The Complicated Issue of Passing

The Complicated Issue of Passing

By Joelle Bayaa-Uzuri

Photo by Paul Grace

I attended a black trans women discussion years ago, and the discussion of appearance and how it relates to physical discrimination and harassment came up.  The moderator, an older black trans woman well into her fifties, directed the group to me and said, “This is how you all need to present yourself to the world.  (In order to pass) you need to represent yourself like this young lady.” Now, this took me by surprise and the idea of me being labeled as ‘passing’ within the group left me with a multitude of complex feelings.  

What is passing?  Passing is the act of a person who can be regarded within an identity group different from their own (such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)  The act of passing usually results in privileges as well as increased societal acceptance and rewards. While passing is usually associated with increased pluses for a marginalized person, it also comes with many cons, included but not limited to depression, isolation, and much more.

“Being ‘transgender’ is not only misunderstood but continues to be grossly mocked, ridiculed, as well as discriminated against.”

When one thinks of passing, race comes to mind.  Historically, the term passing has been used to reference African-Americans who were able to identify and be perceived as white.   ‘Passing for white’ dates back to the 1800s, where light-skinned and biracial African-Americans would use this act to escape slavery and the immense injustices of the period.  Passing was a survival tool for African-Americans, who at the time were relegated to nothing more than being labeled as ‘colored people’ and were denied basic liberties such as education, employment, housing, and the right to vote.  

Fast forward to now, and the transgender community is in a very similar place.  Being ‘transgender’ is not only misunderstood but continues to be grossly mocked, ridiculed, as well as discriminated against.  In 29 states, it is still legal to fire someone for being trans, and through clever and subtle (or not so subtle) prejudicial practices, trans people can be discriminated and flat out refused medical attention, employment, and housing.  Instead of celebrating their full identity, this treatment has forced many within the trans community to not only isolate themselves from the community at large but to also confine themselves the rigged cisgender standards of gender identity and expression.   

While passing with race had very clear boundaries (ones related mostly to skin complexion), passing within the confines of gender is less clear.  While there are socially-designed physical markers for gender, gender expression isn’t as cut and dry. This is due to the intersectionality of different identities, their expression, and the relativity of all parties involved.  A trans person’s own ability to pass, while largely controlled by their physicality, is also related to the outside world’s own definition of gender expression, and how their own personal, intersectional identity interprets it.

Brandon Teena

“Until the day that we exist in a world where the trans community can live freely, we must continue to do what we have to do.”

Passing isn’t merely about accruing social acceptance or privilege.  Just as passing meant life or death with many African-Americans many years before, trans people have had to use passing as a way to become stealth in a seemingly transphobic world.  Dating as far back as the murder of trans man Brandon Teena, and further, the repercussions of not being to pass or being found out have been dire. Not only are trans people denied basic rights, not being able to pass usually results in physical harassment, harm, or worse.  This year alone, 308 trans people have been murdered; many of whom were believed to be murdered due to their trans identity. Because of this threat, trans people go through expensive and dangerous procedures, mirror cisgender people, and dissociate anything that would essentially out them and blow their cover.  

The concept of passing is such deep-rooted baggage that to be called ‘passing’ leaves me oftentimes feeling at conflict.  It brings up my own intersectionality and how I’ve been able to use certain perceived privileges to craft my own gender representation.  While it affords me the opportunity to enter spaces that my trans sisters and brothers may not be able to, it also fills me with a melancholic sense of fear; like at any time, my ‘passing’ card can be revoked, and my own life could very well be in danger.  

With the Trump Administration currently working to redefine gender to be ‘binary’ and remove transgenders from federal civil rights protections and Health services, passing is seen as a lifeline to those afforded the ability to do so.  Until the day that we exist in a world where the trans community can live freely and express their identity unapologetically, we must continue to do what we have to do until we don’t have to do it anymore. And that day cannot come soon enough.  

One Reply to “The Complicated Issue of Passing”

  1. This conversation is needed in so many ways because the barriers in the trans community come from this very issue, take the ballroom scene , at its core you compete against others to see who can personify the identity the best

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