The importance of physical appearance insofar as how society perceives an individual’s gender cannot be overlooked, and herein lies the reasons behind the desire that many trans people have to pass. Gender is largely determined by both appearance as well as personal expression, and so many of us use certain cues in order to project the identity that we wish to be perceived as.
Passing is something that all binary and many non-binary trans people contend with, often on a daily basis. The term passing is used in reference to whether or not a trans person is perceived as their preferred gender in terms of appearance, and it is not an absolute thing. Some trans people might pass all of the time, but for many of us the reality is that we pass sometimes and don’t pass sometimes depending on various factors.
Passing as men or women does not itself make us that, and indeed for some people there’s no need or desire to pass as either of these things. For others, there’s an element of fluidity. Ultimately it shouldn’t matter whether one passes in order to be treated as a human being, but then society at large has its ways of ignoring humanity based on various (perceived) identities.
I am originally from the US, but have lived in India for the last eight years. It may be surprising that India is in any way a better alternative to the US when both countries are deeply dysfunctional and degenerate conservative societies which have fallen prey to the whims amoral capitalists and religious bigots, but the difference for me lies largely in passing and perception. It’s not easy being a trans woman in India, but unlike the US I’m not so regularly threatened with violence or in-your-face verbal attacks that are simply a daily reality for trans people there. This does not mean that I’ve never faced verbal or sexual harassment, nor does it imply that I do not face housing discrimination. Rather, what I don’t have to deal with is the combination of drama from my family or some random jackass shouting at me telling that I’ll go to hell and that it’s morally wrong for me to be this way. I still mostly avoid foreigners in this country, and what I’ve definitely noticed is that by and large they’re rather disrespectful towards trans people in general. Again, this itself is a question of passing.
If there’s anything that would further illustrate how this manifests, it’s the stark contrast in the ways I was treated in the FRRO in Bengaluru and the US Consulate in Chennai some years ago. While the Indian officials at the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) were somewhat understanding of my situation and identity (and indeed everyone addressed me as “madam” without ever having to say anything, this too when my passport had my deadname and demarcated me as “male”), those at the US Consulate were nothing aside from condescending and patronising towards me. Absolutely none of the American officials respected or even acknowledged my gender identity, and indeed insisted that I contact the same unsupportive relatives that I’d not spoken to in years. To be absolutely clear, this was years before Trump and his ilk were in power and actively dismantling whatever semblance of rights that trans people have in the US. Rather, this occurred at a time shortly after then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama were speaking about queer rights (though well before the US Supreme Court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage). Clearly, narratives about queer rights and the reality stand in stark contrast to one another.
Not all trans people find it desirable to pass, and for non-binary trans folk it becomes even more complicated because then the question arises as to what they would want to pass as in a society which still assumes gender to be a binary thing. Many members of traditional male to female trans communities (such as hijras) don’t actually try and pass as women, and indeed present themselves in a distinctive manner that indeed marks oneself as a member of that community. This is their prerogative.
Indeed, I’m not sure if I’d put much effort into passing if it made no difference. Gender is ultimately a social construction and nothing more than that, and there’re absolutely nothing that’s inherently feminine about wearing makeup or sarees or whatever. None of that makes me a woman, and indeed it becomes prudent to question what is womanhood or manhood anyway. Indeed, this is not a new question, and the very nature of gender is quite poignantly highlighted by the 12th century poet Sathyakka (who was a Bahujan woman and a part of the Sharana movement):
It is not necessarily true that a person with long hair and breasts is a woman,
Nor that wearing a beard and carrying a dagger makes one a man.
This is the way of the world and not of the wise.
It’s the sweetness which makes a fruit,
The fragrance that makes a flower.
Only you know this secret, Shambhujakkeshwara.
Even today, society at large fails to understand that sex and gender are two different things and not necessarily correlative. Obviously these ideas might have been novel in the 12th century, but after three consecutive waves of feminist theory over the last century and a half it’s deeply disappointing that people still fail to grasp this and resort to biological essentialism.
I’d love it if things were such that I could be more fluid than my gender presentation and not constantly face that godforsaken query of “ladies or gents?” whenever in public. That, however, is only a remote fantasy and my rejection of the masculinity imposed upon me has wound up meaning that I’m coopted into presenting in a more feminine manner every day – it’s actually pretty astounding how far something small like wearing eyeliner and a bit of concealer will go in terms of people respecting you as a woman. Obviously, there’s no real connection between makeup and womanhood, so this simply becomes a manipulation of sorts in a society which still sees these things as connected to gender. It’s obviously not essential to my identity as a woman, but then being affirmed as one by people in public is important for the sake of my sanity.