Whether You’re Trans or Not, Passing Privilege Affects All of Us

Before I transitioned from male to female, one of the main things I wanted to know was: will I “pass”? Meaning, will people be able to tell that I am trans when I walk down the street? Or, rather, will people believe that I’m cisgender – not trans? Will I be able to walk down the street without people abusing me? You see, the desire to pass isn’t just down to vanity, it’s about feeling safe.
Passing is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, mostly because of the anti-transgender discrimination taking place in North Carolina. The State has introduced laws banning trans people from using bathrooms that don’t correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. This is despite the fact that there are zero documented cases of trans women abusing other women in shared, female-only facilities, and there is no evidence to indicate that they will. And what does this legislation mean for trans people? Well, in North Carolina, it would mean that, as a trans woman, I’d be expected to use the men’s toilet. As The Atlantic put it, it forces "post-transition transgender people to use the bathroom of the opposite sex." Except – and here's the thing – I would never do that, and, luckily for me, I doubt it would be a problem – because I pass. That’s a privilege, but it shouldn’t have to be.
The brilliant American author, anchor and activist Janet Mock has some great thoughts on passing privilege. As she told the Guardian: “I have such a difficult time with the concept of ‘passing’ because I feel it gives this idea that there's some kind of deception or trickery involved in our identities. I am a woman, people perceive me as a woman, and when I walk on the street, I am not ‘passing’ as anything. I am merely being myself.”

It’s easy to dismiss passing as an unwelcome concept when you happen to pass.

I understand Mock’s point, and admire her greatly, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. It’s easy to dismiss passing as an unwelcome concept when you happen to pass. For trans women who don’t pass, though, the desire to go undetected can be strong and urgent. I know this because I remember how obsessed I once was with passing. When I first transitioned, it took me a year or so to completely get my look together. Those awkward few years of experimenting with your appearance as a teenager? Yeah, I did that in my early 20s. And that initial transition phase can be tough. Before I had laser hair removal on my face, for example, I would get stubble. It took years for my breasts to grow. Years for my hair to grow long. Years to find clothing styles that flatter me. I’ve had people, back then, shout things like “fucking tranny” while I was walking down the street. It didn’t happen often, but enough for me to become seriously anxious about leaving the house. Now that I do pass, my life is better. But don’t be fooled into thinking that passing privilege only affects trans people. Kristen Stewart told Marie Claire that she used to be mistaken for a boy “all the time” and K D Lang told the Guardian she’s read as male “every day”. But it’s becoming more serious than a simple case of being mistaken for the wrong gender. Now, gender non-conforming women are being harassed in public toilets – watch this video (scroll to bottom of page) of a woman being thrown out of the ladies by police officers who refer to her as ‘Sir’ and ask to see her ID. Her friends shout: “This is a girl and you guys are harassing her because she’s a dyke?”

Few women conform to society’s ideas of What A Woman Should Look Like, so the idea of passing as "acceptably" female is something that applies to pretty much every woman.

Passing privilege affects everyone, just as the gender binary affects everyone, but, as usual, the people who are scrutinised most are women, gay women who don’t conform to society’s gender norms, and trans women – so in this sense, passing is just another way in which women’s bodies are policed and rated on whether they are ‘good enough’. Few women conform to society’s ideas of What A Woman Should Look Like, so the idea of passing as "acceptably" female or "feminine enough" is something that applies to pretty much every woman, whether they are cis or trans. And that is bullshit. 22-year-old Aimee Toms was washing her hands in the women’s bathroom at Walmart when someone approached her and said, “You’re disgusting!” and “You don’t belong here!” It seems that Toms – who was born with a uterus and identifies as a woman – didn’t pass as female. She believes she was harassed because of the current panic about trans people in bathrooms, as women who don’t look traditionally "feminine" face greater scrutiny: “After experiencing the discrimination they face firsthand, I cannot fathom the discrimination transgender people must face in a lifetime… Can you imagine going out every day and having people tell you you should not be who you are or that people will not accept you as who you are?” Sadly, this is not a problem confined to America. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old lesbian was thrown out of a McDonald’s in Hull because staff believed she was a boy, reported the Metro. The girl, Ny Richardson, has short hair and eschews makeup. McDonald’s claim she was part of a group of youngsters who were being disruptive, but Richardson tells a very different story: “I ordered my food and left it with my girlfriend as I went to the toilet. When I was in there, someone told me to get out and when I sat back down, the manager came over and told me that I needed to leave because I have been in the girls' toilet. I said to him, 'Why do I need to leave? I'm a girl, can you not tell by my voice?' I'm used to being accused of being a boy, but this time I was humiliated in front of the whole restaurant.” Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the only disruption Richardson caused was to the gender binary.

I suspect there are many cisgender (“not trans”) women out there who’ve been mistaken for trans.

I’ve heard about this firsthand. When I started my transition, a female family member confided in me about an incident that had really upset her. She’d been out celebrating a friend’s birthday when a man came up to her and said something along the lines of, “You look really good. How long have you been a woman for?” She was devastated. It’s a feeling that I and many other trans women know all too well. She’d never told anyone else because she was deeply embarrassed, and I suspect there are many cisgender (“not trans”) women out there who’ve been mistaken for trans but don’t wish to talk about it publicly. Of course, there are also women who react gamely when other people perceive them as male. At 6ft 2, Jes Fernie decided to roll with “society’s limited parameters of what it is to be female”, as she told the Guardian. To her height, she added a boyish haircut and clothes, and consequently found herself enduring a close escape from violence down a Manchester side street after being mistaken as a transvestite. This is the price people pay for not conforming to society’s narrow lines of what constitutes male or female. The thing is, everybody judges other people. Including me. I’m aware that if I’m walking down the street with someone who doesn’t pass – whether they are trans or cis – they may draw attention to me. And I look at people sometimes and “read” them. I passed a tall woman who had a strong forehead the other day while I was out shopping. She had a lot of makeup on. The person I was with said, “Did you see…” but I cut them off with a frustrated, “Yeah, I don’t care.” Whether or not the woman we had just passed was trans or not was of no concern to me. It wasn’t until I got home that my friend asked me why I’d snapped at them when they were trying to point out a cute jacket to me. They hadn’t even noticed the tall woman. My friend hadn’t been preoccupied with the tall woman’s appearance – I had. I wish I could say that I didn’t care about passing but the truth is, I still do – and North Carolina’s bathroom law debate has only served to remind me of that. If we lived in an ideal world, there would be no stigma attached to being trans. But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world where America is fighting about who is allowed in which toilet, based on how they look; we live in a world where people are being physically and verbally abused in the UK due to their gender presentation. It shouldn’t be “OK” for me to walk down the street because people “can’t tell” that I am trans. It should be OK for me to walk down the street because it’s OK for everyone to walk down the street, regardless of who they are. As Janet Mock points out: “Our safety should not be based on the way that we look.” On this note, I couldn’t agree with her more. So I’m going to try and stop ‘reading’ other people and seeing if they pass "the test". Because no-one – not me, not you and not the tall woman on the street or in the bathroom – should have to pass under anyone else's judgement just to go about their daily business.

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