Language I Hate, Part 2: The Failure of Passing

More language that makes me all frothy at the mouth!  This ranks as “more irritating than ‘bio-’ as a prefix” but not as rage-inducing as what I’ll cover in the future.  I’m posting in order of least to most offensive, at least until I think of something else to write about and put that in out of order.
This time around – passing!

I rarely like to make blanket statements about the entire diverse trans community, but I feel safe in saying this: we don’t need any help perpetuating the idea that we’re fakes or impostors.  Trans people are constantly fighting against people who call us deceitful or tell us we aren’t really men or women or whatever other wonderful things we are.  Sometimes these people are our friends and family; sometimes they’re members of our government.  This is something we have to face, either directly or indirectly, on a daily basis – it’s not an idea that needs any encouragement, even if it’s unintentional.  In any other use of the word I can think of, to say you pass for/as a member of a certain group means that you are perceived as being a member when you aren’t.  Calling the act of having other people correctly read your gender “passing” reinforces the tired meme of trans deception.

I talked to the folks in the trans masculine spectrum discussion group I go to every week, and a lot of them said they felt weird when talking about passing.  One guy said he only uses it in a context to describe a time when he “fails” to pass; when he’s read as male, he just says that.  “They read me as a man.”  A few folks, myself included, said that when they used it they felt like they were saying they’d gotten away with something – do I pass enough to use the bathroom here?  To go into the men’s locker room without anyone hassling me?  To flirt with this person and have them make the right assumption about my gender and sexuality?

There’s another, equally problematic aspect of passing: the word puts all the responsibility on the person whose gender is in question, but there’s only so much control any of us can have over how other people perceive our gender.  One’s gender presentation is a little like a beloved piece of art – you can spend as much time as you want on it, but there’s no guarantee that when unveil your creation to the world, half of your audience won’t think the cave entrance is meant to indicate a risen Christ when you meant it to suggest a dark and engulfing vulva, or vice-versa.  And while it can be extremely painful to hear someone else discuss your Christ-imagery when you know they’re missing your point entirely, someone else’s misinterpretation of your art shouldn’t be held up as a personal failure on your part.

Some of the reason why we can’t control how other people gender us is that there is a wide range of gendered cues available; some might be chosen deliberately (clothing, jewelry, hair styles) others can be consciously manipulated (body language, vocal pitch and cadence), and still others are difficult or impossible to change (height, size of hands or feet, presence or absence of body hair).  In a situation where one observer might look mostly at clothing and facial shape, while another listens to vocal cues and watches body language, it’s entirely possible for them to have a different opinion about one person’s gender (I can attest to this, as it happened on a daily basis for several years at my old job).  Some of this is cultural as well – what might seem unequivocally feminine in your culture might read as masculine or neutral to another person, or be overshadowed by a cue you see as unimportant but is an overriding factor to an observer.
No amount of controlling my behavior and presentation can fully control how other people see me, and it’s been a hard lesson to learn.  Using language that reminds me of this has been more helpful than I would have expected.

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