With all the topics you’d think would be open for discussion in the trans community, it seems we always get stuck on a certain few: bathrooms, nomenclature, ENDA and trans etiologies. I presume the reason is that we’ve made the least progress in these specific areas. This time I’m recycling the “passing” issue.
I started rethinking about this after reading a blog from Dyssonance (dyssonance.com/?p=10558). Synchronicity being what it is for me, the same subject became a repetitive theme over the next few weeks. Bilerico.com’s Tobi Hill-Meyer wrote on a similar topic recently: bilerico.com/2010/11/ disclosing_trans_status.php.
I don’t need to be hit in the head to realize that recycling will continue until we deal with the issues. Here‘s my latest attempt.
Passing may be described as an effort to keep others unaware regarding certain essential truths about oneself. This is an oversimplification of a more complex issue. The fact is that in some sense these essential truths belong to no one but the individual. And, it should be up to the individual whether to choose to pass or whether to disclose or not.
Dyssonance cited a corollary to passing, namely “outness.” It would seem that the two may be different sides of the same coin. It would also seem that the better one passes, the less out one might be perceived to have (or want) to be. One problem is the obvious trap of hierarchical thinking; those who pass, who are less out, may self-identify as somehow superior. There’s even a word for it in the vernacular: passability. Furthermore, there appears to be some kind of inverse relationship that this mindset engenders, namely that the more passable a person is, the less need there is to be out. Conversely, those who are less passable are consigned to be more out. This is fallacious logic which has its roots in patriarchalism.
Dyssonance is spot on to remind us about the historicity of passing. It’s certainly not new to LGB or specifically Trans individuals. Passing has roots racially, culturally and religiously. It has always been a red herring intended to divide and conquer and is steeped in fear, hate and violence. It still is today. The principal rationale one can posit for a desire to pass is a desire to remain safe. A secondary rationale is to be able to partake of the same opportunities that should be available to everyone. Being out and passing are both closely related to individual safety and privilege, as is disclosure.
A child of the only Jewish family in an entirely Christian neighborhood, I learned about passing early on. My older brother was bullied, verbally and physically (he came home and took his frustrations out on me). As the smallest kid in class, I learned to distance myself from both my brother and his perceived “Jewishness.” How sad that I felt compelled to pass as a non-Jew so that I, too, wouldn’t be bullied and hit.
Certainly, there may be some whose desire to pass is vanity driven, but I suspect that there would have never been talk of passing in a society that wasn’t so invested in ignorance, intolerance and bigotry.
This brings us to the question of how passing manifests in a patriarchal society. I’ve been rereading Joan Roughgarden’s book “Evolution’s Rainbow.” Passing has been ascribed by some as an oft used ploy by individuals to deceive or get over and this “logic” has found expression in the theories of some behavioral geneticists. Dr. Roughgarden articulately postulates that Darwin’s very specific theory of sexual selection is inaccurate. This theory seems to support passing as a technique to fool or misdirect; it’s traction derives from a mindset which elevates competition over cooperation. In a competitive environment, all’s fair in love and war, as the expression goes. But, according to Dr. Roughgarden, this is another example of fallacious thinking. She writes “Sexual selection theory has been long used to perpetuate ethically dubious gender stereotypes that demean women and anyone else who doesn’t identify as a gender-normative heterosexual male.”
Diversity and dignity seem to threaten the foundations of theories which demand normativity and abhor variety. The only way to incorporate so called anomalous (they aren’t really) ways of being is to either pathologize or marginalize them. Dyssonance suggests that, even though there may always be a spectre of a desire to pass, those individuals who find congruence between brain and body at an early age seem to have less of a cognizant desire or need to pass. So, it may be that a new paradigm is unfolding.
I have not fully resolved how passing affects me. This is partially because I have a marked sadness that we are judged by something as superficial and distasteful as passability and partially because, in my effort to be as authentic a “me” as I can be, I am, by some people’s estimations, reinforcing ”behavior” we find so distasteful in patriarchally dominated social orders.
I self-identify as woman — not “real woman” (patriarchical thinking), but the “real me,” whatever that is. I suspect that’s what we all desire: self discovery and the expression of some kind of genuine way of being in the world. My efforts to be that person could be construed as an attempt to bolster those gender stereotypes proffered by academia wherein transgressing gender stereotypes and reinforcing gender stereoptypes are offered as the only two choices. This is a false dichotomy, as baseless as the presumption that an essentialist gender binary is the only option.
It’s not that I choose to pass; rather, my presentation derives from a drive to externalize something within me. A gender deconstructionist might counter that my inner “picture of myself” is a societal construct and certainly nothing sui generis. That may or may not be the case, but then you’re faced with the much bigger challenge of defining originality. The bottom line is that it’s my life and I have free choice in how I express; or whether I choose to disclose. Any other perspective has appropriated my free will.
The primary benefits one might derive from passing are safety and privilege. Any society which makes safety and access to opportunity objects of passability is one that I find abhorrent. Wouldn’t we rather reframe our points of reference? : :
— Comments and corrections can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact Robbi Cohn, email email@example.com.