I was reading an article this week about the subject of “passing” and how various elements of the trans community dealt with and discussed the topic. There are a few valid threads of thought in that ongoing discussion, the main one perhaps the recognition of what’s been called “passing privilege” which is to say that those among us who are easily read as trans (when they don’t want to be) suffer a lot more negative outcomes when interacting with the world than those who pass (or blend in) easily.
Then there’s the discussion of whether or not passing should even be a goal, since by implication it values conformity to cultural gender-based expectation over non-conformity. Which is tied to the reality that some trans people specifically and intentionally choose non-conformity as the preferred expression of their gender identity.
Then there’s the implications of the word itself – “passing” as if one is being tested and graded, as opposed to the word that many, including myself, prefer which is “blending.” Chances are, if you know a dozen trans people you probably are aware of as many as a dozen distinct points of view on these subjects among them. We tend to debate as much amongst ourselves as we do with our critics. Often this furthers understanding, seemingly just as often it proves unnecessarily divisive as hairs are finely split over and over. We’re all subject, I think, to our own personal biases and the conviction that our views are likely the correct views.
I confess that I have to constantly battle against falling into that mindset. It’s not that I do not have opinions which I think are the best opinions, but I remind myself to be open to being convinced, and to respect differing views even if the stress me. Sometimes I’m convinced the person who disagrees with me simply hasn’t thought through their position and I argue more intensely, other times I recognize they are speaking from an experience I don’t share and thus potentially proceed from different assumptions.
I have to be honest, my experience with being trans is what the thinkers call “cis-normative” – which is to say that like the great majority of trans people (that we know about) my ultimate goal is to blend in to the population of the sex with which I identify. To be, in my case, “just another woman” and so blending in is a function of that, primarily because it means the world interacts with me as it would if I’d been born a cis-female. I honestly don’t really relate to gender non-conformity as a goal or as a comfortable place to live. But I respect and accept it as legitimate because I understand that hardly any cis-people understand what it is to be trans at all.
Because such a high percentage of out trans people work towards that “cis-normative” goal, it’s easy for me to frame discussions with skeptical cis-people in those terms, even when I realize there’s some internal discussion within the “community” about whether it is proper to “normalize” the trans experience in terms that cis-people can digest. Take for example the mild dust-up provoked by British TV host India Willoughby in which she said, then later apologized for saying, that if you were not transitioning, or transitioned, you should not presume to use the restroom of your identified gender (in context, speaking of the ladies room since that’s what all the blowback is about). Her point, which I think is perfectly valid, is that if you do not consistently present female, your insistence in using the ladies room reinforces the skeptics’ stereotype that respecting trans identities opens the door for any man to lie his way into women’s spaces.
While it is certainly true that a case can be made (and in certain contexts I have made it myself) that in other places restrooms are not sex-segregated and nothing bad comes of it which argues that our culture’s attachment to sex segregation is irrational. It can certainly be argued that segregated spaces provide a burden for non-binary people regardless of discrimination laws. It an be argued that a crossdresser out for weekend in the city is better off using the room that matches his presentation than put himself at risk of attack by doing otherwise. But at the same time, I can’t escape the conclusion that moving the “Overton Window” incrementally is more productive than asking the cis-majority to throw out everything they think they know about gender roles in one fell swoop.
I went on that tangent to illustrate how we all can be prone to view such a controversial question through the lens of our own lived experience and “dig in” rather than be willing to change your view. When we do this among ourselves we all become less effective in the ongoing discussion with the cis population. So while we debate the finer points of passing, or what label best describes us or whatever else it is we argue about amongst ourselves, lets not lose the unity we need to have to fight for our rights against those who would repress us.
Photo by: Jörg Schreier