Why The Focus On "Passing" Transgender People Harms The Trans Community

I belong in the women’s restroom. Not because I adhere to any societal standard for femininity, but because I am a woman.

Transgender stories are everywhere; from news broadcasts, reality television, to Oscar-nominated films about trans people, the media cannot get enough. The trans community has never been under such a glaring spotlight. The attention comes at great risk; but, with the irresistible promise of a better tomorrow.

From this chaos has arisen a disturbing trend. With few exceptions, the transgender people being featured and profiled happen to be, what we reluctantly call, passable; a term bestowed upon trans people who ‘pass’ as cisgender. With the media’s penchant for casting attractive folks aside, the primary factor at play here is whether or not a person is readily identifiable as transgender.

The passable bias is frustrating on many levels. Giving the general public an incomplete picture of trans expression. It normalizes the cis-looking trans person, while simultaneously diminishing the validity and worth of those unable or unwilling to pass. It erases non-binary, gender queer, and gender fluid people entirely.

Furthermore, the passable bias demonizes those who cannot pass. For an example, look no further than the transgender bathroom debates igniting all across the country. As easy as it would be for me to vilify the conservative viewpoint on this matter, it is the imagery employed by both sides that trouble me.

It tells everyone that doesn’t fit neatly into boy/girl categories that they don’t matter.

When a news agency wants to feature a transgender person in a panel discussion over proposed bathroom regulations, they invite one who meets the typical standard of expression for their identified gender. At some point in the interview, the opposing commentator and we the viewing audience are invited to answer a simple question about the trans panelist, “Does she belong in the men’s restroom?” (as an example).

The implication in this instance is that we should find the notion of her in a men’s restroom ludicrous because she “Looks like a woman.” Even a few of the conservative commentators I’ve seen, when confronted with this paradox, have acquiesced to this stunts implied intent with statements like, “Well, she looks like a woman to me.”

Anti-trans political ads play on the fears that every parent with little girls shares: peeping toms, perverts, and pedophiles. These ads accompany terms like transgender, a man in a dress, and predator with images and video of nefarious looking men entering into women’s restrooms. In their social media campaigns they share pics of hopelessly attired men in bad wigs and make-up; asking the viewer to ponder the world where this man could legally share a locker room with your daughter.

Sharing these pictures and having passable trans people out there carrying our banner is necessary; it just isn’t the whole picture.

What infuriates me most, however, is the transgender community perpetuating the passable bias. It is simply a harmful standard of acceptableness. If you’re on any form of social media, then you know what I mean. Once again we are shown pictures of people we’re supposed to assume are transgender — a handsome man with a rough beard or a beautiful woman with an infectious smile — and the same question, “Does he belong in the women’s restroom?” or “Does she belong in the men’s restroom?”

I’ve seen hundreds of variations on this meme with each one presenting “passable” trans people. I have shared a few myself.

The result of this massive under-representation inherent to both sides is that it negatively reinforces the gender binary in a way that’s impossible for everyone to live up to. It tells everyone that doesn’t fit neatly into boy/girl categories that they don’t matter. It implies a very dangerous paradigm; that if you cannot or don’t care to pass as cisgender, then you have no rights. If metaphorically speaking, you wear your transgender on your sleeve; you belong in your special restroom.

There was an argument posed to me recently by a transgender woman, in defense of these depictions of passing trans men and women; her thinking was that passable trans women, for instance, are more palatable to the sensitivities of the general (cisgender) public. To be fair, she has a valid point. The average person is more likely to accept a transgender woman that appears stereotypically female. However, the idea that we put forth those individuals who best appropriate binary culture as our ambassadors to the world, and somehow expect the cis community to understand that not all transgender folks meet these restrictive standards, is naïve.

I understand the intent; their hearts are in the right place. Sharing these pictures and having passable trans people out there carrying our banner is necessary; it just isn’t the whole picture. Just as cisgender women have struggled for decades to showcase the breadth of female diversity (Barbie only recently decided to begin production of new dolls which represent the fabulousness of many body types), we in the trans community must insist on diverse representation.

 “We make assumptions every day about other people’s genders without ever seeing their birth certificates, their chromosomes, their genitals, their reproductive systems, their childhood socialization, or their legal sex. There is no such thing as a “real” gender - there is only the gender we experience ourselves as and the gender we perceive other to be.”
Julia Serano

As for me, I belong in the women’s restroom. Not because I adhere to any societal standard for femininity; not because I may wear girly clothes or make-up; not because I was fortunate enough to have gender confirmation surgery, and not because I “Look like a woman”. I belong there — because I am a woman.

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