On Passing and the Relativity of Gender

The word “transgender” implies motion — a transition or transformation — but to be transgender is to watch others move around you.

My first encounter with the trans community, like that of many my age, was through the internet.

In that first, online life, being trans was often presented as a linear progression from the closet, through a period of bodily transformation termed “transition,” to the ultimate goal of anatomically becoming the desired gender. The great expense and difficulty of this process rendered it a long-term endeavor, which few ever seemed to complete, especially considering the relative inaccessibility of transgender-specific health care. Complicating matters further, transition itself was frequently viewed as a somewhat awkward time, especially at its beginning, when one would be between images of self, conspicuously appearing as a successful expression of neither gender. To be successfully trans, the implicit logic went, one had to pass, and passing, because we still (mistakenly) assumed gender was essentially biological if also somewhat social, was what required these expensive medical procedures. In this time, between my first and second exits from the closet, I was in despair that I would never pass, the arcane rituals of transition seeming infinitely beyond the reach of my pocket.

My despair was unfounded. I would discover in college that, at least for me, passing took no great effort and not even a single surgery. Transition, in experience rather than practice, turned out to be an entirely social process of learning new mannerisms, new ways to use my voice, new habits of dress and grooming. I found a doctor to write me a prescription for hormones, because it was the thing to do, which would supposedly result in all sorts of strange new sensations. All such promises proved untrue, although it had some anatomical effects that gradually became apparent. Over time, I began to pass. Straight men began to be interested in me, and I learned to repel them. Cis women began to assume I was one of them. Today, there are people with whom I am acquainted who have no idea I am transgender. A month or so ago, my partner’s mother declared me the most feminine person she knows and wondered whether always passing was any different from being cisgender. I admit, the latter question had occurred to me before.

The truth is, for all I desired to pass, I do not want to be cisgender, or become a transgender approximation of a cisgender person. But I have been giving this account in such a way as to prioritize others’ perspectives of me, not my own.

While I am certainly aware of what I have done to change others’ perceptions of me, I haven’t fundamentally changed myself. My experience of transition did not reveal the secret essence of femininity; nether did it alter the pitch of the voice in my head nor cause me to think of myself as inherently different from before. If, around the time of coming out, the distance between me and what I perceived then as being a woman seemed insurmountably vast, the only change now is not that I have made the hike from masculinity to femininity, but that the distance between the two proved nonexistent. The distinction between the two points was a trick of perspective.

Relativity is as real in our encounters with other people as it is in physics. To take an example from Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory, imagine you are on a train. The world out the window moves by, but the train is still, and so are you, and everyone else on board. At first, I was writing as if from the perspective of you on the train watching me move. In that account I started at some sort of masculinity and moved to being a woman. But I stood still, unchanging, as I watched you move from one perception of me to another. The word “transgender” is certainly applicable from an outside perspective; that is, from the perspective of the train, but from where I am standing its implication of movement feels inaccurate.

To be a woman, a man, or neither is all just part of human experience –– but “to be” is a misleading verb in this context, implying that gender and existence are entangled. I am certain that existence comes before gender, and that gender only comes afterward as a mode of expression. To express one’s self as a woman or a man or neither is just a fraction of the range of human expression. I cannot think it inevitable that all, or even most, people should only ever express themselves as only one gender.