Passing and social gender dysphoria

On Twitter, I mention from time to time that I am a trans woman who ‘passes.’ This means that I am perceived and treated as a woman by everyone in my everyday life—in the private context of people who have known me a long time, but also in the public sphere, such as when I buy bread at the bakery. The word is used in queer circles as an extension of a preëxisting sense of the verb ‘to pass’ as someone or something: to be recognized or accepted as such.

Now some readers may congratulate me for passing, and believe that all is now well for me. But my thoughts and feelings on the subject are much more complex. Peeling back its chic veneer, one finds much beneath the surface concept of ‘passing’ which tends to harm—rather than benefit—the acceptance of trans people in society.

Why do we want to pass?

Trans people often suffer from physical gender dysphoria: negative feelings associated with the fact that one’s body does not conform to the expectations fostered by their own internal perceptions of their gender. At least as important, however, is what I call social gender dysphoria: the negativity felt on account of one not being treated as their gender by other people, or taken seriously as such in other people’s perceptions. It is possible for a trans person to feel completely (or largely) at peace with their own body, yet still suffer massively from this social dysphoria.

One reason for this is the ubiquitous role of gender in our everyday lives. It is the norm in our society that we constantly sort the people we meet into categories of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and behave differently towards them on that count—for example, by addressing them differently. Being misgendered can be irritating, or even very painful.

It would probably not feel good for a woman to be asked, in my earlier example of a bakery, ‘What’ll it be, Sir?’ She will wonder which part of her presently seemed to the salesperson so ‘manly’ as to elicit such a salutation. If such occurrences become routine, the woman is likely to feel very poorly indeed. It is an unwritten rule of society that women should not appear ‘masculine,’ nor men ‘feminine.’ Such perceived contradictions go hand-in-hand with a lower social status—being seen as defects in the respectable person.

To not pass as one’s own gender would likely be unpleasant for most people.1I don’t know whether this can be understood at all by people who have not experienced it themselves. If you find such a consideration difficult, try imagining that from tomorrow, though you wake up in the same body you’ve always had, you are treated consistently by others as the wrong gender, and addressed accordingly. Imagine that this goes on for years. Doesn’t sound nice, does it? It does not matter, incidentally, whether such a person is cis or trans, but you can certainly imagine that trans people experience these unpleasant situations much more frequently. In the course of a single day, a trans person might be noticeably misgendered dozens of times: a situation which may persist for years.

The motivation to actively address social gender dysphoria is therefore correspondingly high. The common solution to this problem is to radically change others‘ perceptions through sometimes far-reaching measures. This has very little to do with the genital surgeries so often debated in the media, because, ideally, no one should notice your genitals in the bakery. In my personal experience, the most important external characteristics by which people are sorted into ‘male’ and ‘female’ are the beard and breasts of adults; closely followed by one’s voice; and then (by some distance) one’s hairstyle, clothing, and height, whereof the latter can unfortunately not be influenced. Since the first three aspects only develop or differentiate during puberty, they are virtually absent in the classification of younger children, allowing them to pass with more straightforward changes.

How I came to pass

The extent to which I pass has undergone several fundamental changes through the course of my life. In my earliest childhood photos, I read myself as a boy—my short haircut and overalls all quite unambiguous. In third or fourth grade, I was allowed to let my hair grow long; consequently, strangers took me for a girl relatively consistently, such that I passed as one. It is not without a certain irony that this was very uncomfortable for me—I was at the time still convinced I was a boy, of course, but I really didn’t look like one.2An anecdote:⁠— As a seventeen-year-old looking at family photos from this time, I asked with astonishment, ‘Where am I in this picture? And who is this girl here?’ The girl was, of course, me. Upon entering the Gymnasium,3A type of secondary school in the German education system, attended from around the age of 10 my new classmates were utterly bewildered as to my gender—I was constantly asked, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Even when I positioned myself as a boy, my gender remained a frequent topic of discussion. My gender-nonconforming appearance gave some of the other children a welcome excuse to bully me.

This situation persisted until I was thirteen or fourteen, when I abruptly stopped passing as a ‘girl’—beginning instead to pass as a ‘metalhead.’ Suddenly, my erstwhile bullies—all of them boys—discovered bands like Metallica, and found it totally masculine and cool to wear long hair and skirts (well… kilts). I still feel slightly ripped off, for that I was never considered a trendsetter… 😅

At the same time, my puberty hit, blessing me with physical dysphoria along with the ‘prize’ of again being perceived as a boy. It took me another ten years to acknowledge that I was trans. Wearing dresses, nail polish, and makeup did little to help me pass; later laser epilation and ultimately hormone therapy, on the other hand, helped a great deal. I cannot point to a precise moment after which I would once again be predominantly perceived as female, yet somehow this is now the case. Rad!

Passing has undoubtedly made my life easier. I don’t reflect much on being trans anymore; it’s a boring little detail of my life on most days. Instead, I can simply live as a woman—nothing special about it. For some time, I considered passing to be something entirely good. Yet in time I began to have certain doubts, which I shall explore in the following sections.

Do I want to change myself for others?

A gender transition should not be imagined as it is so often portrayed in the media: like a succession of necessary tasks, such as the changing of clothes, hormone therapy, and ultimately genital surgery, all of which must be worked through to eventually ‘finalize’ or ‘complete’ the transition. This is utter nonsense, for the paths of transition are as diverse as us trans people ourselves.

Certainly, many of us do suffer massively from physical gender dysphoria, desire the ‘full programme’ from the beginning, and move through it as quickly as possible, step by step. But others feel that type of dysphoria very little or not at all, and desire therefore to change little or nothing about themselves. For them, it would fully suffice to be accepted by others as their gender, such that they would no longer feel social gender dysphoria.

Of course, they could also change their appearance in order to more reliably pass. But to undergo massive changes—sometimes medical in nature—just that others may see them the way they want to be seen? Laser epilation is painful and expensive, mastectomy a drastic surgical procedure. To me it seems wrong—even downright extortionate—that society, as the price for something as trivial as a correct salutation, should expect us trans people to adapt ourselves and our bodies to conform to stereotypical gender norms.

This expectation originates in an individualization of trans identity, perhaps expressed most succinctly by the common cis proverb describing us as being ‘stuck in the wrong body.’ A society that compels all people to conform and submit to gender stereotypes isn’t seen as wrong—instead trans people themselves are seen as faulty: in their bodies, in their appearances. This obscures the fact that much of the suffering and discrimination faced by trans people has nothing whatsoever to do with our bodies.

Various accessories hang from the shuttered trifold mirror atop my home vanity.

It is, therefore, not always so easy to recognize whether some change we desire in our body or appearance truly corresponds with our authentic inner self… or whether a significant portion of that desire to pass is on account of societal pressure, to which we are merely submitting. Even many cis people can’t tell with certainty whether they, for example, apply makeup purely for themselves, rather than for others; such doubts become no easier to unravel in consideration of transition measures.

Incidentally, non-physical transition steps are carried out regularly for other people: namely, changes to name and vital records, about which I have previously written. These serve only to mitigate social dysphoria, since trans people do not first need state approval to realize and feel comfortable with a new name and gender. It is cis society alone that yet refuses to accept self-identification in default of such accompanying legal measures.

Passing is not accessible to all

That I now pass, and that my social dysphoria has therefore disappeared in parallel, is a sheer matter of luck. The genetic lottery above all else determines whether laser epilation is even possible (it only works on fair skin and dark hair) or how large breasts grow under the influence of hormone therapy. There are trans women with a lot of body hair who have had to endure more than a hundred times as much epilation pain as did I, just to pass as women. And some aspects of one’s body cannot be influenced at all. That my 165 cm (5’ 5”) height, delicate hands, and EUR 38 (US 7.5) shoe size correspond more to feminine than to masculine stereotypes is absolutely zero percent my own merit.

Moreover, nearly all these things cost huge sums of money, and many procedures are either not covered by health insurance at all, or may only be covered after many years of legal disputes. That I was able to invest €1,500 (US$1,700) of my savings in the permanent removal of my beard growth is in no small part due to my financial privilege. Some people cannot even obtain a legal change of name or gender, either because they lack the funds,4It costs another €1,500 in Germany! or because they are not subject to jurisdictions which allow such changes.

Trans people often see transitioning as a personal achievement, and to some extent it is. It takes an abundance of time and energy and resources, and society will suggest—by treating each individual’s trans identity as a personal problem—that through the difficulties of transition we can ‘earn’ a modicum of social acceptance. But this line of thinking is a trap. Indeed, in light of the aforementioned facts, it shows an utter lack of solidarity to view one’s own transition primarily through this lens. It is and remains above all else luck that determines whether passing is ever attainable.

I can also not foresee whether I shall forever pass as a woman. Like everyone, I shall age over the years, which may very well greatly impact the extent to which I conform to female stereotypes. Hair loss is an issue, for example: one which also affects many cis women (e.g. during menopause or after chemotherapy). Yet even setting aside such concrete events, it seems to me somehow naïve to assume, after the back-and-forth of how I came to pass, that the extent to which I do so could never change again.

Passing is very binary

This is a special form of the inaccessibility of passing. As explained in the beginning of this article, the very concept of passing arises only from the habit of most people to constantly sort each other into the categories of ‘male’ or ‘female.’ So long as this is the case, non-binary people often have no chance of ever passing as their gender—to do so would require a common conception and understanding of their gender exist in the first place.

Due to the increasing awareness of non-binary people, such a conception may have actually developed in some circles—that of someone with a slim, androgynous appearance. To see this stereotype in action, you need but a single glance at who gets the most ‘likes’ in Instagram’s #nonbinary hashtag, or at which models are used to market ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender-neutral’ clothes. It may be a nice æsthetic, but a win for gender emancipation is not merely the unveiling of yet another category of stereotypes. Many non-binary people therefore at present consider themselves to pass when other people are unsure where to sort them—if they successfully confuse others‘ preconceived notions relating to the classification of gender.

There are many different non-binary genders, and how people understand the various labels is once more highly individual in nature—just as masculinity and femininity are expressed and lived in sundry and individual ways. You absolutely can’t tell someone’s gender merely by observing their external characteristics: every such attempt is doomed to fail.

Passing is cisnormative

I describe as ‘cisnormative’ that which considers being cis—i.e., not being trans—to be of higher quality: if being cis is set as a desirable norm, or if the possibility of someone being trans isn’t even considered. Most people’s understanding of gender is based on a cisnormative worldview, in which women with beards, men with breasts, or any manner of non-binary people either have no place whatsoever, or are perceived as inferior to those who conform to gender stereotypes.

For precisely this reason, ‘passing’ is sometimes referred to as ‘cis passing.’ Because many people do not really know the difference between ‘cis’ and ‘trans,’ or do not expect trans people to exist in their own environments, to say that I pass as a woman in public is usually tantamount to saying that I am considered to be a cis woman.

This particularly stood out to me in certain interactions with the employment agency and in job interviews, where people assumed, by virtue of my passing as a woman, that I had a uterus, or had even been pregnant with my child. At first I found this a bit amusing, and it even evoked a feeling of gender euphoria—what more positive judgement could there be for me, a trans woman, than to be presumed to be a cis woman?

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t find it so great after all. I desire to be accepted as a woman, yes—but not at the price of being taken for what I am not (namely, cis). To do so would only underscore the perception that being a cis woman is the gold standard of femininity; that cis women are the ‘truer’ women, or even the only women thought to exist; that trans women might only ever represent a poor imitation of womanhood because we are somehow ‘fake.’ That’s a pretty shitty portrait of trans people, if you ask me!

Some trans people live ‘stealth,’ deliberately keeping their trans identity as secret as possible. While I find this a completely legitimate survival strategy, I myself take quite a different approach: one of openness with my trans identity. I even have a large trans symbol tattooed on my forearm, and would prefer in general not to hide that I am trans at all. Yet this is also a balancing act, as my trans identity is not tea I wish to spill to all and sundry. It’s just not a piece of information that people necessarily need to know about me. I likewise don’t tell people I’ve barely just met that I have a brother, since it’s not (or at least shouldn’t be) relevant to them, even if it is of course highly relevant to me personally.

Nevertheless, an uncertainty remains: Would I still be accepted as a woman if the people who think me to be cis knew that I was actually trans? I can only be sure thereof for the people closest to me, those who are fundamentally positive towards me regardless. I’ve never dared to correct someone who assumed I was cis, and I’m unsure as to whether I should. The fear that I should suddenly find myself the target of discrimination is greater than the unease I feel at being regarded as cis. We still live in a world that is largely uneasy with—or even openly hostile towards—trans people like me.

When I came out as trans to my coworkers, I brought a stereotypical gender reveal cake to mark my official debut as a woman, which my partner, Kitten, had baked for me: blue on the outside, but completely pink on the inside.

What’s the solution?

On IDAHOBITA5The International Day Against Homoantagonism, Biantagonism, Interantagonism, Transantagonism, and Aro-/Aceantagonism, 17 May. 2020, I shared a deliberately-provocative tweet about a bearded trans woman. I feel disputing someone’s gender because of their appearance to be fundamentally transantagonistic.6Non-German readers might find it weird that I use ‘transantagonism’ instead of ‘transphobia.’ Use of the ‘-⁠phobia’ suffix is no longer common in German queerfeminist circles, since it suggests those who marginalize queer people do so based on fear, rather than hatred, and likens such behavior to legitimate psychological phobias (which it’s not). In its place are found the suffixes ‘-⁠antagonism’ and ‘-⁠misia,’ which don’t use people with treatable anxiety conditions as cover for queer-hating assholes. I don’t want us to only ever highlight trans people who pass and adhere to societal norms as positive examples for our community; to do so would be to torpedo my own goals. I instead would like to achieve a world in which nobody has to satisfy gender stereotypes just to be seen and accepted in their gender—regardless of whether they are cis or trans.

Passing is and remains a double-edged sword. For the time being, it offers me protection which I gratefully accept and use, and I would never condemn a trans person for using it to their own benefit. Likeweise, I feel living stealth to be perfectly acceptable, and not at all ‘cowardly’ or by itself lacking in solidarity.

Yet with all that I’ve laid out above, I cannot and will not be satisfied that passing remain the only available solution for the alleviation of social gender dysphoria. In place of this individualized approach, which requires our subordination to gender stereotypes,7This also shows the excruciating absurdity of any argument claiming that trans people harmfully reinforce gender stereotypes… dear cis people, you haven’t really given us a chance to do otherwise! Until you accept us without our having satisfied those stereotypes, you have absolutely no right to complain. the stereotypes themselves must be questioned and ultimately abolished.

Thus, I’m asking for nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of our entire societal approach to gender. Instead of sorting people into categories of gender on account of external characteristics, we should simply listen to what they tell us, and straightforwardly accept their genders as given. This means, among other things, the complete abolition of legal gender as a state-determined category, the free opportunity to change one’s name, and, above all, a renovation of the mental models by which we perceive and interact with gender.

This may seem like an exceptional demand, but there ultimately exists no practicable alternative. Indeed, this is just the logical continuation of the original, long-term feminist project to combat gender-based discrimination in society. Yet instead of merely tilting at the ‘pink/blue trap,’ and acting like the assertion ‘girls can play football and boys can do ballet’ is still some huge emancipatory revelation, we should go a step further and fundamentally call to question the very classification of gender on account of external characteristics..

This process can start with how we treat our children’s gender. Our almost-three-year-old child hasn’t yet been confronted with gender stereotypes—we leave them completely at peace with it, letting them wear and play with what they want, and when strangers ask, ‘Are they a boy or a girl?’ we’ll sometimes answer one or the other. We use alternating pronouns, too, including neopronouns. We still don’t know whether our child is a boy, a girl, non-binary, or agender—they haven’t seemed to care much so far. One day, they will probably tell us about their gender, which will change how we refer to them, but nothing else. Unlike most kids, they can be left to develop a sense of gender freely and openly, with as little external influence and judgment as is possible in our cisnormative world.8This approach is sometimes called gender-creative parenting. Our child is wonderful and happy, and we will love them regardless of whether they turn out cis or trans. I can wholeheartedly recommend this approach to other parents.

I am fully aware that many people are not yet so progressive. Incidentally, many trans people are not—we all harbor preconceived notions of gender to a certain extent. But we can certainly all take small steps to approach that long-term goal: a world in which gender begets fewer social constraints, yet in which people are respected in their particular and manifold gender identities, and in every other aspect of their beings.

This article was translated from the original German by Anna eshet-David.