Perfect "illusion": femininity as armor and the problem of "passing" for transgender women

Perfect "illusion": femininity as armor and the problem of "passing" for transgender women

"I used to never feel safe, like ever, anywhere," said Jasmine Infiniti, a noted San Francisco DJ and nonbinary trans woman of color. "Sometimes I still find myself fighting off feelings of fear to even step foot outside, even this morning as I was late to work and my weave wasn't laying flat and I had to consciously fight the pressure of needing to be hyperfemme." 

For Infiniti, as for many trans people in 2016, identifying as nonbinary means that she must must live and present inside the gender binary, which insists that men are hard and women are soft. Though the idea that you can only be a man or a woman is almost passé and simply not a reality for many trans people's complex identities, the conflict between self and society rages on. For trans women in particular, presentation is about more than identity, but practicality.

For trans women, the presentation of femininity is so closely linked with safety that the two have become conflated into the notion of "passing." Trans women are often taught by culture, both trans culture and cis, that passing as a cisgender woman is the ultimate goal of trans presentation. But passing is an antiquated notion that has no place in a post-visibility world, a world where trans people are finally being centered in their own stories. It's harmful to trans people, a symptom of a larger systemic imperative for women to look a certain way to be deemed acceptable.

Passing is an antiquated notion that has no place in a post-visibility world, a world where trans people are finally being centered in their own stories

The lengths to which some trans women go to achieve "unclockable" feminine beauty range from simple to drastic, can get expensive and for the most part overlap with the same tokens of femininity that cis women subscribe to: makeup, wigs, weaves, extensions, designer clothing, high heels. This can also include hormone replacement therapy, laser hair removal, electrolysis as well as plastic surgery. For some women this is simply an effort to transform their body into the shape it was denied by biology. For others, it's survival. 

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recently reported that Crystal Edmonds, a trans woman of color, had become the 20th reported killing of a transgender/gender non-conforming person in 2016, making this year one of the deadliest on record for trans women. The correlation between the rise in violence against trans women and their increasing visibility is clear: With people more aware than ever of trans women, trans women who are not "passable" are more easily identifiable, and therefore in more danger than ever before.

"Women are conditioned to look a certain way, because even in cis women, you see them get treated differently depending [whether or not they are] classically beautiful," actress Trace Lysette, one of the stars of Amazon's groundbreaking comedy series Transparent, explained.

When Lysette transitioned 14 years ago, passing was a way of life that trans women were conditioned to partake in, because of the reality that to be read as a cis woman was to be safe. "It was the goal," she explained. "If you were transitioning in New York City prior to the trans movement, it was all about getting on the subway and getting to wherever you needed to go without having an incident where you needed to defend yourself or get off the train. When it comes to passability, it's something that we need to heal from."

But while it still keeps trans women safe from violence, the imperative to pass helps to reinforce the culturally held notion that trans identities are entirely aesthetic, something hammered home by Matt Bomer's recent casting as a trans woman in upcoming film Anything. Trans actress Jen Richards broke down on Twitter the sweeping effect Bomer and other cis actors' casting in trans roles has on actual trans women.

"Cis audiences reward [cis actors in trans roles] because they see being trans itself as a performance," Richards wrote. "The main reason not to have cis men play trans women ... [is that] it will result in violence against trans women."

She explained that men who are attracted to trans women punish them because culture teaches them that trans women are actually men in disguise.

"Culture as a whole still thinks trans women are 'really men,'" she continued. "Decades of showing us that way in shows. It's been internalized."

"When @MattBomer plays a trans sex worker, he is telling the world that underneath it all, trans women like me are still really just men," she wrote. "And that is going to lead to violence. Not to me, likely, but to girls already most at risk," she said, referring to sex workers and trans women of color, who face the most violence.

Infiniti understands all too well the desire to escape this kind of discrimination. "We often aim to pass because of the privileges afforded cis people and we think the only way to access those privileges is by fitting into that box," she said.

Therein lies the vicious cycle of passing: trans women attempt to pass because cis culture demands it,  and then are either told that their womanhood is superficial or brutalized when their transness is revealed.

The world trans women live in has changed. In 2015 Caitlyn Jenner proclaimed her transness to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair. Transparent has presented a dysfunctional family with a trans matriarch and won unequivocal cultural praise, industry support and awards recognition. Trans models walk the catwalks of major designers' fashion shows and even appear on the covers of magazines.  

But with visibility comes scrutiny, and while trans people are being looked at more than ever, it's still by the gaze of cis-hetero culture, a culture that by-and-large requires trans women to fit into a mold of traditional feminine beauty to be deemed acceptable. We're invited to dinner, as long as we dress up.

"'What's the test that we're passing, and who determines who passes and who fails?'" asked Zackary Drucker, a producer on Transparent, paraphrasing a conversation between Chloe Dzubilo and Tabboo in the seminal queer documentary Wigstock: The Movie. The answer is multifaceted, because the answer is: everyone.

The reality of daily life for trans women is that their womanhood is challenged, mocked, invalidated and destroyed based on their presentation. Some women see complete submersion into cis-normative standards of feminine beauty as the only way to stay safe, whether from the pain of misgendering or the very real threat of violence and murder, mostly from men who are attracted to trans women. "Think of the defense that men who murder trans women use, which is that they've been tricked," Drucker challenged. "Trans women can't win, you're screwed either way."

Infiniti explained that when she said she once felt safest presenting as hyperfemme, that meant the traditional Barbie model of female beauty. "For me," she said, "I have to have extremely long nails, extremely long hair. In the past, my presentation was always in question — most notably by cis gay men, who ask me where my heels are if I'm wearing flats, or who often misidentify me as a drag queen, policing my presentation or dismissing my gender because of a lack of makeup." 

That gay men, undoubtably the most visible contingent of the LGBTQ communities, would be such poor allies to trans women is as surprising as it is disturbing, and it points to larger issues of deeply rooted misogyny in gay male culture. For an example of how extreme gay male transmisogyny can get, look no further than the reprehensible and dangerous Out profile of right-wing media troll Milo Yiannopoulos, who gleefully exclaimed, "You really expect me to believe that I shouldn't laugh about trannies? It's hilarious. Like, dude thinks he's a woman?"

The divide in queer communities doesn't exist only between trans women and gay men, but between generations of trans women. Drucker brought up that many trans women, especially those who came of age before the trans visibility movement, engage in a sort of willful denial that allows them to pass. These women, Drucker shared, see the trans visibility movement as harmful to their identities because they are now more easily identifiable as trans women. 

"There's this deeply internal process and performance and at the heart of it, they believe that they are not trans." These women, she explained, often are only "outed" when they enter into a relationship with a heterosexual man who wants them to carry a child. "That's when you reach a point where you realize, this person doesn't know who I am."

Therein lies the rub: While presentation and identity are inextricably entwined in trans people, they are still two entirely different concepts. Trans people who don't subscribe to the notion of passing push back against it, Drucker added, "because we feel that our truth is different: We feel that there is an internal mechanism that unifies us that doesn't have anything to do with the exterior."

Who knows what options future advancements in science and technology will grant trans women. In the future, it's possible it will be incredibly easy to determine how you are perceived to the world, either through virtual reality or cosmetic procedures that are quick and seamless. But will the idea of passing still be as important in that world? Gender nonconforming young people around the world are refusing to submit to binary restrictions of what it means to be a man or a woman, or whether the idea of two genders is an antiquated model we should leave behind entirely.

While the children may indeed be our future, trans women hoping to live within a cis-normative society still need to survive. We need our allies to take on some of that labor for us more than they ever have before.

"Cis people can recognize their privilege and open their minds," Infiniti, who identifies as a nonbinary trans woman, said. "We don't need their pity but we do need understanding, or we at least need them holding space for us. Cis people who might be attracted to trans people should recognize the ways in which their standards of what we should look like negatively affect us. Everyone is entitled to a preference I'm sure, but truly analyze where that preference is coming from."

Trans people are also changing their own definitions of what it means to be women, to be men, to be trans, to be people. Is passing even an issue anymore if we simply stop taking the test?

"It's only now, a decade or more [after transitioning], that I have gotten to a place where I can buy a pair of men's sweatpants or jeans or men's sneakers and rock it with a ball cap and no makeup and I feel fine," Lysette said. "Maybe I'm feeling butch one day, maybe I'm feeling femme the next. It's very new for me. That's the evolution of my womanhood and my gender. None of us is completely binary if we really think about it."