Visible Man: The Politics of Passing
Transgender Tapestry Magazine, published quarterly by the International Foundation for Gender Education, has instituted a new feature over the past year or so called "The Journal." Editor Ms. Dallas Denny solicits topical essays and then asks other writers to respond to the ideas in a subsequent issue. The format has yielded some very thought-provoking content. In Issue #95, Fall 2001, the topic was Passing, and the invited contributors were Holly Boswell and Jessica Xavier, two longtime trans activists with very different personal and political styles. I admire and respect them both. They use divergent entry points on the concept of passing, but both lead to acknowledging the harm that is couched within the seductive lure of passing and the emptiness of the privilege with which passing tempts us. Here is my own response to some of the issues they raised.
Ms. Boswell quotes Leslie Feinberg: "It is passing that's historically new. Passing means hiding. Passing means invisibility. Transgendered people should be able to live and express their gender without criticism or threats of violence. ..." I must disagree with the premise that passing is historically new. This is an unprovable statement, and there is considerable anthropological and historical evidence to the contrary. Feinberg's statement is a rhetorical device intended to invoke compassion for those who cannot or do not "pass," and to challenge those transpeople who do pass to step out of the closet; it is not a statement of absolute truth. Passing does not unequivocally mean hiding or invisibility. Everyone has some aspect of their life that is hidden, one perhaps for which they might fear vilification if it were common knowledge in certain circles. This situation is not unique to gender-variant or sexual minority people. Further, I understand that many trans people are terrified of not passing, and that this is a horrible fear to live with. What we need to be working toward, on the political as well as the social front, is freedom to realize "a greater sense of congruity between our inner and outer being" (which is what Holly advocates beyond passing) regardless of what this looks like to others!
I don't agree, either, with Holly's statement that "Passing inevitably reinforces sex-role stereotyping, sexism, and gender duality." Why is this inevitable? Women who pass as women have been quite successful at breaking down sex stereotyping, sexism and gender duality in the feminist movement. Men who pass as men can do the same thing with respect to breaking down sex-role stereotypes, and some have been working hard to do just that. You don't have to look gender-queer or even be gender-variant to understand and speak up for freedom of gender expression. Holly's right, though, that many transpeople "who pass report new forms of disconnection," and we have to work to ameliorate that situation. Our ability to hide and assimilate is not new, though, and it is not difficult to understand why, facing the reactions of those who oppose and ridicule us, so few transpeople "out" themselves or demand dignity and equality in spite of our difference.
Ms. Xavier's piece discusses how passing privilege for gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people has "dumbed down" the identity politics of the GLB movement, reducing it to the "we're just like you, we just do something different in the privacy of our own bedrooms" argument, and perhaps passing transpeople have fallen prey to the same rhetoric, trying hard to believe that the privacy of their genital difference should be glossed over politically and they should have equal rights, too, just leave their bodies covered, thank you. I have long agreed with Jessica that this line isn't going to work for transpeople. Our collective variance is much greater than that, and if we are truly to achieve social justice, we cannot fight only for the ones who look "nice." We have to fight for everyone, because our issues are more pervasive throughout our lives than just who we have sex with in private. And many GLB people have the same social issues as we do, even if they don't regard themselves as trans, and whether they pass or not.
I am grateful for Jessica's observation that (she estimates) "90% of transsexual men eventually gain passing privilege [but that] spending half their lives developing queer consciousness within their lesbian communities, many transsexual men are not only aware of but also ambivalent about their passing privilege." However, though I don't think she meant this exactly, I feel compelled to point out that there is no statistical proof that a majority of transmen have prior lesbian experience. Ms. Xavier's text also implies that most FTMs are straight (attracted to women post-transition); this is also not statistically verifiable. My exposure to transmen causes me to estimate that only 60% have had any lesbian experience or connection to queer culture, and that roughly 30% of FTMs identify as gay men, whether they had exposure to queer culture prior to transition or not.
I would not generalize that exposure to queer culture prior to transition predisposes one's posttransition sexual orientation toward homosexuality. I would generalize that most of the few transmen who are politically active and most willing to be publicly "out" have been through the political mill in queer culture, have had their consciousness raised, and bring to their trans-activism considerable organizing experience. Some of us, though we may be new to the trans scene, have been doing political activism around sexism, racism and homophobia for decades. If we are the only transmen that are visible, it is not surprising that Jessica and others would draw conclusions like these, but I assure you that transmen are more diverse that that. We have our sexist pigs, homophobes and transphobes, too.
Jessica points out something else I've often said: "We will never be nontranssexual" (or nontransgendered), whether we pass or not. When our sense of congruity between our inner and outer being is stronger and we feel more at home in our bodies, regardless of the shape or sex of those bodies, and we no longer have to fear having our difference discovered, then we can rest. Until then, whether we talk about passing as if it's either "important/necessary to pass" or "politically incorrect to pass because it's bad to look good," all that does is continue to make everyone feel bad.
We need to be talking about passing as if it doesn't matter, as if it is not what is important. Because what is important is that for all of us the goal is freedom to be who we are, regardless of our difference or variance, regardless of what we look like or what gender we identify with for what part of the day, so long as we are not harming another person. What our genitals look like, or whom we love, or how we need to change our bodies (or not change them) should not matter with respect to our ability to live safe, productive, rewarding lives as full members of society. To that end, I think invisibility is more dangerous than passing per se. It's one thing to be invisible and have people react in shock, shame, intolerance and hatred when your difference is exposed, whether or not that exposure happens against your will; it's another thing to pass and have your difference understood and respected even if it is not exposed all the time.