Do I even care about passing?

Posted 2024-03-23 #personal

"On Being Trans and the Importance of Passing" by @ninecoffees has been swirling around my head since I read it earlier this week. It's a brutal interview piece that touches on transphobia, violence, and mental health. The article's central question launched a self-interrogation in my head that took me a long time to find an answer for; I would write something down, and the next morning it would sound to me like it was written by someone else. This post is my attempt to find my own voice — to speak for myself and actually believe what comes out.

The road to passing is an incredibly long journey, fraught with bueaucracy, unexpected costs, and significant personal risks. I have friends who have gone through this process; I have friends who swear they'll never touch it. Facial feminization surgery has been the best thing that's ever happened to one of them; another considers taking voice training to be an act of class traitorship. It brings me no joy to pick a side — even if only for my personal journey — but I know that I ought to decide, rather than letting inaction choose on my behalf.

One thing I knew for certain before this self-interrogation: I absolutely do care about how I'm perceived by others. After all, I won't get to write my own eulogy; I want my legacy to be aligned with my self-image, and it follows that I would carry the same desire for my living, perceived identity. I know myself better than anyone else ever will, but I'm still just one person, outnumbered by people with a pinhole window into my existence.

As I've written before, my gender identity doesn't fit neatly into a binary category, or even really a (named) nonbinary category. The concept of "passing" as my exact point on the gender spectrum doesn't make sense, so for the sake of this interrogation, I'll assume it means passing as female.

Among the general public, there are 3 ways someone like me can be reliably parsed, two of which I've experienced to date:

  1. I am simply seen as a man. This hurts me; it's the whole reason why I embarked on this journey in the first place. Furthermore, no one is made to think about, or be confronted by, my presence or identity.

    This is my least favorite option; it's also where I've spent most of my adult life.

  2. I am simply seen as a woman (I pass). This is as well-aligned with my self-image as I can ask for, and again, no one has to think twice about who I am or how I present myself.

    I yearn for a life this peaceful; I would very much like to get here one day.

  3. I am seen as transgender (I don't pass). Whether or not this hurts me is largely up to whether the other person is a transphobe; encountering such people is unavoidable without severely socially isolating myself. This is the only option that inherently puts my personal safety at risk.

    But here, the other person is forced to come to terms with my presence as a visibly transgender person; the "trans people you've met" counter in their head increments by one. I'm not under the illusion that every transphobe has some threshold where they'll realize they're fighting a losing battle, but some of them will. Maybe they're a parent who disowned their trans kid, and being reminded adds another drop of remorse to their heart. Maybe they're a coworker who never stopped to consider that us trans folks occupy all walks of life, not just the ones they've seen caricatured on TV.

    Other trans people will see me for who I am, too. Maybe they're old and the sight of a younger trans person fills their heart with joy. Maybe they're young and I'm one of the first trans people they've ever seen in public. Or maybe they're a friend of mine and they just like to see me being myself. Regardless of who outnumbers who, I care so much more about these people; I want to go to bat for them, even if it's scary at times.

    Opting into this way of being perceived carries some significant risks, but it's the most radical thing I can do, and that matters to me.

When I started transitioning, I didn't tell myself it was to become a woman; all I wanted was to like what I saw in the mirror. Willingly moving into the "visibly trans" space is a scary first step, especially without an exit plan. Safety was the biggest motivating factor in wanting to pass for basically all of the interviewees who said passing was important, and I'm surely risk-adverse enough to agree on that. But dysphoria is a constant, waking nightmare; forced to choose between that and a highly stochastic risk of violence, I opted for the latter.

Fear is omnipresent as a trans individual, but it's not the only emotion in my life, or even the dominant one. Being called "she" by friends & community members brings a smile to my face, even if the novelty still makes me do a double-take each time. Living with trans roommates who understand me better than anyone else instills a quiet joy that I can't possibly capture with words. Most importantly, I like what I see in the mirror now. My reflection isn't flawless, but it's no longer the blank, stained canvas it was for the first half of my adult life. I'm proud of how far I've come.

The thought of one day passing feels like the limit to an asymptote; I'll keep approaching it at my own pace, maybe never stopping, but maybe never quite reaching it, either. I've always moved slowly through life, taking years between the individual decisions that shaped my present-day self. Being able to pass would be euphoric, but getting there requires making some really tough decisions.

So, do I even care about passing? Writing all this out gave me the clarity of retrospect, and I now realize my answer has shifted from "no" to "maybe" over the course of HRT. It may very well continue to change as the years pass! Right now, what's more important to me is that I refuse to resign myself to a life of misery at the hands of callous transphobes. Regardless of whether I ever pass, life has so much more to offer me than a eulogy I'll never hear.