Soapboxing on “Passing”

My favorite London site may be found near the northeast corner of Hyde Park.  No, not the Marble Arch.  Walk about 100 yards further south to where the grassy fields begin.  What you will find there is a living monument to free speech, assuming that you look on a Sunday morning when the weather is nice.  It is Speaker’s Corner, and it comes to life whenever someone begins speechifying alongside the wrought iron fencing.

These days, speakers tend to bring a small aluminum step stool or a portable chair, but in bygone days they might stand upon a soap box, giving us the origin of that colorful metaphor.  They are ideologues and orators, advocates and crackpots.  They gather crowds of listeners, and if you’re lucky, a few hecklers (aka “quality control”).  Dire Straits immortalized the venue in their non-hit “Industrial Disease”:

Two men say they’re Jesus; one of them must be wrong

There’s a protest singer singing a protest song

My favorite scene at Speaker’s Corner opens with a Muslim mother and daughter, the former in beautiful hijab, and the latter in “western dress”.  They (and I) are engaging an anti-feminist orator when the father steps in awkwardly, touches his wife’s elbow and motions for her to move on.  She whirls on him and says, “This is Speaker’s Corner, and I will speak.”  As dad slinks away with his hands in his pockets, the daughter beams a face bearing the hope of mankind.

The modern blogosphere owes as much debt to Speaker’s Corner as contemporary musicians owe to JS Bach, Robert Johnson and Frank Zappa.  There sits, or better, there we are, our own most sacred shrine.  Join me, therefore, as I step up on my virtual soapbox to opine on the concept of transgender “passing”.

To “pass” means to be perceived as the gender with which a transgender person identifies.  In my case, I would be said to pass whenever I am seen as female.  The opposite of pass is “read” or “clocked”.  These terms might apply to FTM’s or MTF’s, although FTM’s, as a general rule, tend to pass quite well if they are on hormone therapy, as masculinizing the body post puberty is much easier than feminizing.  Common reasons why MTF’s are clocked include depth of voice, facial structure, skeletal size (height, hands/feet) and socialization.

Passing is important to some trans people.  If you buy into the dominant cultural narrative, it is pretty much all that matters to/for trans people.  Don’t.

I was browsing through the headlines the other day and clicked on a headline alluding to the difficulty Bruce Jenner1 might have transitioning.  My inner voice said something along the lines of “hell yeah”, having some personal experience with the difficulties of forging a new sense of self after burying part of one’s essence for decades.  Instead, the article discussed his cheekbones, flat chest and hairline.  Really?  If that’s what transitioning is all about, Jenner is likely in better shape than 99.9999% of transwomen.  $40K of nip and tuck can set those right in two weeks, including suture removal.  He’s certainly got $40K, whereas the rest of us live on varying degrees of constraining budgets.  His greatest challenge, in my opinion, will be dealing with deeply private matters under public scrutiny by a scandal-hungry nation which has a well-formed memory of him as the epitome of masculinity.

As important as passing is to some transpeople, it is even more so to the patriarchy, loosely defined as that segment of society which holds that women exist for the service of men.  Seeing passing as essential for transpeople is analogous to seeing physical beauty as essential for femininity.  Can’t we just round up all the uglies and non-passers for the convenience of window shoppers everywhere?  Passing is certainly seductive, as is beauty.  It opens doors and eases social interactions.  Until.

In 2003, Gwen Araujo was brutally murdered in California after her assailants ascertained her gender identity.  “Trans panic defense” has been used in at least 45 cases nationwide with varying degrees of success.  Transpeople who pass may, if they so desire, go through life “stealth”, but getting close to others almost always involves sharing past as well as future.  Passing does not remove the threat of violence, nor anxiety of being non-violently “discovered”.  I know transpeople who live lives paralyzed by fear of being known as trans.  “When should I tell?” becomes an enduring crisis.

The concept of passing reinforces the idea that transpeople are inherently deceptive.  Passing is getting away with something.  Fooling someone.  Being mistaken for a woman.  Transpeople who pass and transpeople who don’t have one thing in common: they are being themselves–expressing their inner reality in an outwardly visible way.  Janet Mock, who passes flawlessly, has become a leading voice against the concept.  We are not passing, we are being.

Passing needs to go away.  Transpeople have dignity and value right now, regardless of the extent to which we can “hide in plain sight”.  Obsession with passing must be replaced with a more inclusive concept of personhood, embraced by transpeople and society alike.

I know that I still have a bumpy road ahead, but I have transitioned successfully to the extent that I value myself as a transgender person.  Yes, I may make physical changes if they make me more comfortable in my own skin, but I openly denounce any procedure or medication as necessary for transition.  Further, I affirm that all drugs and all surgeries, not just transgender ones, thwart nature.  That’s what medicine is, and there is nothing less dignified about treating gender dysphoria than there is about treating cancer.  My choices are just that–my choices.  My gender is female, not because I pass but because I tell you that it is.

Quality control welcome.


  1. Editorial note:  This post was published before Jenner reintroduced herself as Caitlyn, when she was still asking for people to use masculine pronouns.

4 thoughts on “Soapboxing on “Passing”

  1. Penny

    Once again Renae – well said and well written – the trans community is lucky to have you to speak for them – live and let live and you do –

  2. Lisa Twaronite

    I knew you for many years, back in Wethersfield. Even then, I knew that you would grow up and make us all proud someday — but I never imagined you would do it in this way, too.
    (I’m an ardent LGBT rights supporter in Japan, where society is slower to accept it, but is moving in the right direction. )

    1. rmaddy Post author

      Who’d have guessed that we’d all grow up to become us? Great to hear from you, Lisa.

  3. Pingback: Passing Revisited - Gawker Slowdown

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