Queer Corner: Passing

Kris Pfister, Maroon-News Staff

Passing. It’s all about the passing. Do you have the right shape, the right makeup, the right outfit? Do you pass? “Passing” is a common term in the transsexual/transgender community. Most simply, passing is appearing to others as the gender you are.

Passing does not affect people who are cisgender (who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) quite so much. Appearances typically line up with identities. For example, if you identify as a woman, dress in a typically feminine way and other people perceive you as a woman, you pass easily. Of course, this is not the case with many people who are trans. In this society, we place high value on what clothes other people wear. If someone is wearing a dress, well, they just must be a woman. Nope. Clothing is just cloth, and I personally think it’s strange that there are even genders attached to it.

So what does it mean to pass? Well, let’s say when you were born doctors assigned you “male” (commonly also meaning a male, though there is a difference between sex and gender), but you feel more “female.” You decide to dress in tights and heels, silver necklaces and skirts, but your shape still looks masculine to other people. You purchase bra inserts to give your chest shape; a corset to simulate curves; shave and moisturize every day to keep skin smooth. Some people pass easier than others because in the end, passing is about meeting society’s standards for another gender. That in and of itself seems like a problem. 

The example above is a simplistic one. “How? That’s seems like a lot of work to me?” You’re right, it is a lot of work, but that example still fits in the “man-woman” binary of gender. What happens when you fall outside the binary – for example, being genderqueer, when you don’t completely feel like a man or a woman? Things get even crazier. If you identify as a non-binary gender, there aren’t a set of “rules” you can follow to pass; there isn’t a set way to look; there aren’t standard pronouns like he/she which you can use comfortably. In addition to all that, you will probably be frequently misgendered. 

Misgendering happens when another person incorrectly assumes a person’s gender, typically based off of their appearance. This is one reason why passing has become so important to some people. If a person can appear as the gender with which they identify, the worry of ridicule fades. This is one reason why non-binary individuals may have a harder time passing, that is, if passing even applies to them; there is no standard for someone who is not a “man” or a “woman.” In the same respect, there is no way to assume a person’s gender identity based on their outward appearance. There are many people who dress one way but feel differently. Gender is complicated; don’t expect a set of rules and regulations to understand it. 

In the end, passing is based on the societal construct that how you look determines how you feel. However, if someone looks feminine, that’s it. They look feminine. You cannot assume anything further from that observation. Passing is an assimilationist strategy, like same-sex marriage, and is about attempting to blend into the mass of society. For some people, passing is easy. For others, it can be traumatic. Be sensitive to people’s needs, and for goodness sake don’t assume.