Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

How to Be a Guy: On Passing (or Not)

I don’t care about passing as cisgender— I just want to be recognized as a man

My ex-husband is 5-foot-6. His hair spills halfway down his back in heavy ringlets. He dresses like a die-hard grunge holdout, in flannel shirts and baggy jeans that mask the shape of his body.

For as long as I’ve known him, people have mistaken him for a woman from behind, although it happens less now than it did when we were teenagers. At 35, his shoulders are broader, his body more definitively masculine.

But he told me that even in high school, it felt powerful to be momentarily mistaken for a woman. He enjoyed fucking with people’s expectations, watching them stumble over themselves apologizing when he turned around, bearded and baritone. He enjoyed the smug sensation of having taught someone a lesson about assumptions.

“It never felt threatening?” I asked. “Or made you question your own manhood?”

“Nah,” he said. “If anything, it was affirming. I could afford to be subversive, because all I ever had to do was turn around.”

“Would it bother you if someone mistook you for a trans man?” I asked.

He didn’t answer for a minute, and he didn’t look up when he said, “Yeah.”

It’s probably time to talk about passing.

It’s the word I skirt around, the concept I avoid touching directly — even with the name of the column that’s a tongue-in-cheek poke at it — because it’s too big and too fraught and too complicated.

Passing is not the same thing as transition. Transition, ideally, is affirmation.
Passing is an exercise in controlled conformity, in scraping away the things that make you you in favor of a clumsy code of misdirection. It implies deception: You pass counterfeit money. The other implications are just as daunting: If you don’t pass, you fail, and in a cisnormative society, that failure comes at devastating — and sometimes deadly — cost.

Within the trans community, language and values are moving rapidly away from the concept of passing. Our value and identities aren’t mediated by how well we can duplicate the gender expression of cisgender folks. More and more, we’re coming to recognize and celebrate uniquely trans experiences and expressions of gender — not to mention absence of gender, or gender outside of a binary — as genuine and valid.

What I want, I’ve come to realize, isn’t passing: it’s recognition. It’s a distinction I first encountered in an article by trans activist and educator Aiden James Kosciesza. One implies the mimicry of something I’m not; the other, acknowledgement of something I am. My gender is not a ruse; the fact that I have had to claim my masculinity does not make it less real.

But: In a patriarchal society, is it possible to want to be recognized as male without ulterior motives? After a lifetime assigned and read as female, the prospect of male privilege — the humanity it confers — is intoxicating. It’s a fast track past the roadblocks that have stood in my way for decades. It’s walking alone at night without clutching my keys, being awarded rather than penalized professionally for assertiveness. A 25 percent raise.

(“DAILY PRAYER TO COMBAT IMPOSTER SYNDROME” writer Sarah Hagi tweeted in 2015, “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.”)

How do I separate those from the desire to be comfortable in my own skin?

I pick at my motives like scabs, push myself through thought experiment after thought experiment. Would I still want to start testosterone if it wouldn’t just change how I felt about myself, but the way I was treated socially and professionally? If the narrow, tokenized niche of woman writer didn’t dissolve but instead morphed into the equally limiting trans writer? If I still made 80 cents to a cisgender man’s dollar?

(I think so; I hope so. I am trans: If I’m going to spend my life in a pigeonhole either way, I’d far rather it be one where I actually fit. And if it comes down to it — well, I’ve gotten pretty good at budgeting.)

It’s important to understand that exploring social and medical transition while retaining the space and safety to treat questions of passing as thought experiments is a privilege largely limited to trans men.

For most transgender men on testosterone, social visibility will someday become a choice. T is unforgiving as fuck. Even trans men who go off it after taking it for a while will still retain masculine features required to pass, which means we get to choose whether or not to be out as trans —which, for the same reasons, is a privilege afforded to far fewer trans women.

And for our sisters, visibility is often a double-edged sword: being seen and not being seen can be equally deadly.

Scene: My ex and I are both 16, walking on a boardwalk, and someone says, “Hey, ladies,” and we both laugh.

Scene: I’m 34, walking with a female friend, and someone says, “Hey, ladies,” and something inside me curls up and freezes.

I wonder if the real difference is that he never had to claim manhood. Never had to face the Sisyphean task of naming what he was in the face of expectations, of explaining again and again and again.

All he had to do was turn around.