There’s no way I can unpack passing in one tiny blog post. The topic is too complex and far-reaching, and I’m not transgender. Though I can speak to the issue as I see it and as it’s been described to me and though I can do everything to be an ally, the politics of passing is not something I can speak to directly.

As such, I acknowledge my colonizer status right off, but I also want to engage the opportunity for discussion.

Since I was too young to even know what I was doing, I have been an ally to transgender folks. I’m willing to bet that I wasn’t always perfect (no one is), but I’ve always been on team All Humans.

When I was in graduate school, I worked at UT’s Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) — like a women’s resource center and an LGBTQ center all rolled into one. This joint center wasn’t because UT was a rousing space for edgy politics, mind you. It was because that’s all the budget allowed for.

Anyway, I worked at this center from 2005 – 2008. In those days, our world wasn’t nearly as trans-inclusive as it is now. (And you may be wondering “‘…as it is now’?” I know.) We did programming to support the very small number of out and not-out trans students and community members we could reach, and one woman emerged as a real leader.

Marie* was from a state far more progressive than Texas and was then in her mid-20s. I think these demographics helped her to be relatively visible as an activist on campus as compared to many of her women and men trans undergraduate peers. She was also, to put it so crassly, hot as hell. And her partner of several years, a cisgender man, was also hot as hell. These factors (and more) allowed Marie to “pass” as a cisgender woman in a heterosexual relationship, complete with a lot of pretty privilege, almost seamlessly.

But she was conflicted about what she described as “my T” – her transgender visibility.

I heard her speak about it many times, at many GSC events. Marie expressed having a lot of emotions about being who she was, which including being able to “pass” easily, but also required a certain struggle to remain visible as a trans person.

I found these tensions fascinating and heartbreaking and inspiring. As the years passed, I met many trans women in the community who actively rejected the idea of passing, thus Marie pissed them off. I met others who desperately wished to pass and/or embody the conventional markers that Marie had, thus she pissed them off too. It was complex and difficult, yet Marie always seemed to handle it with grace.

I thought about Marie for a long while recently when I came across an op-ed in The Advocate by Aiden James Kosciesza: “I’m a Trans Man Who Doesn’t ‘Pass’ — And You Shouldn’t Either” (5/20/15). Here’s a bit of text:

The term “passing,” when applied to transgender people, means being perceived as cisgender while presenting as one’s authentic gender identity. There’s a lot of power in that. When people meet me and assume that I am a cisgender man, I am afforded the privilege of choosing whether I disclose my transgender identity, and when. Many trans* folks pursue this power through clothing choices, hormones, surgery, voice training, or even etiquette lessons, and I’m all for that…

To look at trans* people expressing their authentic selves and say that they “pass” for men or women is to diminish their identity by implying that it’s an act. Telling a trans* woman that she “passes” is like saying “You’re not a real woman, but good job faking it.”

If that sounds like a slap in the face, well — it is. Yet both transgender people and their allies continue to use this term, despite prominent advocates like Janet Mock speaking out against it. Even articles that call out the term for being controversial and negative will turn around and use it throughout. The problem is that despite the terrible word we use for it, the concept of “passing” is very real, and creates a hierarchy of privilege that can’t be ignored. (here)

After a lengthy discussion, Aiden concludes with “Transgender people, please: Stop ‘passing.’ Leave the outdated, insulting, and dangerous terminology behind, and let the world recognize your authentic, courageous lives.”

I found Aiden’s thoughts really compelling and spot on — engaging exactly the politics of passing I remember Marie mulling over so frequently, nearly ten years ago. But I wonder about the measure of privilege Aiden posses such that he is able to make his decree. Because even though it’s abhorrent, we live in a world that’s situated around endless hierarchies. I can remember meeting women and men from small Texas towns who absolutely did not “pass” and can’t help but wonder how these sorts of calls-to-action might play out in there lives. Is there danger? Probably. So though the message of identity ownership is very very powerful, I wonder how quote/unquote “real world” folks with more average and/or marginalized circumstances might make good on Aiden’s advice (or Janet Mock’s).

The fact that these issues continue to be conversation pieces in 2015 is shameful. The politics of passing however seems no less complex today than when I used to listen to Marie speak about it. One major difference though is the increased visibility of the conversation — at least that’s a step in the right direction!


(pictured: Aiden James Kosciesza via The Advoacte)

*Marie is a pseudonym. 

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Got a sociology question? Need some social justice informed life advice? Contact Dr. Chauntelle right here.

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