If there’s one term within the trans* community that has become synonymous with a successful transition, I would choose the term “passable”. Internet support groups and websites directed towards trans* people are full of questions, advice, and photos all dealing with passibility. In depth discussions between trans* people quite often contain conversation related to this topic in some manner. As a transgender woman, I have found myself caught up in many conversations and reading many web pages dedicated to this topic.

Passibility in the trans* community has been primarily a defense mechanism. Living stealth can literally be a matter of life and death for a trans* person, particularly for trans* persons of color. Trans* people have historically been an invisible population in our society. We are rare, and are not encountered by a large swath of society on a daily basis. Couple that rarity with the historical perception of trans* people as mentally ill, and we see a perfect storm ripe for discrimination and rejection. This is the junction where passibility can become more than a desire; it becomes a survival necessity.

The pressure this puts on trans* people is immense. Not only do we have to deal with our own gender identity issues, we must also deal with external pressure to conform to societal and peer ideals that are arguably more severe than the standard expectations of our target gender. Our ability to pass is constantly scrutinized by random strangers in the general public. More concerning and potentially far more damaging is the pressure on our passibility from within the community itself. Internet forums are full of trans* people posting photos asking each other for feedback on their passibility level. Before and after photos are posted on Facebook with the intention of showing what is possible, and inevitably lead to comments by trans* people still in transition or contemplating transition expressing desire to be “that passable” someday.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a trans* person using information on ways to appear more like their target gender, or photos of other trans* individuals as a part of goal forming. We all need a vision of where we want to end up through our transition. There is a line though where comparing oneself to a particular ideal can be self defeating, causing more consternation than help in reaching goals. The trans* community is at a point where it is time to examine the negative implications of passibility.

The primary goal of passibility is to appear visually enough like the desired target gender that a random stranger cannot detect that the trans* person has ever been anything other than their target gender. Therein lies the first major problem with passibility: Which example of the target gender should a trans* person aspire to? Within the binary system of women and men, there are a wide variety of physical appearances to choose from that can be ascribed to the trans* person’s target gender. Some are marginalized more than others. Nonetheless, they are considered by and large to fit within one gender or the other, typically assigned by external genitalia. This wide variety is often ignored when it comes to judging the passibility of a trans* person. More often than not, we are held to the visual ideals of the more extreme ends of the binary gender system. That kind of subjectivity is arguably dangerous for a trans* person’s long term development. When trans* persons put our photos up for others to view and critique our passibility, we are opening ourselves to the subjective opinion of another person. The critiquer has their own closely held views of what constitutes passibility for the target gender, which may vary dramatically from those of the person asking for the critique. This can quickly lead to let down and negativity about the progress a trans* person is making. A similar problem is under attack right now in mainstream society, as more people are recognizing that the trend of Photoshopping models and idealized advertising are causing harm to our children. Passibility judgements encourage the same behavior: holding someone up to an idealized standard that is subjective and may be completely unrealistic.

This brings me to the second problem with encouraging passibility: Some trans* persons are unable to reach their primary goal of being passable due to physical realities. People come with a wide range of genetic physical traits. Those traits dictate how far a trans* person can proceed towards their idealization. The limitations imposed by this are a hard line that must be worked around. There are boundaries that cannot currently be crossed no matter how much HRT or surgery takes place. Subjecting trans* persons to the passibility test is thus inherently discriminatory because our physical appearance is subject to limitations beyond our control. How do we defend our fellow trans* persons who cannot meet physical ideals in society if we continue to hold ourselves to the ideal of being passable?

Also beyond our complete control is the third problem with encouraging passibility: Passibility is “pay to achieve”. There are quite a few trans* role models and online photos of trans* people who have achieved remarkable results towards becoming their target gender. This can be incredibly expensive. Trans* persons are a minority with a high likelihood of being impoverished. Simply holding a job to pay for basic living expenses can be a struggle. Some trans* persons are lucky enough to earn enough to cover every procedure they need. Some scrimp by, forgoing other basic needs to achieve their goals. The poorest among us struggle simply to pay for the counseling they need to work through their issues, unable to afford even basic HRT. Even with insurance assuming more responsibility for trans* care than ever before, the medical system continues to favor those who can afford treatment, leaving our trans* community divided into haves and have nots. In pushing passibility, we inadvertently leave the poorest among us behind.

The final problem with encouraging passibility is the more recent acceptance of gender fluidity within the trans* community. This idea is also being aired in the general public with increasing frequency. Clasically, the trans* population has been acknowledged as an extension of a gender binary system. That is to say, if you are not happy as a man, you must be a woman. The idea of binary gender is being abandoned by medical science and the trans* community. We recognize there are people who simply are not part of that binary, and will not fit any interpretation in a binary gender system. Determination of passibility can never apply to everyone on the spectrum in this view of gender.

The trans* community is more visible than ever before. We have seen members of the community step up and put a very public face to the trans* community. Major magazines and news organizations have been pushing articles, interviews, and information to the public like never before. Stories about trans* children are proliferating, putting focus on trans* issues such as our extremely high suicide risk. Most importantly, this attention has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. This is no longer an issue for scholars and doctors to discuss only with the trans* community and their support network. This has been put forward as a societal problem to be addressed, and that means the necessity for secrecy and stealth is beginning to fade.

It is in this light that we must begin to address the overemphasis on the term “passable”. Passibility is, by it’s nature, an exclusionary judgement that tells people whether they are acceptable or not. This is not in line with the goal of societal acceptance of the trans* community. We need to move beyond this historical terminology born out of necessity and look to a future with goal-based, realistic personal transition. There will unfortunately remain parts of the world where the ideas of stealth and passibility will, for now, remain a critical safety need for many years to come. Nonetheless, the work of eliminating passibility as the gold standard for a trans* person must begin at some point. That time has come. We must stand together and acknowledge that we are acceptable regardless of whether or not we meet our personal ideals or the ideals those around us would hold us to. We must stand for ourselves and be silent no more.

Copyright 2015 Brianna N Schuman


This work is licensed to The TransGen Times under the Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives v4.0 license. For information on what this license entails, please visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/

by Brianna N. Schuman

TGT Contributor

Ending Passibility in the Trans* Community:

A Vision for the Future

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