I hate this statement.
I said it a couple of weeks ago to a friend when they made a comment about their not passing, and as soon as I said it I internally smacked myself. I hate it when people say it to me; why, even if meant as a kindness, should I think saying it to someone else should be any different?
I will tell you that the trans* person this is said to is 99% aware of exactly why they don’t pass. And they don’t need to list it over again. Of course the people who say this mean it kindly: they say it through the filter of love, or concern, or being an ally. When someone says that to me – “I don’t see why you don’t pass” – I know they’re saying it because, to them, I am me, and exactly the genderqueer masculine of center queer who passes as the man that I wish to be perceived as. Or they at least get that I prefer masculine pronouns.
But passing or not is not a problem to be solved by a brainstorming session. When it is set up like that, a trans* person’s gender presentation becomes subject to debate and measure against a binary normative standard. My “realness” as a man becomes a function of my ability to act as macho and emotionally detached as possible. My masculinity becomes a measure of the way I carry my body and how wide my hips are and the fact that I have piercings in my ears. And when I’m measured against normative standards – whenever any person is measured against normative standards, whether cis or trans*, they are going to come out second best. And their identity is going to be dismissed as not real enough.
A woman in class recently referred to me with feminine pronouns. The first time, I thought I’d heard wrong, but I deepened my voice just in case. Then, she stumbled. Ah, thought I, she gets it. I’m not a girl. Then she did it again, with more confidence, and I internally cursed the fact that I needed to wear a hat in class to keep from getting a migraine from the fluorescent lights and that the shirt I was wearing didn’t have a collar and that my hips looked especially wide in these pants and a hundred other things that kept me from passing as the man I wanted to be seen as. The next time she did it, I quickly interjected, saying “I’m not a girl”, but I don’t know if she even heard me.
Why did I not pass?
I know why. I know all the reasons why. Because I am me. Because my experience isnot that of a cis man, it is that of a trans* man. Because I’m faggy, and queer, and like to push boundaries and live at an angle to the myth of normal.
Saying that you don’t get why I didn’t pass is not comforting, as kindly as it may be meant. You may not know, but I sure as hell do. And saying that you don’t see it merely reinforces the idea of a binary normative standard, that impossible temple of Man and Woman where we all scramble to reach the pinnacle of Ken and Barbie, respectively, while only rarely acknowledging the sheer absurdity of that struggle. To compare a person to the standard of normative gender expectations is to both delimit and invisiblize an individual’s experience, and none of us have the right to do that to another, no matter how kindly meant it may be.
What do we say instead? How do we keep from problem solving a person’s identity? Instead of seeing a person’s identity as the problem, acknowledge the issue of binary gender assignments. Say that you’re sorry they had that experience. Be an ally, a friend, someone to hold space without needing to bring more to it, and recognize that if we – all of us – held ourselves up to those myths of normative gender, we would, each and every one of us, fail to pass.