Passing isn’t about you

So I’m going to get into a bit of gender-y theory here, and it might be controversial. I’d really love to hear your thoughts below the line, so do feel free to comment.

I’m going to set out what I think it actually means to ‘pass’, and why it’s not a simple case of changing your name, and telling people how you identify. Passing, honestly, is about other people.

Who decides our gender?

Sure, I could go and get out the Judith Butler here, and we could go through all the key points about how gender is performative. Or, we could look at neuro-scientific studies that say that gender is entirely located in the white matter of the brain. Neither of these sources actually have the full answer, because gender is both what we feel inside but also what people see externally.

Two women stand in front of a wall. Both have long dark hair. The woman on the left is wearing a three-piece suit and glasses, and the woman on the right is wearing a wedding dress and holding a bouquet.
Photo by Lia Chapman from Pexels

For example, I am a woman, both because I feel comfortable in being perceived as a woman and having a female body (it’s taken a while to get here, and to figure out that this is right for me), and because other people see me as a woman. Even when FaceApp looks at my shorter hair and fondness for button-down shirts and decides I’m a man.

Good trans friends of mine are women because they experienced distress being seen as male, and took steps to change how they were seen, and now how they feel matches up with how other people see them.

Other people (society, if you will) have as much to do with how we define gender as our own feelings do.

How do we decide gender?

So given that gender is about how we as a society perceive gender, as well as what’s internal, what are the signals that tell us what gender someone is? Think about it – except in certain very welcoming and inclusive places, I’m sure you don’t ask the pronouns of everyone you meet.

As you pass people on the street, your brain processes both the big and small signals, compiles everything together, and tells you whether someone is male or female. This is all based on a combination of things – both artificial (clothing choices, hairstyle) and biological (height, build, facial structure, secondary sex characteristics).

To be seen as a woman you have to do a lot of work to make sure that people see the female signals you’re putting out before they see anything male about you. This means hair styled in a more feminine way, smoother skin, breasts, and female clothing choices. These are all based on more traditional gendered signals that are accepted more or less unconsciously as defining someone as female or male.

Now of course, you can do whatever you want and present however you want, and present with any mishmash of traditionally gendered signals that make you happy – and you should never be attacked for this. There are people out there who will be aggressive, but that’s on them, not you.

Two people are standing at a Pride march. The woman on the left is wearing a yellow T Shirt that says 'Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?' and the person on the left is wearing a black and turquoise dress, a long red wig and strong make up. They have decorated their beard with glitter.
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

If you love having a full and well-groomed beard, whilst wearing silky dresses and sharp eyeliner, then you rock out. But you won’t pass as a woman. You’ll attract a lot of attention, but people won’t see you as female, even if you say you are. And that is because passing is almost entirely about what other people see.

Deciding on what gender looks like is both biological and cultural. This is something we’ve evolved over millennia, although more specific gender signals are based on more culturally specific cues.

As well as the bigger signals like physical size, voice depth and facial hair, gender is also based on hundreds of micro signs from behavioural cues, to smaller, subtler things like fullness of lips, the distance between lips and nose, the shape of your eye sockets…

But dogs don’t exist…

You’ll probably already have encountered people ready to chip in to point out that there are many women who have facial hair; some women are very tall; some men have breasts if they have gynecomastia; some men wear dresses… so how can you say what a woman or a man is? There are so many exceptions to the rule, so why have rules? Gender doesn’t exist – checkmate transphobes.

This is what I call the ‘dogs don’t exist’ argument. (No, I am definitely not saying that trans people are like dogs. It’s a slightly clunky analogy. Bear with me.)

How do you define a dog? Well, dogs have tails. They have four legs. They play fetch. You could argue that dogs don’t exist, because horses have tails, tables have four legs, and Gretchen Wiener can fetch. But of course deep down we all know that’s nonsense, of course dogs exist. We know what a dog really is.

I’m talking about stepping away from post-modern word games, and relying on rare exceptions and deliberate confusion, to talk about your actual daily life in the real world. The truth is, that while there are plenty of ways that people can break the mould, that doesn’t stop the mould from existing.

A dog stares at the camera, looking excited.
Photo by from Pexels

How to fit the mould

And if you want to pass, you do need to fit the mould as best you can. Of course this doesn’t mean that the mould is shaped like Marilyn Monroe, and if you aren’t a 1950s housewife/blonde bombshell then you’ll never be seen as a woman. But it means that you need to give society all the signals you can to show that you are aiming for the mould we unconsciously recognise as female.

Marilyn Monroe

A lot of those things that you want to change will be things that likely cause you discomfort or distress at the moment, if you have dysphoria. Some of those things will only change with time, HRT or surgery. But plenty of these things can be changed through choices you make and things you can do yourself, from how you talk, to the clothes you wear, to the way you style your hair.

Passing is largely about matching social expectations of the gender you’re aiming to present as. It’s not about you telling people you’re a woman and them having to mentally remember that, although that might be how it goes at first. Passing is about you genuinely being seen and comfortably accepted as the woman you are.

And the good news is, you can get there.

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