I don’t pass. That is a simple fact of my life. As a trans woman, I simply don’t pass, and really, I’ve stopped both trying to and caring about it. Overall, I get “read” – on initial encounter – about 50/50; meaning, 50 percent of the time I get a rude “are you a man?” while for the remainder I get a rude “are you a woman?” If such question isn’t stated out loud, it is usually visible in the way people’s brain visible starts to short circuit when they say Sir/Miss when addressing me.
When I started my “transition” it was still in a very medicalised system (or cis-stem) where I was diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” and was subjected to psychological tests as well as a “real-life test”. Essentially the entire process was focused on making as “real” a woman as possible… For years I tried to conform to that, convinced that the psychologists and doctors were right, that there was something wrong with me that could only be fixed by trying to conform to i.e. cisgender womanhood as closely as possible. It is only logical that this has affected me in many ways; however, one thing I have come to terms with is this: I don’t pass, I don’t need to, and I don’t want to. The problem is, society doesn’t see eye to eye on this at all.
One example, and one of the most irritating things, is how I am complimented. Now, I know this sounds strange, but hear me out. In general terms, I like compliments as much as anyone else, but the specificity of how and when those compliments come irks me often. Somehow, when it comes to compliments about how I look, they are always made in relation to femininity specifically. “Hey, you’re looking nice in that dress today” or “wow, you’re wearing make up! You look great!”… Well, especially when you consider that I don’t really wear dresses that often, and – these days – almost never make up, just kinda is the point. I never hear “oh, those baggy jeans make you look great”, the only compliment about jeans I hear is when it’s skinny, feminine cut jeans… Somehow, there is an assumption that anything “masculine” is inherently something I don’t like, that the very fact that I am a trans woman means that I am looking to be the beautiful-carboard-cutout-disney-princess (I really don’t)… Well, maybe the crossdressing-sword-wielding-Mulan if she said “fuck you, you patriarch” to Captain Li Shang. The point is, just because I am a trans woman doesn’t mean I seek to conform to gender roles and norms, just because I am a trans woman doesn’t mean I can’t be gender non-conforming* in various ways, and flourish in that non-conformity. And just because i don’t conform to typical gender roles and norms doesn’t mean you can disregard that I am in fact a woman; sure, a trans woman, but still: a w-o-m-a-n.
When it comes to trans women, even the most progressive of feminists tend to have narrow standards of “womanhood”… Somehow, people often expect us to prove our transness or womanness by conforming to some sort of checklist from the 70s, while the butchest of lesbians would not be questions as such by those same progressives. The double standard is what is suffocating, and it is perpetuated by a constant narrative around transgender people regarding “transition” and such that are really rooted in oppressive understandings of gender.
Recently, with all the rhetoric on “bathroom bills” in the USA, I’ve seen a lot of problematic language. There is a lot of “do you want to have me in your bathroom” with pictures of trans people who “pass” (meaning, conform to a cisgender understanding of what the gender they identify with is suppose to look like) to counter these bills. I keep thinking that either way, whether I enter the women’s OR men’s bathroom, it doesn’t make a damn difference… because “passing” ain’t remotely something I approach, it is always a 50/50 depending on what I ended up wearing that day, and trying to avoid speaking or waiting in lines when bathrooms are crowded cause too much scrutiny and you’d think they were filming “Scream 5.voetsek” in said bathroom… And this is the thing, I don’t want my rights to depend on whether I can pass or not, whether I conform or not… And this is where rethoric is leading to when it comes to transgender issues… And this is not just about trans people, but anyone who is gender non-conforming.
What the irony is truly, is that I’ve had such issues from other trans women as well… And this is sometimes truly mindboggling… I have had the “you’re not trans enough” or “why are you dressed like that” from other trans women when I show up looking more like Jet-Li-with-long-hair than anything else, and still insist in calling myself a trans woman. And in this I question how we talk about trans issues… an issue that is even further amplified for those non-binary trans people. We need to critically engage with both gender in wider society, as well as the history of transgender issues in general. We need to understand how a lot of the narrative around trans people was created to enforce gender roles and norms, rather than challenge them.
P.S: this is not an opening for TERFs to start trans-bashing… really it is the opposite…
* I know that the definition of gender non-conforming is diverse, and some people have argued that it i.e. is a separate identity that is separate from trans woman or trans man. Then others say it simply refers to gender non-conformity which is broader, and make distinctions between that and non-binary trans people’s specific identity. I am not seeking to impose a definition, but I do want to clarify how I am using the term here. Wandile Dlamini, a non-binary trans activist and friend of mine, always emphasises the latter definition of gender non-conforming, and I tend to agree with them.