Deconstructing Passing Politics, A Different Framework: Identity vs Positioning

Trigger warning: I use the T-slur to talk about how others socially position me when my gender expression is feminine. I also make wording choices to reflect toxic attitudes as they pertain to trans people. As always, if you are triggered by anything I haven’t mentioned, please message me and I will change this piece ASAP!

In the trans community, the notion of “passing” embedded itself into how trans people view the validity of their identity. “Passing” is an inherently toxic notion for all trans identities, because it places the validity of one’s gender on how well they perform and express that gender. This places non-binary identities in a very awkward spot. Since non-binary identities are neither man nor woman (though some may alternate in between these genders, i.e. bigender, multigender), the question becomes “Pass… as what?” Our only genders under the white patriarchy are ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ In regards to non-binary identities, there is something about them that evokes a very condescending response from society. Non-binary folks are almost universally treated as these angsty teens who are still trying to upset their parents, because their “over-the-top” gender and possible expressions must be the behavior of somebody who just “can’t grow up.” Within the queer and trans communities, these identities are both viewed as “truly subversive,” another harmful practice that Julia Serano has covered incredibly well, and false.

For trans folk who are on the binary, we are not truly our genders unless any and all traces of our designated sex have been done away with surgically or hidden well enough. It is my contention that binary trans identities are held under a microscope, and then are held to a hyper feminine or hyper masculine standard, whereas non-binary identities are dismissed immediately and viewed as childish rebellion. If trans women and men do not fit into these near-impossible standards, then they aren’t women or men. Even if we “pass”, the moment our trans status is discovered, not only do our identities come into question, but so does our humanity.

“Passing,” as it is constructed, implies that trans people are not actually their genders, but merely trying to imitate them in denial of what society would perceive as their “real” gender. Let me be very loud and clear: My womanhood is not an imitation–it is authentic, real, sincere, and honest. Non-binary identities are not attempting to upset one’s parents or “trying to be edgy.” This is who we are as the transgender community. These are our genders and you will respect them.

Passing Politics have changed, though, and now they mostly only come up when referring to “passing privilege.” Passing privilege, as it is understood in the trans community, means folks who are seen as the gender they are expressing, meaning they experience cis privilege. This is always weaponized against binary trans people, and that is a product of subversivism in queer and trans spaces. “Passing privilege” has been modified to only apply to binary trans people, because we are “trying to pass” as women or men. There is no such thing as a cis genderqueer, but there are cis women and cis men, so only binary trans identities can experience cis privilege. This conception makes it so non-binary identities never have to own up when they experience cis privilege. Passing Politics also reinforces the idea that binary trans people’s genders are cheap imitations and knock-offs–never quite the real thing, and so Passing Politics are complicit in transphobia, harming the community as a whole.

Passing Politics are so deeply flawed, harmful, and divisive that they must be changed completely, and here is a framework that I believe should replace it: Identity vs. Positioning. Identity is the way one conceives of themself, and positioning is how they are placed in social systems by others, usually those in dominant identity categories. My definition of privilege within this framework will be the ease by which one moves through social systems. To help explain this, I will use myself as an example.

I am a trans woman, but I have not started HRT (and I wish to), nor have I had any sort of surgery to help me feel more in line with my correct gender (and I wish to). I have ‘masculine’ traits: muscley, broad-shouldered, hairy, strong jawline, large hands, and relatively tall. I have a very femme gender expression: lipstick, nail polish, dresses, eyeliner, skirts, etc. Let’s say one day I decide that I just want to wear sweatpants, a baggy shirt, and not bother with any makeup for whatever reason. I am still a woman, but in place of saying “I don’t pass as a woman today,” I say “I would be read as a cis man today” or “Others socially perceive me as a cis man today.” My identity is still woman, but I can experience practical benefits if others position me as a cis man, even if that contradicts my identity. However, that is not to say that I also experience cis privilege when I express my gender femininely. I am not positioned as a man when I do this. I am positioned as a “man in a dress” (you know that comedic trope), a freak, a tranny. I experience varying forms of violence for that.

This framework completely does away with the toxic notion of “passing.” It replaces it with a more encompassing, accurate way of viewing privilege as it can operate in the trans community. This framework, unlike Passing Politics which have been weaponized against binary trans people, does not absolve non-binary people of experiencing cis privilege, because they can still be read as cis. Trans people are misgendered when they are read as cis, but they can still experience practical benefits for it, though it is situational and context sensitive. It also does not predicate the validity of trans identities based on how well we “pass” as our correct genders, therefore affirming all trans identities and not needlessly pitting them against one another.