We Need to Drop “Passing” from the Trans Lexicon
Note: Historically it was important for black people to pass as white to get ahead, just as it was important for Jews to pass as non-Jewish during Hitler’s time. For more on the history (and sometimes present state) of passing beyond the trans community, read this article from Transadvocate.
“Passing” is an inherently broken concept. You can only “pass” as something you’re not. To say a trans woman “passes” as a woman, is to say she isn’t really a woman. It is much more accurate to describe how one is read, not if one passes. “I was read as female at work today” is a lot more accurate than “I passed at work today”. Think about it: When cisgender people are misgendered (which happens often), is it accurate to say they weren’t passing? Does anyone ever hold cisgender people to the gold standard of passability? It never happens. Why do you think that is?
Gendering is an active process done by the observer, not the person being observed. When someone is gendered, they are being read as one gender or another by the observer. It is the observer’s beliefs, socialization, and cultural norms that decide how they gender someone when looking at them. Social gender is a collaborative act. Society constantly redefines which cues mean what, and its members adjust their appearance to fit the norm. The language of “passing”, however, unfairly places the onus of “proper” gender presentation on the person being observed. It says to trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming people, “if you’re harassed, it’s your fault!” It falsely describes gendering as a passive, natural process and encourages victim-blaming. It is never a trans person’s fault for being misgendered or victimized, but “passing” makes it so.