Out of all the words in the transgender lexicon, “passing” is the one I hate most. And that’s no small feat.
In our rapidly evolving digital world, language is changing faster than ever. Words that seemed to be standard terminology as little as four years ago are now out of fashion, or even taboo. When I began my gender transition in 2011, for example, I called myself a “transsexual,” a word I no longer use because of its implied connection between gender identity and sexuality. Yet as words like “tranny” slink out of circulation, “passing” remains frustratingly well-used, even among the trans* community.
The term “passing,” when applied to transgender people, means being perceived as cisgender while presenting as one’s authentic gender identity. There’s a lot of power in that. When people meet me and assume that I am a cisgender man, I am afforded the privilege of choosing whether I disclose my transgender identity, and when. Many trans* folks pursue this power through clothing choices, hormones, surgery, voice training, or even etiquette lessons, and I’m all for that.
For many of us, the goal of transition is equally balanced between feeling comfortable in our own skin and showing the world who we really are. The problem is that when trans* people use the word “passing” for what we’ve achieved, it diminishes everything that we’re fighting for.
To “pass” for something immediately connotes deception and untruth. Think of plagiarists passing off someone else’s work as their own, a look-alike cousin who could easily pass for his relative, or the mocking lines of Shakespeare’s Portia in Merchant of Venice: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.”
To look at trans* people expressing their authentic selves and say that they “pass” for men or women is to diminish their identity by implying that it’s an act. Telling a trans* woman that she “passes” is like saying “You’re not a real woman, but good job faking it.”
If that sounds like a slap in the face, well — it is. Yet both transgender people and their allies continue to use this term, despite prominent advocates like Janet Mock speaking out against it. Even articles that call out the term for being controversial and negative will turn around and use it throughout. The problem is that despite the terrible word we use for it, the concept of “passing” is very real, and creates a hierarchy of privilege that can’t be ignored.
We have to talk about the divide between trans* people who have the privilege of choosing disclosure and those who don’t. It’s a divide as stark as any racial barrier, and erasing the conversation about that difference would be a step backward. But we need to change the words that we use, because the term “passing” perpetuates harmful stereotypes that cast trans* people as imposters.
The idea that transgender people are inherently deceptive is not only insulting, it’s dangerous. Perhaps the most famous example of this danger is the case of Gwen Araujo, who was killed after men who had consensual sexual relations with her discovered that she had “male” genitalia. The murderers mounted the “trans panic” defense in court, claiming that this “crime of passion ... did not merit a charge of first degree murder.” And it worked. The men were convicted only of second-degree murder. Although Araujo’s case may be the most famous, it’s far from the only instance of trans* women being attacked by cisgender men who claim they were deceived.
This leaves trans* people stuck in the middle of an impossible divide: If we are easily, visibly identifiable as transgender, we may be insulted, ridiculed, denied jobs or housing, harassed, attacked, or killed. But if we are not so easily picked out of the crowd, we risk an even more vitriolic reaction if we are “discovered” — now we’re not only trans*, we’re liars too.
At the heart of this problem is the word “passing” itself. Language has power. When people tell us — or worse, when we tell ourselves — that we’re only “passing” as men or women, that our identities are a sham or a mask meant to trick the rest of the world, the narrative of deception takes hold. “Trans panic” murders are the most horrifying consequence of this narrative, but it also seeps into everyday life in subtle ways.
This narrative of deception remains a part of public policy, even though transgender people are gaining acceptance and visibility like never before. I came face-to-face with this stereotype the last time I donated blood through the American Red Cross. The volunteers themselves were very kind and helpful, but when I explained that I am transgender, the Red Cross computer system forced the volunteers to go through the entire blood donation questionnaire with me out loud, in person. Normally these questions would be completed by the donor alone, through the computer, which both increases privacy and allows the volunteers to take donations more efficiently.
My volunteer was flummoxed. “I’ve never seen this before,” she told me apologetically. “I don’t know why it’s making you answer all of this out loud!”
I knew why. “Because trans* people are inherently deceptive,” I said with heavy irony. It was humiliating to be treated that way — as if my gender identity, which I had just voluntarily disclosed, meant that I couldn’t be trusted to answer the questions honestly.
The volunteer missed my ironic tone. She turned to me with a concerned, albeit hesitant look. “Oh ... Is that true?”
If I’d answered yes, I’m sure she would have believed me.
This is the stigma that we’re fighting. Transgender people and our allies must not buy into the idea that we are liars, that we’re putting one over on the world, that we can’t be trusted. To paraphrase Janet Mock, we’re not “passing.” We’re being.
Trans* people need a new word to replace “passing.” I prefer "being recognized."
When I’m recognized as male, it means that the people around me can see who I truly am — thanks in part to the hormones, clothing, name, and pronouns I’ve chosen. Being recognized still acknowledges that work on my part and the changes I’ve made to align my gender presentation with my internal gender identity, but it also leaves the power to define that identity in my own hands. I have always been male, even before I knew it myself. When others correctly recognize my gender, they’re not being misled. They are respecting the person I am and the way I choose to show myself to the world.
Transgender people, please: Stop “passing.” Leave the outdated, insulting, and dangerous terminology behind, and let the world recognize your authentic, courageous lives.
*Editor's Note: The asterisk after the word "trans" indicates the writer's usage as an umbrella term that aims to reflect the vast diversity of identities and experiences of individuals who identify as transgender, transsexual, intersex, nonbinary, and otherwise gender-nonconforming.