Passing is not about other people and how they see you. The only thing that truly matters is how you see and feel about yourself.
“And the category is … in the dark!”
For those of you who have seen Pose, the words of the master of ceremonies, Pray Tell, to launch the ballroom competitions will be familiar. My adaption, however, refers to how I somehow managed to remain ‘in the dark’ about Pose until quite recently. Then one day I happened to come across several rave reviews of this ground-breaking series, where many of the central roles were played by transgender or nonbinary actors. Pose immediately shot to the top of my must-see list and soon afterwards, I was bouncing with excitement and anticipation when I found it in my Netflix library.
Although there were few direct parallels in the story and lives of the characters to my life experiences, I was still delighted and amazed at how meaningful Pose was to me as a transgender woman. My euphoria, however, was rudely interrupted one night by an unexpected blow as I was watching an early episode. Inexplicably, I became aware that I was feeling vaguely uncomfortable, even intimidated, by some of the trans women (not only Elektra!). I was slightly shocked and confused since I am normally pretty confident about myself, but for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on at the time, I was shaken. What was going on? Why was I feeling that way?
It didn’t take me too long to realise that instead of focusing on how affirming Pose can be for trans women and others, I fell into the trap of subconsciously comparing myself with Blanca or Angel or Lulu. What a mistake as I found myself feeling somehow inadequate or falling short of fulfilling the profile of a “real” (trans) woman. I knew I was being far too judgemental and harsh on myself, and that we all have our vulnerable, fragile moments; nevertheless, I definitely didn’t like the feelings I was experiencing. Slowly it dawned on me that the only ‘cure’ for my distress was some serious introspection and re-evaluation of my conceptions of the nature and importance of passing.
I began with the deceptively simple question of why should passing matter to us in the first place? In other words, what are the reasons or motivations behind our desire to pass? It’s a complex subject, but for me, two clear answers immediately came to mind. The first was from a psychological perspective in that my core motivation comes from the value I place on a feminine appearance as an integral, intrinsic expression of my identity. In contrast, the second reason is rooted in a very concrete, pragmatic issue — personal safety. In this sense, passing is not simply an attempt to impress or ‘blend in’ so that people see you as nothing other than a cisgendered woman. It’s really about protecting yourself against serious threats such as bullying, harassment or violence, as well as minimising other types of transphobic behaviour in your daily life.
I could continue and expand the list of reasons, but I believe these two examples illustrate why many trans women view passing as a legitimate desire, and not mere vanity or an act that perpetuates stereotypes and supports the patriarchy (a topic for another discussion!). Nonetheless, whatever our reasons may be, I believe that we must go beyond just identifying them and look inward again and ask how does a desire to pass affect our self-respect? And if we feel frustrated and possibly overwhelmed by pressures to conform to other people’s standards, what can we do to help ourselves?
So, I’d like to devote the rest of this discussion to these questions that focus on our state of mind, but before I go further, I must make an important disclaimer. Since our community is so varied, from our identities to our life situations and experiences, any generalisations can not possibly be relevant or plausible for everyone. However, I will respectfully share my thoughts and experiences and hope you may find something helpful.
Now, let’s jump into the deep end!
In order to provide a context for my remarks, I’ll start by giving you some pertinent personal background information. As I mentioned above, I am confident about myself but I had to endure more than five decades of frustration and pessimism about my future before I could break free from the stifling confinement of my old, inauthentic life to get here. I certainly wish it could have come sooner, but now that I have been living full-time as a woman for over a year and ‘part-time’ for a few years before that, I feel at ease with my identity and optimistic about life in general. I should also mention that my bright outlook is helped tremendously by the fact that I am retired and living permanently in Bangkok, Thailand, a relatively tolerant, though not totally accepting, place to be for a transgender person.
Moving on to the ‘standard checklist,’ I’ve been on hormones (HRT) for five years, had some facial feminisation a couple of years ago and then enthusiastically took the ‘big leap’ of Gender Reassignment Surgery here in Bangkok in January 2019. In short, in terms of my biomedical transition, apart from “top surgery” which I decided wouldn’t be right for me, I have done everything I will do on the medical side. Furthermore, I began the legal process of changing my name and gender designation in my home province of British Columbia, Canada about the same time I began HRT, and completed everything in about two years. So with these biomedical and legal issues behind me, I am Sylvie Kay, female and able to live my life freely as the woman I am.
Now, we come to the “big question:” Do I pass ? Let me answer that by first stating that I have a couple of physical characteristics that ‘attract attention’ here in Bangkok. First, I have a natural full head of long, grey blonde hair and the second is that at 5 feet 10 inches (178 centimetres), I am much taller than the average woman as well most men. Consequently, people often look twice at me for these two reasons alone.
Though I can’t say that I pass all of the time based solely on physical appearance, I often do and my friends and even casual acquaintances have confirmed that, such as when a European woman came up to me in a mall and started speaking Swedish. When I told her I was Canadian, she switched to English and said, “Oh, I thought you were a Swedish girl.” Did that ever make my day! Another time when I was at a government office to get an identification card with my Thai friend and her young daughter, whose father is English, my friend said that the officials thought I was her mother-in law, and naturally, her daughter’s grandmother! Wow, an instant grandmother! What an honour! On the other hand, I have been brought down to earth with a thud more than a few times by being addressed, face to face but not maliciously, as “Sir.”
Nonetheless, whether it’s “Sir” or “Madam,” I am almost always treated politely and appropriately wherever I go and whatever I do, whether it’s shopping, having a coffee someplace or doing business in a bank. I rarely have to cope with intrusive questions, dismissive looks or irritating hassles due to my gender identity. Instead, people behave ‘normally’ and I’m taken seriously, at least on a surface social level, just like anyone else. And if I were to give you my definition of passing, that would be the key characteristic.
To me, it’s all about other people recognising my right to live freely in my authentic gender identity and accepting the ways I express myself, from my fashion choices to the things I say and do. So from this perspective, I can unequivocally say “Yes, I pass,” and this improves the quality of my daily life immensely. However, an inherent flaw of this ‘social contract’ can still leave me vulnerable to the whims of others if I’m not aware of the risks of being complacent and unprepared for the unexpected.
Unfortunately, the problem still remains that I am being judged and influenced by other people’s standards or attitudes and those could change at any time, anywhere. I can’t control the winds of change, but I can train and encourage myself to tap into an emotional anchor or mindset to deflect any assaults on my self-esteem. In other words, turn the tables around so that I am in charge and not reliant on the approval of others for my psychological well-being. Though this might be construed as an “easier said than done” proposition, I think developing an empowered frame of mind is within everyone’s grasp. Once we have it at our disposal, we can pursue passing, in whatever form or degree of importance we place on it, in an affirming, healthy way and not fall victim to the pressures and disappointments of trying to live up to what Rachel Anne Williams refers to as “toxic cisnormativity”standards of beauty.
What I’m about to suggest is based upon two closely connected goals in therapy to deal with difficult situations in our lives: building up self-esteem and breaking patterns of negative, self-defeating thoughts. I’m fully convinced that the primary reason I am respected comes from the confidence I have in my gender identity and presentation. People might look at me as I walk by and think, “There’s a tall person with long blonde hair. Oh, maybe ….she’s …dah, dah, dah.” However, if they interact with me, whatever initial impressions they might have had usually fade away quickly to the point of being inconsequential. Why? Perhaps because the power of my self-respect projects outwards so that I’m able to engage with people naturally and genuinely which, in turn, makes others relax and act as they normally do with anyone. If I ever do run into any unpleasant situations, I know that I have this power within me and I can draw on it to resolve any conflicts (if I think it’s worth the effort) and, above all, maintain my self-assurance and dignity.
I believe the key to our happiness and mental health in regard to passing is the principle that ultimately you are the only one who can determine achievable goals and judge whether or not your daily presentation reflects your true inner self and desires. Fundamentally, you must first ‘pass to yourself’ and remember that passing isn’t about comparing yourself with anyone or living up to external standards. It’s about recognising your own unique beauty, and accepting any ‘imperfections’ given the reality that no one,‘no body,’ is perfect. I’ll admit that even though I’ve sometimes wished I could be a few inches shorter, is my height really a barrier that seriously detracts from my chosen self-expression? Of course not. I am a tall woman and I should embrace that as a positive, natural aspect of my appearance.
Let me leave you with a final thought. The next time you look in the mirror, if you don’t see the woman you truly are, keep looking until you do. Eventually, the beauty that is within you will come out and shine. This won’t guarantee that demoralising comments or occasional self-doubt will magically disappear, but once you let your confidence blossom, half the battle will be won. Then you’ll have the self-belief and emotional strength to walk out into the world and ‘Strike Your Pose’ with pride.
Rachel Anne Williams, Jan 6, 2020. “Is Passing a Toxic Concept?” Medium.