P is for Privilege. And Passing. And Peeing.

This just in – the world still hates trans people. Since it’s become less and less socially acceptable to beat on the gays and lesbians (not to suggest that doesn’t still happen, because it does), right-wing bigots have needed to find somewhere else to direct their hatred and toxicity, and the target is trans people.

By now, I’m sure most or all of you are aware of the phenomenon of the “bathroom bills” and other anti-trans laws sweeping the US – legislation such as North Carolina’s House Bill 2, Mississippi’s HB1523, and Tennessee jumping on the bandwagon too, among others.

The “rationale” (note the scare quotes) behind these laws is to protect cis women from male predators – the idea being that a man will hang out in the ladies’ room to leer, and claim he’s trans as a defence. Nevermind the reality that actual trans people, and trans women in particular, are one of the most victimised minority groups in existence – we’re the ones who actually need protection.

Nevermind that there is zero evidence that trans people attack anyone in bathrooms. Old white guys, like the ones pushing these laws, on the other hand? Not so clean a record.

Anqa / Pixabay

Being trans sucks. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Often, it’s a package deal comprised of debilitating dysphoria, unceasing anguish, bureaucratic difficulties, social isolation, horrific medical experiences, and more. It’s not something we choose. Pretending to be trans for secondary gain – like defrauding your creditors, or even gaining access to the “wrong” bathroom, is a pretty inane thing to do. And the only people who ever do such things are the rabid transphobic bigots who are trying to prove this faulty logic correct – which simply goes to show, the threat is not trans people, but rather cis people.

We’ve all been in public restrooms. No one walks around with their junk hanging out. There really isn’t anything to see. That’s why unisex bathrooms can, and do, exist – it’s a pretty innocent space after all. So the argument that people don’t want their wives and daughters to “see inappropriate things” is absolute hogwash. And transphobic hogwash at that.

Because, if you haven’t realised it by now, I’ll explain what’s really happening. None of these laws are about protecting anyone. They’re all about marginalising the trans folk. Keeping the “freaks” out. And it’s all based on this idea that anyone who’s trans is an aberration, and that you can tell someone is trans just by looking at them, and that biology and genitalia and destiny are all wound up together into one inescapable entity.

I take issue with the terms “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” that people, especially in medical circles, still sometimes throw around when referring to trans people. Because those words are: a) offensive and b) useless. I’m female. This body that I live in belongs to me, so by extension, I must be female-bodied. To suggest that my body is somehow male is obviously offensive, and also grossly inaccurate. Because it isn’t male. It has estrogen as its predominant sex hormone; its testosterone level is so low as to be almost undetectable. It has hips and curves and breasts. It might need a prostate screen blood test, but it might also need a mammogram – there’s no way to tell from the terms “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” what is medically necessary for my body. Being a woman who was assigned male at birth tells you that I’m trans, but it doesn’t tell you anything else. It doesn’t even rule out the possibility that I might be intersex, for example.

The reason I’m talking about this is because cisciety likes to take away our agency over our bodies. It likes to say that, no matter what our identities are, it has the final say over our biology – in assessing it, categorising it, and making decisions based on it. Which is utterly nonsensical – we’ve known for a long time that sex isn’t binary, and to try to shoehorn everyone into those neat little boxes just doesn’t work.

But now, here’s the thing that I really want to discuss. The victims of all of this cisnormativity are trans people – of course, that is true. But, it affects us disproportionately. And the determining factor?

It’s how well we “pass”.

And “passing” itself is a shitty word, because it implies that we’re trying to be something we aren’t. It ties our value as people in to how closely we approximate cisgender people. It totally negates non-binary identities, and imposes cis-centric standards onto everyone.

But it’s a real concept.

weightlossnyc / Pixabay

I have never been thrown out of the ladies’ room. Or even received a sideways glance while I’m in there. I’ve never been turned away by the clerk at the fitting rooms in a department store. I’ve never heard someone say “Tranny!” as they walk past me on the street. I’m addressed as “ma’am” or “Miss”. Never “sir”. Neither in person, nor on the phone.

Make no mistake, that’s privilege. The privilege that comes from people looking at me, and assuming that I’m cis. So, my “risk profile” in navigating the world is roughly the same as a cis woman’s – which isn’t great in the first place, because the world is so misogynistic – but it means that my being trans does not make me especially a target.

Of course, I live pretty openly. The fact that you’re reading my blog right now is testament to that. So sure, there are a lot of people out there who know that I’m trans, but that’s not because they’ve read me as trans – it’s because I live a life that’s out.  There’s a bit of survivor guilt that comes along with all this – but that’s a subject for another day.

Now, in my case, I don’t make an effort to be read as cis. It just so happens that the combination of my physical features, and my natural behaviour, and the gender expression with which I’m most comfortable all line up with society’s expectations of a cis woman (and a straight one, at that… which is a whole other problem in and of itself).

And because cis is acceptable, and I am read as cis, I am seen as acceptable.

It’s easy for me to say, “passing is bullshit”. It’s something that I firmly believe in – none of us should have to “pass” for anything other than ourselves. But I recognise that I have a very limited role in discussing this subject, because I do pass. The fact that I have “passing privilege”, and that there are a whole bunch of things that I don’t have to worry about because of that privilege, means that I don’t have the agency in this discussion. I’m less affected by these issues than a lot of other people are, and I need to acknowledge that and own it.

I need to figure out how to use that privilege to amplify the voices of those who don’t have it, and to do so without speaking over them.

And sure, it hurts, because I hate that my siblings are persecuted based on the judgments society makes about their appearances. It pains me to my core that people I care about are ostracised, maligned, threatened or even killed because they don’t “fit in”. And I dream of a world where we aren’t subject to these arbitrary, bullshit standards that invalidate our own identities for the sake of other people’s comfort.

Because society wants to shoebox everyone. Male or female. One or the other. Definitely not both, definitely not neither, definitely nowhere in between. One or the other.

What does “passing” look like for someone who has an identity that isn’t binary? It’s invalidation of that person’s entire identity. Fitting into one of those boxes – the boxes that society insists on – comes at the cost of the core of a person’s being. And it’s a sacrifice that a lot of people make – for the sake of safety, or convenience, or simply because they’re too damn fatigued to keep explaining it all, over and over again.

When we’re read as different, we have to make excuses or apologies or provide explanations for who we are. Because people don’t “get it”. Because we’re seen as being on “the fringe”. We are the Other. The abnormal. Because we transgress these unwritten, but immutable, laws that govern our bodies and our identities.

I get that too, as a binary trans person. I make people uncomfortable, if they know that I’m trans. In fact, passing sometimes exacerbates that, even. Because I’ve been in situations where people were perfectly comfortable with me until they found out that I was trans. And then, that terrible revelation really messes with them.

“But she looks so normal!”,  they probably think.

“I’d never have guessed she was trans.”

That’s the real shock. That a freak like me was walking among you, and you had no idea. That I’m so deviant, and so abnormal, and so well-camouflaged. It all feeds back into that damaging idea that trans people are the predators, that we’re out to fool and deceive and pretend to be something we’re not.

It’s exhausting. To always have excuses and explanations at the ready, to do all of that emotional labour that’s necessary to make someone else comfortable with who I am. And of course, respectability politics doesn’t take time off. So if I need someone’s help, say with renewing a licence, or picking up a new credit card, it doesn’t get me any closer to my goal if I get all angry and stand-offish. I have to smile, and giggle, and bat my eyelashes, and be the Good Trans Person.

lecroitg / Pixabay

So, there you have it. Passing is bullshit, and it’s easy for me to say, because I do pass, and I accept that I have a position of privilege here. But cisciety’s fixation on passing, and the idea that we all need to fit into neat compartments in order to be regarded as acceptable, is a notion that damages all of us. It damages some more than others, no doubt – but whether you’re cis or trans, binary or non-binary, gender conforming or non-conforming, these are arbitrary expectations that don’t care who you are as an individual. It’s an algorithm, a short-cut, a flowchart that’s designed to assign you some value or some worth based on what you look like and how you act.

And if you don’t measure up? You’re seen as a threat, or a predator. Something rather than someone. An entity that should be feared and hated and shunned. In fact, you shouldn’t even be allowed to pee.

Now, someone explain to me again how this isn’t a total load of nonsense?

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