Privileging passing

Trans people are said to “pass” if people who don’t know their history believe them to be of their preferred sex. Some trans-identifying women (or “trans men”) pass quite well, testosterone having given them facial hair and broken voices. It’s much harder to modify an adult male body to look and sound convincingly female. No doubt there are some trans-identifying men who can pass in casual interactions, but they will be few and far between. 

Sometimes trans-identifying men claim – and some may also believe – that they pass, and are routinely accepted as female by those around them. 

Let’s circle away from this and think about something different for a bit.

Imagine you go to a teacher, wanting to learn a skill. The particular skill doesn’t much matter – singing, say, or drawing or dry-stone-walling. If you’re a sensible student of any of these things, you approach the task with humility: the teacher is the expert, you’re the beginner. You pay attention to feedback. You don’t let mistakes rattle you – on the contrary, you study them with interest and treat them as things to learn from. 

But imagine that instead you are a particularly fragile student. You take every criticism as an affront. Suppose you go for a first singing lesson. You sing something, and instead of rapturous applause, what you hear is that you’ve got an adequately pleasant voice, but no technique – you’re going to have to start from the very beginning. You’re wounded and indignant – you insist that your technique is excellent and your voice is exceptional. You rage at the teacher for her want of discernment.

Learning to sing isn’t going to go well, is it? 

Now suppose that when you attended your first lesson, your reputation had gone before you. Word has gone round that last time a teacher offered you any criticism, you denounced her on Twitter and on Facebook groups, and wrote to her employer trying to get her sacked. Others piled on, and some of your supporters sent her death threats. 

So this time your singing lesson seems to go swimmingly. You’re a natural! A glittering career beckons!

Do you see the problem? Your past behaviour has wrecked your chances of hearing the truth. Teachers will either refuse to engage with you, or else tell you the flattering lies you want to hear. Worst of all, this can happen even if you’re personally blameless. If it’s known that this is how singing students and their self-appointed allies often behave, the chances are you won’t hear the truth even if individually you are a perfectly sensible student who cares more about learning than about hearing praise.

So let’s get back to the question of passing. 

Consider the punishments awaiting a woman who makes it clear that she doesn’t believe that a “trans woman” is a woman. Think what has happened to women who have spoken up on this subject: JK Rowling, Rachel Rooney, Helen Watts, Raquel Rosario-Sanchez, Maya Forstater, Kathleen Stock, Rosie Kay – to name just a few. 

So if you are a trans-identifying male and you have the impression that women don’t give you a second glance in the ladies’, think it through. Three different explanations are possible. One is that they take you for a woman. Another is that they know perfectly well you are a man, but also know that it is important to you to be treated as if you were a woman and don’t want to hurt your feelings: they want to be kind. 

But there’s a darker possibility. They may be too frightened to give any outward sign of discomfort. If a colleague were to turn on her heel and leave on finding you in the ladies’, what can she expect to happen next? She might be hauled in to see a manager to be told off for bullying you. She could be formally disciplined or even – especially if unrepentant or, worse, candidly indignant about your violation of her boundaries – dismissed. If she was a member of a regulated profession, you might report her to her professional body. You could get her sacked or end her career. You could swing a wrecking-ball through her whole life as punishment for defying your demand to be validated in the ladies’. 

So you know what? She’ll probably control her facial expression and slip into a cubicle and pee, or shit, or change her tampon. You may still be there, a few feet away, adjusting your hair or make-up in the mirror. She won’t like it, but it’s better than the alternatives on offer. If she’s there to deal with her period, do you think she wants to emerge and wash her hands a couple of washbasins along from you? So she may stay in her cubicle until she thinks you’ve gone. 

Now suppose you’re in a public place – the toilets at a railway station late at night. Suppose you are tall and heavily built. Suppose a woman sees you in the toilet and gives no outward sign of fear or discomfort. 

Again, the possibilities include that she hasn’t noticed you are a man. But they also include fear. You may not have much power over the woman’s career in this situation, but the violent abuse and threats directed at dissenting women have taught her that “TERFs” deserve to be punched, at least. So this woman whose lack of overt reaction to your presence you might like to claim as proof that you pass may simply be acting out of self-preservation. You’re probably bigger and stronger than her, and women are trained from an early age to fear men. 

I have been that woman, not very long ago; not in the toilets in my workplace or at a railway station late at night, but in a Marks & Spencers store in the middle of the afternoon. I emerged from my cubicle simultaneously with a tall, muscular man in women’s clothes. I washed my hands briskly and left. I didn’t stare, I didn’t tut, I didn’t ask him to leave. I gave no sign that I had noticed he was a man. He may have taken my lack of reaction for evidence that he passed. It was nothing of the sort: it was evidence that society has decided that it is acceptable – indeed righteous – to bully and threaten women who defend their boundaries from men intent on violating them. 

Society has decided that it is acceptable – indeed righteous – to bully and threaten women who defend their boundaries from men intent on violating them.

So please forgive me if I treat the claims of trans-identifying men that they pass as female with some scepticism. They may pass as female in much the same way a mugger passes as in need of financial assistance.

I acted as I did out of physical fear of what might happen if I objected. 


  1. Evelyn says:

    Thank you for your insight, and for having the nerve to write it. You are spot on.

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