Some Advice on “Passing” by Zinnia Jones

Some Advice on “Passing” by Zinnia Jones

I’ve noticed that this website is in need of more discussion around transgender, gender, and transitioning topics than I can cover (or even should cover!) on my own.

I recently reached out to writer and videoblogger Zinnia Jones, whose writing I have admired for quite some time, and asked if she would mind if I shared some of her Gender Analysis articles and videos on this website. She was more than gracious in her response.

Below you will find her February 2015 article, “Some Advice on ‘Passing’,” as well as the video. It’s a controversial subject that she approaches with a mix of sensible “food for thought,” thorough research, and an easy-to-understand conversational tone.

You can read more of Zinnia’s writings, and view her videos, at http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones.

Read on – I know you’ll learn something new by the end!

Note: I have retained the links from Zinnia’s original article, as well as the References list at the end.

Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis.

The term “passing” is typically used to describe whether or not a trans person is perceived as noticeably trans. For a trans woman, to “pass” is to be seen as a cis woman in everyday life, and vice versa for trans men. Most people tend to assume that passing is or should be a goal for every trans person, and it’s easy to see why. Some of us do find it necessary to look like cis people of our gender, because that’s what it takes to relieve our dysphoria. In other cases, the changes that we need in order to feel comfortable just happen to push us more in the direction of passing. And when people don’t know we’re trans, it can eliminate some of the insecurities that can arise when people do know, like wondering if they really see us as our gender or they’re just humoring us.

More than that, being visibly trans in public can be dangerous. In a study of over 6,000 trans people in the United States, those who were seen as “visually non-conforming” were more likely to be harassed in retail stores, hotels and restaurants, and they were more likely to be attacked when using public accommodations such as restrooms. Practically all of us have faced the fear or the terrifying reality of being heckled by strangers just because of what we look like. Passing isn’t just about aiming to reduce our own dysphoria – it’s also about keeping ourselves safe from everyone else.

“Men in dresses”: Cultural pressures in passing

All trans people should have the choice to express their gender in the way that’s most comfortable for them, but there are many such pressures that limit our choices, and passing can have more to do with cis people’s comfort than our own. Pediatric endocrinologist Norman Spack pioneered the usage of puberty blocking drugs for trans teenagers in the US, allowing them to experience a puberty that’s appropriate for their gender. This can be a lifesaving treatment for trans kids, and it can help reduce their need for future procedures to remove unwanted masculine or feminine features. Yet in a 2013 TEDx talk, Dr. Spack used one of his patients as an example of how his treatment can make trans people physically nonthreatening to others in restrooms:

“There was a bill that would block the right of transgender people in Maine to use public bathrooms, and it looked like the bill was going to pass, and that would have been a problem, but Nicole went personally to every legislator in Maine and said, ‘I can do this. If they see me, they’ll understand why I’m no threat in the lady’s room, but I can be threatened in the men’s room.’ And then they finally got it.”

A trans person obviously doesn’t become more or less of an actual threat to anyone based on how masculine or feminine they look. But when this treatment is advertised as a way to give us a body that cis people are more comfortable around, that’s just legitimizing their restroom-related fears and working within them. It leaves that particular prejudice completely unchallenged.

This isn’t the only instance where cis people have unwittingly revealed how much they’ve internalized media stereotypes while trying to express support for trans children. In the 2012 book Far from the Tree, one mother said:

“She won’t have testosterone ravaging her body. … So she’ll never get an Adam’s apple or facial hair. She’ll never look like a man in a dress.”

That particular phrase, “a man in a dress,” seems to turn up over and over:

I don’t know that she would have survived male puberty. You know, how’s she going to prove to someone that she is a girl? At best, you know, she would have been shaving every day and been the man in a dress, and that might be great for some people, but it certainly wasn’t who she is.”

They were making a transition in their 40s, 30s-plus… And especially in the case of the male to females, they weren’t looking particularly female. … If people said ‘man in a skirt’, a lot of them would have conformed to that…”

Now, are we really supposed to believe that women who transition after puberty all look like “men in dresses”? How much of this comes from an actual understanding of what it’s like to be trans – and how much of it comes from cis people who’ve watched Mrs. Doubtfire and Drag Race too many times?

Physical and financial constraints

Even if we do want to look just like cis people, there are so many factors that can make this difficult or impossible. For instance, an early treatment protocol isn’t even available to most trans people: puberty blockers for trans youth were only introduced in the late 1990s in the Netherlands, in the mid-2000s in the US, and in 2011 in England. There are still only a handful of dedicated gender clinics for children in the US, and these treatments often aren’t covered by insurance companies, assuming that a child’s parents are even willing to help them transition. And this is a moot point for many of us, since not everyone is aware that they’re trans from an early age – far from it. A 2009 study in the UK reported that the median age of trans people first seeking treatment was 42 and rising.

In adulthood, there’s only so much that transitioning can do for us in terms of appearance. As a group, we display the same wide range of physical masculinity and femininity as cis people, and as many trans people say: your mileage may vary. It’s important to remember that gender dysphoria can happen to anyone. This may seem obvious, but not everyone who transitions is going to end up looking like Laverne Cox or Andreja Pejic. There are still limits to what modern medicine can do, and there are aspects of the skeletal structure that can’t be changed after puberty, such as height, shoulder width, hip size, hands and feet. When so much of this comes down to biological chance, it’s simply unrealistic to expect that every single one of us will be indistinguishable from a cis person of our gender.

As for what is possible, surgical aspects of transitioning can cost tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, and are rarely covered by healthcare plans. Facial feminization surgery for trans women consists of a number of different procedures, and can easily add up to anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000. Chest surgery for trans men can cost $8,000 or more, and vaginoplasty for trans women can cost $10,000 to $20,000. Given that 14% of trans people are unemployed, 44% are underemployed, and 15% had a household income of less than $10,000 a year, these procedures can often be totally out of our reach. When’s the last time you had $40,000 just sitting around for facial surgery?

The social cost of passing

Putting aside the practical aspects of passing, consider what it means when this is treated as something we should all aspire to. I don’t want to shock anyone here, but maybe – just maybe – being expected to be completely invisible isn’t always good for us. That attitude has wide-ranging implications for our personal comfort as well as our place in society. For instance, look at how dramatically the stakes of passing were portrayed in a recent article in The Atlantic about voice training for trans women:

“If she slips up, the $100,000 she has spent to shed every trace of masculinity will count for nothing.”

I’ve heard from so many people who were worried it was “too late” for them to transition, because they felt that at their age, they would never be able to pass. Some of these people were in their 30s or 40s. Some of them were teenagers. But all of them were under the impression that there was no point to transitioning if they didn’t end up looking just like a cis person of their gender. They didn’t take into account every other possible benefit of transitioning, like how much this can relieve our dysphoria and improve our mental well-being and physical appearance regardless of whether we pass or not. But when this is treated as all-or-nothing, so many people will feel like their only choice is nothing, when they could have had so much more. It’s never too late for that.

The exclusive focus on passing is not new – historically, this attitude has wrapped our lives in a shroud of secrecy and isolation. In the 1988 book In Search of Eve, many trans women stated that living as a woman required an almost total separation from anyone who knew them before they transitioned. For some of them, this meant avoiding family, giving up friends, quitting their jobs, concealing their history of work experience, and starting fresh at entry-level positions in other fields. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach by Kessler and McKenna describes how trans people in the 1970s would construct entirely new biographies all the way back to their childhoods, just to conceal the fact that they hadn’t always lived as a woman or a man. For these people, passing meant having to abandon some of the most important parts of their lives.

This pervasive concern over passing also serves to keep trans people separated from one another. In Search of Eve cites a common belief that going out in groups with other trans people makes us less likely to pass, and that passing is therefore much easier for individual trans people. And a 2014 study of 536 trans people found that a fear of being outed by association was one of four major barriers to their friendships with other trans people.

The social distancing due to anxiety over passing extends further than our circles of friends. In Search of Eve reports that some trans people were opposed to any news coverage about what it’s like to be trans. They felt that this would inform a wider audience about certain physical features that are common among trans women and trans men, making it more difficult for them to pass. Some even believed that trans people who did come out, like Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, “were indirectly threatening others’ ability to pass by sensitizing the audience.”

Working past passing

This openness and widespread awareness may actually serve a useful purpose. Polls have consistently shown that personal familiarity with gay people is linked to greater support for gay rights. But while 65% of Americans report having a close friend or family member who’s gay, only 9% have a close friend or family member who’s trans. A 2012 study found that exposure to a lecture on transgender topics, as well as a speaker panel of trans people, was associated with a significant reduction in transphobic attitudes.

Clearly, outness has its benefits, both for us and for the rest of society. Passing demands invisibility, but how can we advocate for ourselves if we’re never supposed to be seen? How can any of us share our experiences or serve as role models for people who are thinking about transitioning, if we can’t even say what we are? How could I even do this show if I were trying to pass?

At its core, the very idea of passing contains an incredibly toxic suggestion. When “passing as a woman” actually means “passing as a cis woman,” it implies that people won’t really see you as a woman if they know you’re a trans woman. But why does that have to be the case? If someone knows you’re trans, why should that keep them from recognizing your gender? There’s no reason why this should be impossible. Countless cis people are entirely capable of recognizing our genders even when we’re out about being trans. I’ve come out to four doctors since 2012, and three of them still asked me about my periods. I’m pretty sure they don’t think I’m a guy.

But the glorification of passing completely rejects this reality. It rejects openness. It rejects community. And worst of all, it rejects hope. When passing teaches trans women that if they can’t look like cis women, they’re really just men, it’s pushing them away from being themselves. It’s closing off a world of possibilities for them. It’s telling them to throw away their dreams.

Passing is a very personal concern, and the way we present ourselves is a decision for each of us to make, based on our own needs and goals. Everyone will have their own answer, but the question must still be asked: Is silence always worth it?

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

Zinnia JonesZinnia Jones is a writer and videoblogger, co-blogging with Heather McNamara and Lux Pickel. She’s written extensively on the subjects of secularism, feminism, and being transgender. Since 2008, her videos have received over 8 million views, and her articles have been featured in Autostraddle, the Huffington Post, and The Fight magazine. You can reach her at zjemptv@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @ZJemptv, and her YouTube channel is at www.zinniajones.com.

 References

  • Bolin, A. (1988). In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Cole, E. (Producer). (2012, July 9). Dateline [Television broadcast]. New York, NY: National Broadcasting Company.
  • Galupo, M. P., Bauerband, L. A., Gonzalez, K. A., Hagen, D. B., Hether, S. D., & Krum, T. E. (2014). Transgender friendship experiences: Benefits and barriers of friendships across gender identity and sexual orientation. Feminism & Psychology, 24(2), 193-215.
  • Kessler, S. J., & McKenna, W. (1978). Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Reed, B., Rhodes, S., Schofield, P., & Wylie, K. (2009). Gender variance in the UK: Prevalence, incidence, growth and geographic distribution. Gender Identity Research and Education Society: Surrey.
  • Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children, and the search for identity. New York, NY: Scribner.
  • Subkoviak, P., & Scudieri, T. (2012). Transgender Chicago: The new health frontier [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://las.depaul.edu/mph/docs/HDSJ_2012/SubkoviakandScudieri.pdf
  • Walch, S. E., Sinkkanen, K. A., Swain, E. M., Francisco, J., Breaux, C. A., & Sjoberg, M. D. (2012). Using intergroup contact theory to reduce stigma against transgender individuals: Impact of a transgender speaker panel presentation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(10), 2583-2605.
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6 Comments
  • Emma

    May 6, 2015 at 12:44 PM Reply

    Many of the points you brought up in this article are precisely why I’ve chosen to be openly transgender and to do my very best (despite the inherent difficulties) to not fall into the pit of binary conformity. I am not a woman, I am a transwoman. I have adopted “transwoman” as a single noun instead of the noun “woman” needing the describing adjective “trans” because my desire to avoid the pitfall of “passing” forces me to disagree with the need to reference my relationship to the binary category of woman. Instead I prefer to be recognized as something outside of that binary, and for me that distinction is good because it tells the world a great deal about who I am as a person. It gives me a different kind of voice, a different kind of social power and influence than I could ever have while trying to “pass” as a cis-woman or to be something less than a cis-woman as is passively suggested by the phrase “trans woman”. To me, trans woman, is almost the same as saying, almost woman, near woman, or not quite woman. I’m not almost, near, or not quite anything. I am a gender that is neither male nor female, although that gender may resemble what is typically understood to be woman, hence the adoption of the noun transwoman.
    What I believe is truly crucial for the future of transgender people is that we distance ourselves from the need to conform to the binary. I know it can be a great deal less painful to conform and to, in my biased estimation, pretend to be something we aren’t, but it robs us of our social power. Social acceptance and social power are not the same thing. One is received by others, and one is taken or asserted, respectively. By being so open about my non-conforming gender identity and not shying away from the public eye (and scrutiny/judgment) I thereby assert and take my social power. I stand tall and blatantly say, “your cis-rules do not apply to me as they are, and it behooves the cis-community, not the trans community, to find a way to accommodate people like me.”
    I won’t lie, it is scary to do this. it is frightening to so brazenly transgress the social norms of the gender binary by refusing to play by their rules. It’s not a place that everyone can stand to be, and as you pointed out, many don’t. Many cave to the pressures, both internal and external, to conform to a gender binary that likely doesn’t completely accommodate them, even if it better accommodates them in their identified gender than their assigned gender did.
    I look at it kind of like this: if I force myself to conform to a gender binary standard of “passing” or “not passing” then I undermine the truly rare, unique, special, and beautiful being that I am. I am more than just a male or a female, and it behooves me, personally, to embrace that unique perspective. The world doesn’t need more copies of the same normative person, the world needs more unique individuals, more geniuses, more artists, more thinkers and philosophers. I was born with an enormous gift to be someone who doesn’t have a “normal” gender identity. Sure my identity closely resembles the binary gender of female, but it’s inherently different because of how I was born. I don’t see that inherent difference as a bad thing. I see it as a beautiful thing. The rarest of gems are the most valuable, why shouldn’t the same principle apply to genders?

  • Kladdaugh

    May 6, 2015 at 12:45 PM Reply

    Zinnia, you did very well. 100 points to Ravenclaw for citing your work. You and Dara win the internet, today.

  • Kelly

    May 6, 2015 at 4:33 PM Reply

    Great article that makes some great points.

    Passing is a concept that is fraught with issues.. So I mostly gave up on it. I’m a woman, I know I’m a woman. Do I look like one? Well, that’s kind of subjective. I move like one. I act like one. I talk like one. Do I always sound like one, no, probably not. Do I look like one? Not always. So what am I?

    I’m a happy, well adjusted woman whose confidence in herself walks in to the room about 5 minutes before she does. I’m an adopted mum and grandma – the daughter adopted me. I’m the nice of a minister, and she introduces me as such. I’m me – and that took a big step from me to happen. No, I’ve not ended up quite where I planned, that was actually a road to hell.

    I am me. I am free. And I am happy.

  • Ashley Scott

    May 6, 2015 at 5:05 PM Reply

    Good job Zinnia!
    You also can reach a younger audience. They will listen to you.

    @emma: I agree with you about ‘trans’ label. We simply are women and do not need
    a label to ‘out’ us or imply that we are different.

    I am okay with the binary arrangement though. It seems to me our struggles are largely
    from fear that we won’t be treated the same unless we go out of our way to
    ‘fit’ inside other peoples’ norms.

    It seems that too much dis associating with gender or fighting causes more alarms
    to society and makes it harder to be ourselves. If society allowed our feminine and
    masculine energies to be portrayed as they were, not being categorized as
    ‘metro’ or ‘gay’ or ‘flippant’ or ‘trans’, then we would just be seen as men and
    women in a binary setting. We would have our nuances that make us special
    and the ‘attack on the gender issue’ would go away.

    I see the fear about fitting into norms, changing. Thanks to people like Zinnia,
    Dara, people in my community including me. We reach out, encourage others
    to reach out.

    Also, for me to hear that it was a fear that when people came out,
    they would inadvertently make it tougher for others; re assures me times
    are better now.

  • Anna

    August 21, 2015 at 10:27 PM Reply

    I dunno. I like what Zinnia has to say, but I’m mostly just being myself. I wear funky wigs, high heels or wedgies, lots of jewelry, and my cosmetics, plus a scarf around my throat. I get guys checking out my legs, women complementing my fashion sense, *and* rude stares. I’m guessing I would get rude comments if I weren’t 5’10” and possessed of a confident stride.

    I’ve spent decades not knowing what was wrong, and hating myself. Now, I’m out, I’m Anna, and I’m happy. 🙂

  • Michelle Hackler

    December 13, 2015 at 9:26 AM Reply

    I am 69 years old and a transsexual homebody grandma and the pretty much is my persona. For the past seven years of being out as a woman, I have found that most of my fears about passing were all in my head. However, I must qualify that I am living in an urban area in Florida somewhat over a thousand miles from where I grew up in the rural Dakotas where I have no other family and everyone knows my present self. I am out to my past on the internet and am living off of Social Security with my partner, our one son and her two daughters. I have changed nothing legally or physically from my 53-year-old butch identity, being a people pleaser, and always putting my family before myself, even though most of them put themselves first.

    My partner constantly uses male pronouns and call me Michael instead of Michelle, but we go shopping together and to women’s changing rooms and bathrooms together and from a distance I look like a grandma, my partner looks like my daughter, and our kid and her daughters appear to be my grandkids. We have no car and walk or go by bus, sometimes for over an hour at a time.

    I don’t know what it is, but I have never been perceived as a threat to anyone’s ego or sense of being. During my butch years, I was an elementary teacher working mostly with other women.

    I am constantly amazed. I have voted in every election, now days showing my driver’s licence with my male name, Michael, on it. I tell them that I pronounce it Michelle, and they see the M. The officials look at me, smile, address me as Miss or Ma’am, with a little smile and nothing is said. The same thing happened when I was called for court duty once. I was only double checked once when I had to enter the Federal Building in town because the security guard had to have me take off my baseball cap and look closely at my driver’s licence picture, and then I entered without question.

    I have been yelled at once by some guys near my block, about are you a man or a woman, only once. In all my life, I have rarely, given out signals that I am available for sexual accounters.

    So what I have found in many areas of my life when I have crossed the invisible social barriers that exist in my area of existence that most of my fears were all in my head. As a conscientious objector never supposed to be able to get a job teaching in rural Dakota because of the strong feelings about military service in rural communities in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s to bee inspecting on German-Russian farmland in the Dakotas where I was told that I would be shot on sight, to the dangers of traveling on and living on Indian Reservations where most of the time the door on my house was unlocked even while nobody was home, had for me no validity. For the most part as an out and about transsexual grandma, never sure from one moment to the next whether she passes or not and not having any physical changes except those made by emotionally accepting her femaleness that most of my fears have been baseless. Now as an Irish-Scandinavian woman, I do now live in a low-income housing area in a minority area of town, and my kids friends are constantly in and out of my house. The neighbors and their kids come by and borrow my tools from that I acquired during my butch days, so I do not live in social isolation, which when you have children in the house you never do.

    So all I can say from my experience is for people to be the person you really are whatever that is and you will have a greater chance of being accepted. That if you identify your gender as a woman, be that woman, as much as you can publically, so that is how everyone ever sees you, and grow old.

    I seem to have fallen into a niche nobody cares, and when I am out and about in my urban area, I still have that teacher playground stare, like you are checking on all the kiddies around you. And maybe most all of my life even while being butch, I have lived in a female niche, in such a way as to not have been labeled a sissy, though being picked on as being the new kid in town, and never apart of the in crowd or I have just lived slightly visible to people around me and severely lacking a male ego. Maybe I have walked through the small safe corridors in a dangerous world all my life, and as a transsexual grandma, I continue to do so.

    But, most of my life the dangers of being a transsexual woman that this writer tells about have been missing from my life. No, I grew up poor. My mother’s father was an early part of the 20th-century immigrant fieldhand, autoworker, gold miner who died when she was 23 and her mother died when she was 12. My father was an orphan train rider in the early 20th century. My father graduated from high school and my mother finished the 7th or 8th grade. We always had enough, but our lifestyle was Spartan. There was no privilege. My dad died when I was thirteen and my stepdad was a day labor, miner, barber from a very poor family and he finished the 8th grade.

    So don’t imagine that any privilege has kept me from harm and alcohol abuse did cause problems in my family.

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