‘Passing’ vs ‘being read’

Posted: January 1, 2011 in Bodies, Damned binaries, Gender
Tags: , , , ,

‘Passing’. Oh how horrible the term is. It is used to describe a binary trans person being accepted as a cis member of their true gender. For example; ‘He passed in the shop; the checkout clerk called him ‘sir’.’

It’s a word with connotations of deception, of the person hiding themselves in order to be taken for something they’re not. Which is self-evidently false, in the case of trans people; it is possible that it could be used in combination with the person’s assigned gender, but it’s not a word that I would ever bother with. Used in the context of the person’s true gender, it’s merely yet one more brick in the stereotype wall of the deceiver, the ‘trap’, the ‘not-real’ stereotype that many trans people get on the wrong side of every day. Let’s be clear here; a trans woman is a woman, a trans man is a man. Non-binary people tend to be left out of the equation as far as ‘passing’ is concerned; since society doesn’t recognise us, we can hardly ‘pass’ as our true genders/non-genders.

Another problem is that it sets cisness up as the default. In this ciscentric culture, cis men are seen as the benchmark by which manhood can be measured, and cis women as the benchmark for womanhood. Also generally, ‘passing’ implies taking the norms of any given gender to an extreme in order to be accepted as it. Why? A trans man, whether or not his body fits the social construction of ‘female,’ is as much a man, as much a male as any cis man. Some people do not wish to be seen as cis. Others are non-normative examples of their gender, and thus are set up to fail by the ciscentric, gender-normative standards of ‘passing’.

It also implies that the other people in the situation are totally passive, their brains not making the many neurological connections required to make an assumption like ‘this is a [cis] woman/this is a [cis] man’. It implies that the trans person does all the work which is then translated into a uniform result in all onlookers. This simply isn’t true. Everyone in every situation makes huge leaps in perception; most of us translate cues such as, ‘this is a person with long hair, wearing makeup and a dress that fits’ into the bald assumption, ‘this is a woman’ (cues are generally subtler and more numerous than that, and the cues I used as examples do not exclude people who fall outside that). Also, we all interpret cues differently and perceive the world slightly differently. A woman might be seen as a cis woman by one person and as a crossdressing man by another person in a single situation.

These days, a fairly mainstream and a better, more respectful and more accurate term is ‘read.’ In the example above, one person would have read her as a cis woman, the other as a crossdressing man. That is not her fault; the two people have differing perspectives. It places the onus on other people’s ideas and does not imply deception; she is a woman, no matter what, but some people perceive her otherwise. Being read is still ciscentric in as much as most people’s criteria for being read as a gender include the appearance of being cis, but it doesn’t need to be. Non-binary people are also read as things, although rarely if every as their true genders/non-genders, and it allows them to talk about this without the binary, deceptive, invalidating stigma of ‘passing’. It’s a word that, while not quite perfect, at least places the responsibility onto the bearer of ciscentric, binarist ideas. A world where we don’t read everyone as something, where we don’t make assumptions as soon as someone comes into sight would be far preferable, but that world will be a long time in coming.

  1. Kit Beard says:

    I like being read as male – it gives me a thrill, it’s not what I’m used to. But passing as male? That implies I’m going out to be seen as male on purpose. I’m not. Frankly, I’m not even going out to be seen. I’m going out because I have to, in clothing that’s warm and comfortable.

    • JKBC says:

      Yes – that’s how I get sometimes. I get almost amused by what people read me as (I think I’ve been read as every gender/sexuality within the binary, which is simultaneously hilarious, scary and frustrating). As you say, most people aren’t particularly going out to be seen – could this be along similar lines of the male gaze and the idea that all ‘women’ must be trying to appear a certain way for it? It seems quite likely; the cis gaze, where cis people assume that all non-cis people are presenting ‘for them.’

  2. Dreki says:

    I like “percieved as” better than “read”. Generally when you read something (a book or a situation or whatever), there’s the implication that you’re reading it accurately, even though trans people can get misread a lot. Perception has more allowance for fallability, at least in my mind.

    • JKBC says:

      That’s a better terminology. (although in terms of reading situations, I seem to come across it much more often as what is misreading – perhaps that says something about my reading matter..?)

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