposite I just acted like I belonged and walked right in, cocky-like, it worked.

    As for a transgender person I can’t imagine how hard it is to get by without having to anticipate a derogatory comment being made or worrying no one noticed at work. Having been born with a disability and trying to fit in was hard enough.

    I love your posts on this issue. Let’s hope soon people can be accepted for who they are unconditionally.

    • Thanks, Lois. I know for a lot of trans people, it’s not just the fear of discovery that causes anxiety – it is constantly being worn down by being called the wrong gender (such as being called Ma’am when you work in a store, and you have worked hard to pass as male), or people who knew you from before insisting on using your birth name despite your wishes.

  11. You’ve done some great posts (including this one) on this topic. I am totally waiting for you to write a book on this subject!

    • Thanks, April. I am still a n00b on this subject but I’m always trying to learn. I will leave it to Link to write a book and I will just contribute a parent chapter 🙂

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