On the Importance of Passing
This topic comes up frequently, and discussion can get rather heated. The following pieces contain much of my philosophy on passing, and where it fits in the scheme of things.
K., can you provide some details about that, rather than just a straight-out condemnation?
It worked for me. I've written about how I approached transition at work. Here's some follow-up to it: I transitioned as a contractor. At the end of that year, my contract was renewed, and six months later (one year after transition) I was offered a permanent, full-time position here. The manager who made that job offer knew me before transition, so she was entirely aware of my history. In the past week, I took an additional job assignment which means that I represent my workgroup to others throughout the company on software build/integration issues (for telephone switching software, that's a huge area). This is the same workgroup that I hired into as a male.
In short, the people I work with don't have a problem with it. I don't have a problem with it. So what's the problem? BTW, I'm not a perfect passer.
Putting such complete and total emphasis on passing is kind of a hot-button for me.
First, how many of us pass that well? Be honest, and remember that you don't always know when you've been read.
Second, who has the right to make decisions like that for any of us? Transition is an individual choice, and it's up to each of us to decide what risks we're willing to take, and why. If it had been up to my therapist to decide whether I could transition based on no other criteria than whether I passed, I wouldn't be here. It would have been a mistake in many ways, because I pass well enough now that she has formally "eaten crow" about my ability to pass.
Third, what are you telling people who don't pass? Is the message "give up, give in, be miserable for the rest of your life?"
Fourth, what does it take to become passable? As far as I'm concerned, it takes time living as a woman. For many of us, it also means hormones for an extended period before transition, and starting hormones without intent to transition has its own risks. It takes months (if not forever) to get your voice right, and that generally means months of day-in, day-out, nothing-but feminine voice in a feminine mode. It means being out enough that you become completely unselfconscious about being out, because your own insecurity about passing can be enough to give you away. So when is the "deadline" on deciding whether you pass well enough to transition, when transition itself may be a prerequisite to passing well?
Finally, what do you mean by passing? Being able to pass at the mall has no relationship to passing on the job, where people are going to see you day after day. They're going to hear your voice and speech patterns, every day. They're going to see you on electrolysis day, when you may not be able to cover all your facial hair. Sooner or later, they're going to see your adams apple, the size of your hands, the width of your shoulders, all the male cues that are really hard to hide or change. And once they get any cue that something is unusual, they're going to watch you closely.
This isn't trans-activism speaking, it's real-life experience. I transitioned on the job, and it was up to me to make it work. I've watched others transition--not just online and through support groups, but actually seeing the problems they faced. That includes watching another TS, very passable, slender, and with good voice control, try the transition-with-new-job approach, and who ended up working in the same building with me.
This is what happened to her: About two months after starting this job, her manager pulled her out of a class, sat her down with human resources, and told her that she couldn't use the restrooms any more. The company eventually did all the right things, but I will tell you this: She wasn't ready to deal with it, and it was a huge emotional blow. She just about quit her job over it. (And you can't do that too many times; most professional specialties work like small towns, and secrets don't stay secret for long.)
I'll say this again: She passed well. But the workplace isn't the mall. I know a lot of people read her. They told me about it. They told me how they read her, and when and where. I heard people talking about it in the halls. But it only took one person who had a bad reaction to bring it all down on her.
Here's another story about a local TS: She not only changed jobs, she moved to a new state and joined a start-up firm that was mostly trans people. Within a week, a client outed her to her manager.
Both of these stories ended well, but that's because they stood firm in an environment where their identity was known.
This is real life, people. I'll take a position very different from K.: If you aren't ready to deal with being read, you aren't ready to transition. Because sooner or later, it will happen. It may be handled politely, or indifferently, or aggressively, but sooner or later it's going to confront you in a way that you can't ignore.
The best advice I've ever heard on passing came from Melanie Phillips: Every time you step out the door, expect to get read. Accept that you're going to get read. Then forget about it. That was hard for me to swallow when I first heard it, and it took months to reach that point, but it works. (BTW, Melanie passes, and passes well. See her voice training video and decide for yourself.)
I strongly agree with S. When passing becomes a need, when passing is driven by a desire to cover up your identity or to bury your past, people will figure out that you are hiding something. Even if they never figure out what it is that you're hiding, the mere fact that you are hiding something can cause problems.
You have to get dressed every morning; that's also something which must be "done." Whatever you do to pass, it's something that you do.
Whatever you do, you have some way of occupying space. Men and women occupy space in different ways, and it's something that people pick up on as quickly as anything else about your appearance. It can get you read. And it's something you do whether you're doing it in a male or female manner.
Voice is one of the quickest and surest ways of giving yourself away. How you speak, in male or female pitch or ressonance, is something you do.
You do something in every interaction with another human being. Men and women do some things in different ways.
I could turn the whole passability argument around on you: If you deny the importance of thinking, feeling, behaving, and doing as a woman, is it because you don't do these things well?
And if I hadn't asked you for that opinion, I might tell you to go fuck yourself. Unrequested "honesty" about other people's issues, especially their faults, especially on sensitive issues, is something that a lot of people will perceive as malicious.
Very few people are so filled with self-deception that they're not aware of how well their appearance works, or doesn't work. Those that are deceiving themselves in this way aren't going to hear you. So what's the point of telling someone? I can't think of a good reason.
G., I really have to wonder why you keep pushing this. There are genetic women who are built like linebackers. There are ways to dress that disguise a lot of physical flaws, regardless of how you were born. For most large people, this is something that doesn't have to be an issue.
And there are people who do both. Have you ever taken a look at Kate Bornstein's pictures? Do not ever assume that because someone is open about being transsexual that they must not be able to pass.
I suspect you're also reading something that's not here. I'm extremely open about trans issues in places where it's appropriate, or where it's important to me (which may be for a variety of reasons, not necessarily related to passing). The rest of the time--no, I don't wear that identity.
Why would I be out anywhere but inside the trans community? It varies. I've outed myself in comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html. Why there, of all places? Because it was a discussion of color vision and color blindness issues. I happen to be partially colorblind, which is a fairly rare condition in genetic women. If I'm going to talk about first-hand experience with colorblindness, part of my credibility rests on how I got that experience.
I'm always out in recovery communities of any kind, for two reasons. First, I'm sensitive enough to other people's issues that I know people there may be more likely to be uncomfortable about it, and I'd rather clear that in the beginning (or withdraw, if that is the appropriate thing to do) than have it come up as a surprise later on. (And given that I'm out on the web, and active in recovery and depression issues there, it will come out.) But there's another reason, too; sharing recovery stories is one way that we support each other. There are a lot of parallels between recovering from abuse and coming to terms with being transsexual. This is particularly true when it comes to finding the courage to face your issues and do the things that are necessary to reclaim your life. My story is relevant there.
I provide training for the local gay and lesbian helpline, and other glbt groups, on trans issues. They get a lot of the calls from people who are in need, and can't find our (nearly invisible) local community. This is outing myself, too, and I don't have to do it.
None of these situations have anything to do with passability.
And maybe you haven't yet had the experience of having to out yourself. Like the time I went in to the company medical office, because I needed their sign-off to get an orthopedic chair for my office. They looked for my records, didn't find them, and asked me if I'd changed my name. Well, yes, I have changed my name since I started working here. (And the question alone implies that they perceived me as a woman, thank you very much.)
Another situation occurs with people who knew you before transition. If you want to be a woman in their minds, it will take more than appearance. You'll have to act like a woman; otherwise, they already know that you're a man in a dress.
What any of us would rather have been doesn't really matter a whole lot. Yeah, I'd rather have been born female. I'd rather not have been abused as a child. I'd rather not have been laid off from my job a couple of years ago. Shit happens, and it happens to everyone. How you deal with it is what matters.
Same thing with getting read. I'd rather be perceived as a woman, and I usually am, but occasionally I'm not. What happens then? Nothing, because I'm still a woman.
Consider the reverse, which is what I've been arguing about all along. It doesn't matter how good you look if your attitude or behavior don't fit the part. A fashion model who speaks baritone or who engages in blatantly male behavior is a man in a dress, and will be perceived that way no matter how (?) looks.
Ya know what? I get tons more hassle about passability inside the gender community than I ever do anywhere else in my life. It does make me wonder why I stay around--and at times I do get fed up (with this and other issues, like surgery) and leave for a while.
And I get hassled about passability because of what I say about it. Virtually no one here has seen me in real life, and my web picture certainly isn't typical of me in day-to-day life--it's the only time I've worn a tux since I transitioned.
You don't do anything? Voice? Act like a woman? Communicate like a woman? If you think those are things that have to be done after you've been read, then you're still missing a few clues about what it means to be a woman. It's not all surfaces and appearances. There are fundamental differences between men and women that go all the way down to the core of our beings.
More than that, can you do those things without even being aware of it? There's life after transition, you know, and if you're still worrying about passability then you haven't gotten past transition yet.
It happens occasionally, because I tend to dress pretty androgynously. And it happens to genetic women who look and dress that way, too. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you'll see it. I get read occasionally when I'm out with Carol, too; if we go to a restaurant, a place where couples go, our size difference works against me, and sometimes that's enough even if I'm passable otherwise.
It's seldom enough with me that I don't waste energy on it, either. There's another reason I don't waste energy on it: even when it happens, it's not worth wasting energy on.
I do all those things because I'm me. I don't do it to "get acceptance." And as I said, I only get read occasionally--not just from a "sir" count, but from the number of stares I get. (Not just my count; Carol watches, too. She's more aware of things like that than I am.)
Yes, I'm going to keep "being" because it's who I am, and what they think about me doesn't change that. I don't "do" anything to change their minds because I don't need their acceptance, and I'm usually there for some reason other than getting their acceptance. When it happens, I just go about my business and let it roll off.
"The manner in which you've carried yourself" can apply to behavior just as much as appearance. And if you've been read, no matter how they figure it out--appearance or behavior--they don't forget. From that point on, the acceptance you get is what you earn as a human being.
Because some of us deal with emotional issues, while others put all emphasis on the physical side. (I don't know about you, but I've noticed that most women put a lot more emphasis on emotional issues than men do. It is part of passing.) And I don't particularly think this issue splits down the passability line. Consider this: People who transition and live a good life without passing well are proof that it's possible. People who pass well are NOT proof that passing well is essential. But people who pass well are certainly capable of recognizing that there is more to being a woman than looking like one; many actually do recognize that.
BTW, if you're judging from my picture on my web page, keep in mind that that picture is a full-reverse gender-fuck. It was a "Roaring Twenties" party open to public tour, and my intent was to split the gender line right down the middle, so people couldn't tell whether I was a cross-dressing man or a cross-dressing woman. It worked, and I had fun with it, but I don't do that every day.
Finally, I might add that as trans people, we're not necessarily the best judges of passability. We know all the cues to look for, we're likely to be more critical, and it certainly isn't a fair assessment of passability when you know the answer is "trans" ahead of time. And there's the joke that goes around sometimes: How do you identify the transsexual in a room full of genetic women? She's the one who's perfect--perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect nails, perfect clothes....
Here's a key difference, G. I accept myself as a woman. I don't depend on other people accepting me in order to provide that self-acceptance.
I accept myself as a transsexual. It's part of my history, and to pretend that it's not would be a lie.
I also accept that there is no contradiction between being a transsexual and being a woman.
As far as how other people respond to me, all I ask is that they accept ME. I'm not "a woman"; I'm not "a transsexual." I am many things, and each of those is only a piece of who I am.
There are times when the physical side of passability is more important than others--restrooms, and dressing rooms in department stores, for instance. But even then, the mental aspect is part of the deal; if you're afraid of not passing, that will get you read. If you act like a man, that will get you read. If you're even too self-aware, THAT can get you read. Blending in, not calling attention to yourself, is a key part of passing.
Women ride motorcycles; that's not a problem. The issue is that men relate to people hierarchically, while women network as peers. When I hear t-people arranging each other hierarchically according to passability, I read that as hierarchical behavior--MALE BEHAVIOR. And damn it, I do get tired of having men around.
Yes, there are limits, but with good training and a lot of practice it's amazing how much one can achieve. I highly recommend Melanie Phillips' voice training tape, which is both good instruction and an amazing example of just how good a voice can be achieved. Granted, she was a tenor before transition, while some of us (me) were second bass, but the real secrets of her technique are mostly independent of pitch. There's also a transcript of her tape on her web site, but the tape is invaluable. (It is video, and I don't know if the European standard--PAL, I think--is available.)
I can't yet do it consistently, but it is nice to make the journey from second bass to getting a "ma'am" on the phone without giving my name first.
And don't offer what hasn't been requested.
And there's also the lawyer's variation of your favorite proverb: Don't ask a question unless you already know the answer.
When I did my coming-out service at church, this was part of the introduction that a friend gave for me:
This person first knew me as a straight male. Also, this service was pre-transition.
What was the "whole" of her perception of me? I have no idea. But this is what she said publicly about me, and I certainly did appreciate it.
I certainly agree with this, with the provision that passability is very much subjective and in the eye of the beholder. Physical passability is important but not sufficient, especially for long-term relationships.
Don't underestimate the importance of maintaining that internal vision. Being well-centered and well-grounded in one's identity is one of those things that comes out in the intangible "attitude." And it is different from before transition, because it is (hopefully) supported by validating experiences in real life.
To the best of my knowledge, there's life after just about everything except death. Life goes on, even when we want it to hold still for a bit while we get our bearings.
Yes and no. I long ago stopped expecting anyone to understand why I did this, or what it means to me, or what it felt like either hiding behind the male mask or breaking through it. There are some forms of acceptance and validation that we can only get from each other, because we are the ones who have been through this experience.
I've gotten all sorts of things from other people, so often based on their own issues. It ranges from them wanting to pick their own variant of my name for use with me ("Di," or "Beth," from my middle name). "Is it OK if I still want to talk to Tom sometimes?"
I've been accepting of these things, especially with people who knew me as a male, because full acceptance takes time. When we're out to someone, no matter how it happens, we go from being a person to being an issue that they don't understand, and the only way to get back to being a person in their eyes is to be the person that we want them to see.
If I may ramble for a bit, I'd like to tell you about my best friend. She is a very special person in my life. She pulled me back from the edge of suicide twice when I was going through my last divorce. We've worked together, published together (many times, mostly internal to IBM, but not all), travelled together, worked out together at the gym, and shared most of our deeply personal wounds. All of this occurred while I was still living as male; I was not out to her, and I know that her perception of me as a male was strongly entrenched. I love her, and I know that this feeling is returned. (I also know that it would be a disaster for both of us if we had acted on that love. It's been a tough balancing act at times.) And Carol knows all of this; none of this is secret.
I ended up coming out to her twice; the first time I came out as a cross-dresser, because I hadn't yet accepted myself as transsexual. The first time, some clues were showing up, and because of things she'd said, I thought she'd already figured me out. I'd pierced my ears, and started letting my hair grow. We'd been out shopping for earrings, and ended up fighting over who would buy a particular pair. Afterwards, she wanted to know what was up. So I told her.
She hadn't figured me out; it was a complete surprise to her. And it was the start of a difficult period in our friendship, although the friendship never weakened. For those who know about Myers-Briggs personality types, she's a "J": a person who likes closure, who needs for decisions to get made and to stay closed once made. She likes categories. Suddenly one of the most important people in her life didn't fit any more. Earlier in our friendship, the subject of marriage came up occasionally (in the context of "if we'd met ten years ago, we would have...", since she's been married throughout the time of our friendship); in a much later conversation, this came up again, and she said that she would have been crushed by my revelations if they had come after a marriage.
There were lighter moments as well. The day after I pierced my ears a second time, we were working together on a lab session for her dissertation. After we got things set up, she noticed the second set of studs in my ears. She walked around me slowly, just looking, and finally she said, "What is this, a contest?" (Her ears are also double-pierced.) I shrugged and said, "I'm just not the man I used to be." I think it's the only time I've ever left her speechless.
When I came out to her a second time, as a transsexual, she had a much harder time with it. Not to put too fine a point on it, she couldn't accept it. As I've said, I was purely male in her mind. She's also very feminine, one of the best dressers I've ever known, and has strong ideas about what it means to be a woman--and to be a lady.
For over a year, our conversations on this were generally stormy. The worst was when I told her I wanted to start hormones. She was adamant about this being wrong for me, and it was a hard two weeks for me to work through her objections in my own mind. One center of her argument was that I couldn't make transition work. Given my own uncertainty at the time, this was extremely difficult for me to cope with, especially since I was still grappling with other hard questions at the time, including the question of surgery.
Although it took over a year to get there, I finally found the key to getting her acceptance of me as a transsexual. The key was coming to terms in myself with accepting my male past, that I would never be "completely female" physically, emotionally, or behaviorally. At the same time, I found this self-acceptance to be librating, because it placed me "between male and female" with the freedom to pick the balance that I could live with. I was rather surprised when she said that this was something that she could accept. I know that this acceptance was real, because--after more than a year of heavy discussion--it was only minutes later that she asked her first casual question about my transition: "Why did you pick the name Diane?"
It was by no means the end of my struggle for acceptance with her. Because of her high standards of femininity, as well as her perceptions of me, she didn't think that I could ever pass. By this time the changes from hormones were quite visible in my face; I was out fairly often, and passing the "toddler test" (you know you're passing when toddlers ignore you). I could tell her this and other things; she could see the changes; but until she experienced me passing, it wasn't real to her. Beyond all of that, she only wanted to see me transition once with her; there would be no going back and forth. (In the end, that did happen once, only to the extent of her seeing me in jeans, a blouse, and makeup.)
The low point of this phase actually happened when she finally agreed to go shopping with me--specifically, to go shopping with Diane. She agreed on the condition that in the first store, we would go in separately, so she could stay back at a distance and watch people's reactions to me. Yes, I agreed to this; I was confident enough about not attracting stares, and getting her acceptance was worth this to me. In the end, it never came to this; when we did go shopping the first time, we walked in together. There were no incidents, and she's never had reservations about going out with me since then.
The next phase occurred right after transition, when I went back to IBM (where I no longer worked) to have lunch with her. Her first sight of me in a skirt was in the visitors lobby at IBM, and she really gave me the once-over. But it was the aftermath that provided another sea-change in our relationship. Quite a few people that I used to work with saw me in the cafeteria, and that afternoon she spent much of her time telling those people what was going on in my life. There were repeats of this day, and beyond that, she shared an office with a close mutual friend who was, and remains, totally unable to accept my transition. (He is the only lost friend that I am certain about.) The thing that provided a framework for her change at this stage was learning that she could use my transition to assess how secure other people were with their own identity. She found this to be rather entertaining. Her own journey from adversary to doubter to acceptance and understanding was nearly complete--just over two years after I first came out to her.
Her acceptance has continued to grow, and has included buying clothes and other feminine items for me as gifts, as well as shopping together on many occasions, and helping me with clothing selection. There has never been another question about my decision to transition, or about my identity, or anything else. What we do share is the casual chatter of close friends.
Another small marker occurred this past weekend. She was to attend a black-tie cocktail party. Although she didn't say so, I gathered that this one was particularly important in relation to her husband's career, the kind of politics and old money gathering where a beautiful and sophisticated wife is an important accessory. (Yeah, I know. So does she.) She wanted to look good for this, and one possibility she was considering was a strapless, skintight black suede dress. She is slight of build, and needed a strapless bra to have "enough" to hold the dress up; she asked me to go bra shopping with her, "for moral support." She might have done this when I was still male, but I don't think she would have been looking to me for "moral support." We spent a fair amount of time talking about dressing for these events, and looking at her various choices (both from her closet and things from catalogs that she wanted to have available for the future). A lot of the talk was pure girl-talk, about the different ways that each dress would cover and reveal, and about how much women's clothes for these events were designed around being revealing, how much many of these dresses tend to look like negligees. I passed on to her Carol's suggestion that she wear a t-shirt under her strapless dress so that it wouldn't matter if it slipped. She enjoyed this immensely. It was the kind of talk that left core issues shared but unspoken, such as her reluctance to show that much of her skin or figure, a concern that I could now share because of my own life and experience. It was the kind of talk that a male would not and could not understand or participate in, because he would not have the insights, the shared experience, the shared views.
This has been a journey of three and a half years. In terms of acceptance, as Diane, as a woman, I think I'm there with her. It has been hard, but it has also been worth every bit of patience and agony that I've put into it.
When I talk about earning acceptance, this is what I mean--staying with it, being myself, and letting time and shared experience work in my favor.
Copyright © 1996, 2001 by Diane Wilson. All rights reserved.