Monday, April 6, 2009


Some of the comments on this post got me thinking about passing. My understanding of the evolution of the word is that it originally referred to black people who "passed" as whites, and has taken on more applications over time. For instance, transgendered individuals are often referred to as "passing" for the gender to which they're transitioning. Similarly, gay people are often pressured to "pass" as straight. A similar concept is that of "covering," which consists of downplaying some socially unfavorable aspect of your identity which is already known to others. In his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino talks about several examples of covering, including the pressure not to "flaunt" your homosexuality in certain contexts, and the pressure put on women in the workplace to downplay the fact that they're mothers in order to advance their careers.

I find both concepts fascinating, but I've always had a few issues with the concept of passing. In many contexts, passing is contrasted with "being who you really are." But I have some healthy doubts about this concept that you could strip away all the layers of identity that your culture has imposed on you and find the true authentic you underneath it all. However, going down that road would seriously derail this post.

At the same time, I do see these identities (woman, black, gay, etc) as social constructions and scripts that are imposed on us/chosen by us/enacted by us/rejected by us... So I think the concept of passing can be particularly useful in conceptualizing socially constructed identities. When a "black" person (under the one-drop rule) masqueraded as a "white" person it was thought of as passing, because they were pretending to be something that deep down, underneath it all, they essentially were not. When a homosexual person maintains the facade of straightness, it's thought of passing because we believe that there are basic fundamental differences that undergird "gay" and "straight." And when a trans woman performs femininity it's thought of as passing because in our culture we still really tend to think that some mysterious biological essence determines your gender.

Beyond the essentialism (and problematic fake binaries) that the concept of passing reveals, there's the issue that the process of learning to perform a particular gender script and embody a particular social construction is much more visible to us when a person undertakes the project as an adult than when it is slowly learned, internalized, and perfected throughout our childhood. This is the norm, and it occurs in a largely invisible way.

And yet, if you really think about it, we're all passing. No matter how girly or burly you might be, nobody perfectly, completely, and comfortably inhabits every aspect of their assigned gender. Everyone has been exhorted to "act like a lady" or "keep your chin up" at some point, and most of us have figured out how to act the part and fly under the radar in many ways for the sake of convenience. And as the years pass and we become comfortable with the part we're acting, it begins to feel so natural that we forget that we had to make it fit at some point. So we think we really are masculine/feminine/straight/white/bi/whatever. Like deep down somewhere in our souls. This phenomenon is known as "bad faith" in the world of existentialism. I prefer to think of it as having sunk very deeply into the rabbithole and drunk from the bottle labeled "drink me."

So if we're all passing all the time to some extent or other, then it would seem that trans people and others who are undergoing a major transition are less likely to be in bad faith, because they're more likely to see gender as a script to be performed. But I doubt that this is the case. Among transgendered people I know (limited study population here), the commitment to the gender binary is no different than among the cisgendered population - they just think that they had the bad luck of being born into the wrong kind of body or assigned the wrong gender at birth. So in their case, passing is a more visible and more conscious phenomenon. It might occupy a lot of their time and energy, and be a success or fail proposition to them. But it's still thought of as a process of truly becoming feminine or masculine, and is not just a question of learning how to follow the script, and rejecting the script altogether is not an option.

And yet... it seems like we would all benefit by a major questioning of/stretching of/ditching altogether of the script. Why do we need these binaries anyway? I get the whole heteronormative "we need to know who's what so we can know who to reproduce with" shtick. But if you're already going to tolerate gay/bi/trans/whatever "lifestyles," then hasn't that ship sorta already sailed? I mean, if the original idea was to have some sort of organizing schema by which you could look at someone's outward appearance and know whether or not they were a potential mate for you, then clearly our schema has already become deeply dysfunctional, so why cling to the fundamental and antiquated elements of it?


  1. I'd never thought about the difference between passing and covering before. It seems like a lot of times people mislabel covering as passing. Interesting...

  2. Some of the comments on that feminsting post were really depressing.

  3. Jackson4/07/2009

    But acting girly really does come natural for a lot of women. So I'm not sure I agree with your claim that everyone's passing. And most transsexuals feel that their inherently gendered, but it's just the wrong gender to match their body. So they're not "performing" gender anymore than cisgendered people are.

  4. @ Jackson

    Are you arguing that gender is intrinsically tied to sex, or that somehow these aren't social categories that are imposed on the physical? It's hard to tell what your position is.

  5. But [transitioning is] still thought of as a process of truly becoming feminine or masculine, and is not just a question of learning how to follow the script, and rejecting the script altogether is not an option.

    Trans woman here who doesn't agree with that. There are two aspect of gender: gender identity and gender expression. People, cis and trans alike, often confuse the two as being the same thing. The script you talk about is gender expression which I see as entirely a social construction of what it means to be a certain gender. Gender identity seems to be more fixed and is why I identify as a woman.

    I try to consciously choose what parts of the script I accept and what I reject. I choose when I try to pass and when I could care less. However, it is important to remember that for trans people passing is quite possibly the only thing keeping them whole and alive. Our society does not tolerate well violating the gender binary. Enforcement can be brutal and sometimes deadly. So adhering to the gender binary can be as much a strategy (as it is for me) as an honest buying-in. YMMV.

  6. @Lucy

    This is a really interesting distinction that I've heard before. I guess I'm not in a very good position to analyze the distinction between gender expression and gender identity, because to me it's always been about gender expression, or actually, flying under the radar. I've never felt particularly feminine, but I don't feel masculine either. I can't even really comprehend what it means to "feel like a woman." My cousin (D) and I have had this conversation before, though, because she claims that she always "felt like a girl" even as she was growing up as a boy in very conservative, small town MN.

    Maybe part of the problem is the only way we can describe what it is to "feel like a girl/woman" takes the form of gender expression. D was always jealous of girls clothes and toys and more interested in playing with the girls at recess. To me that's all gender expression, but it may just be that this is an experience that's easy to identify but hard to describe. And I may just be abnormal with my total lack of gender identity other than what's been socialized into me. I mean, I can pass very easily, partly because of my natural appearance which tends to conform to gender norms even without the clothes, makeup, and hair styling which I can't bring myself to fuck around with. And being athletic helps, as people dismiss your androgynous behavior as being tomboyish. But I used to think something was wrong with me precisely because I'm so lacking in the gender identity. Now I suspect others are too, but have also learned to hide it.

    And I totally agree that there's nothing negative about passing - it's just more visible, and more of a conscious effort for trans people, and an issue of safety. So I had no intention of shaming people or portraying passing as a negative thing. I hope it didn't sound that way! I think the fact that we as a society still insist that you pick one is the problem, not the individuals who conform based on their own desires or concern for their safety.

  7. I do wonder if it isn't a minority of people who have a strong inner gender identity rather than one based on what has been assigned to them. Language for describing how one feels gender identity is totally lacking. I can only say it's the way I identify and it has nothing to do with clothing or toys. And, I suspect my wanting to be around girls/women since I was little has more to do with my sexual orientation than my gender identity. It is quite frustrating to not be able to be able to do anything more than assert my identity because it comes off sort of woo-woo. Though I suppose the same is true for sexual orientation.

    No, you didn't sound that way. I brought that to your article because of reading too many trans-negative articles on gender expression by a certain stripe of feminists. So, the fault is mine. Anyway, it does disturb me when anyone buys into the social script without question. Moreso when it's trans folk because I think it should be more obvious to us that it's all a social construct. But clearly I'm projecting myself onto others since there are those who accept it as though it is a natural law.

  8. I actually think of this as another area where privilege is at play. I have far more flexibility and room to play with gender and/or refuse to perform it altogether because I fall into the heterosexual, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, and athletic categories. For me it's not an issue of safety, and the worst I've gotten is a lot of raised eyebrows, which I can handle. So I think that feminists who share my view that gender is something that should be challenged, stretched out, illuminated as a restrictive social contruct, etc should also realize that many people don't have the luxury of safely engaging in gender-challenging behavior. But since I'm in the business of raising two girls, and I want them to have the freedom to really explore their world and choose their own identities (to whatever extent that's actually possible), I feel that it's all the more important for me not to conform and perform gender in any way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

  9. Lizzay4/09/2009

    Maybe the gender expression/gender identity distinction is more clear for people who have always had conflict with or rejected the gender they were assigned at birth. Maybe if you didn't experience this big tension, you're just unaware of your gender identity as it just sort of exists in the background for you. I guess if I think about it long enough I'm not really sure what it mean to feel like a woman or identify as a woman either, beyond the performance of gender. But maybe that's just because my gender assignment has always been relatively unproblematic for me.

    It would be interesting to hear how other trans folk would describe this.

  10. i'm not sure i can add that much to this discussion, but it seems interesting and i'm glad somebody's having it. i'm a transwoman and i'm pondering this distinction in terms of my own experience right now. i've strongly identified as a girl/woman for as long as i can remember, but it is hard to distinguish that from the external manifestations of gender that you guys are referring too. maybe a part of the problem is that if you think of your earliest experiences, you were just a child, and children tend to think of things in fairly shallow terms, which may explain why your cousin expresses it in terms of interest in toys and clothes. so maybe the mismatched gender identity manifests itslef in the form of an interest in the outward expressions of gender, or maybe these aren't really that distinct from each other, but one grows out of the other. maybe the identity grows out of the scrip, and some of us are really, really uncomfortable with the script we're born into, so we never fully acquire the identity.

    but that sounds kind of dismissive of the experiences of others, and i don't want to dimis anyones lived experiences.

    i really like your blog, and it seems refreshingly un-exclusionary. but i kind of have low expectations for feminists blogs along those lines. :-(

  11. Bailey4/10/2009

    Hi Lucy, Rachel, Lizzay, and diana,

    I'm a transman, and for me it was never really that I felt "like a man," but more that I didn't at all feel "like a woman." I've talked to two other transmen who express it this way too. But I'm very early in the transitioning process. It might be that as time goes by and I become more comfortable my inner feelings will change from the negative (am not a woman) to the positive identity (am a man). It would be interesting to see a poll done asking a lot of transfolk how they experience this.

  12. @ diana

    maybe a part of the problem is that if you think of your earliest experiences, you were just a child, and children tend to think of things in fairly shallow terms, which may explain why your cousin expresses it in terms of interest in toys and clothes

    That's a really great point that I hadn't thought of.

  13. OK, Rachel, since you're such an expert with the online survey tool (she designed a kick-ass survey for me at work) why don't you make up a poll on this? It would be interesting to see both identity: cis (male or female) genderqueer, trans, other and whether or not the person experiences gender identity as separate from gender expression. It would also be nice to leave an open comment box where they could describe their experience with this.

  14. Anonymous4/21/2009

    Im really uncomfprtable with cis people discussing the experience of trans people. I don't think you can compare your experience to mine. Their not the same.

  15. Bailey4/21/2009


    I didn't get the impression that Rachel was doing that, and many of us who have commented here are trans. What exactly is making you feel uncomfortable?