Dysphoria and the Myth of passing


There exists a constant social pressure upon transgender and many other non-cisgender individuals to ‘pass’ as one gender or another when in public.

When one thinks of the term ‘passing’, various connotations spring forth. Sometimes, I imagine it as the ability to ‘pass’ a person in the street and have them rendered unable to discern personal and intimate details about one’s gender, sexuality and physical sex. Other times, I imagine it as only passing; it isn’t a complete and perfect success, but it’s a pass. It’s good enough. It may not be authentic, but it is passable. Often I am brought back to thoughts of Paris is Burning, and the discussions of ‘realness’ in drag; realness is not real, it is not absolute authenticity; such a thing is deemed unachievable by many drag artists. Instead, realness is the distilled essence of the feeling of being the closest version to a thing that the ‘real’ you could ever be.

As a genderqueer person (and specifically as me), my attempts to 'pass' or present masculine are both beneficial and detrimental to me. I am 5’6, a UK size 6, with a ski-slope nose and bright red lips. By no means the most extreme picture of stereotypical femininity but such a profound departure from the norms of the masculine western body that my efforts to masculinize myself to meet the standards of conventional ‘western’ masculinity are only ever half-effective. Instead, a body which is undeniably femme becomes a canvas upon which my failed presentation is visible- I enjoy the process of masculinizing until I step back and, in witnessing the composite of my efforts, it becomes evident now that I represent an unsuccessful attempt to convey something internal through the external.

I do my utmost to reassure myself, as many of us do- that many cisgender men are my height, many cis men wear make up (although rarely in an attempt to conjure an image of a stronger jawline or lower cheekbones like I do), and above all else, that authentic masculinity can even come from cisgender female bodies, such is the nature of gender. Unfortunately, there is no remedy for the displacement of my sense of self when I sit in my binder on a busy train and I am aware of myself as an 'almost'- I almost look how I feel in my head. But not quite. At best I am unsatisfied- at worst I am crawling in my own skin. That sense of discomfort is pervasive in every inch of my being and doing whilst I am out in public, attempting to display myself as male(ish); it is in the conscious choice of how and where to put my legs when sat down, the angles at which my jawline will appear the strongest, even the way I tend to avoid smiling because those lifted eyebrows create a softness in my face which betrays my attempts. I always describe my dysphoria as an exaggerated, extreme sense of a shoe never quite fitting right; at least when I present femme I can hide the ill-fitting shoe. When I attempt to appear masculine, it feels like everyone on the train must be staring at my comically large shoes, as if I were a child who stumbled into their father’s wardrobe, convincing nobody of my suitability for this attire.

Sometimes, it helps to draw upon drag as a means through which to make myself comfortable not with my failed ability to ‘pass’, but the more achievable ‘realness’ of my presentation. Sometimes, the feeling of being closer to a drag king than a person deemed truly male feels like a humiliation. I do not wish to discredit drag or devalue it as an art form (especially as drag is a means through which we can all subvert the expectations we hold regarding what ‘real men’ look like); it is that I do not wish to perform my queerness. I do not want who I am to be art, I want it to be ordinary. I wish it to be an unconscious performative experience, and never once a conscious performance.

Reflecting upon these matters, my question is thus; how much of dysphoria is internal, and how much of it is a response to the cisnormative space we are expected to inhabit? That sensation of the ill-fitting shoe is dampened when I attend pride and heightened when I attend a conference. When we support gender-diverse youth, we do our utmost to directly tackle their feelings of dysphoria through their mental health and their bodies, but in doing so, do we neglect to acknowledge the rigidity of the societal parameters within which queer bodies can- and are supposed- to pass?

Of course, we cannot synonymise the experiences of passing and authenticity when discussing transgender and other non-cisgender individuals. As a genderqueer person, although I long to be able to ‘authentically’ appear male, female or androgynous at various points, I do not (very often) feel that these struggles to do so discredit me as a genderqueer person. After all, the prerequisites of my identity are that I queer gender. When transgender individuals are expected to pass, it is not just about presenting authenticity, it is about proving it. AFAB (assigned female at birth) transgender men are held to account for their identification as male; they are not trying to pass ‘as trans’, they are trying to present as who they truly are- a man. If we consider Michel Foucault’s assertion that “visibility is a trap”, this statement feels most applicable to trans individuals who transition across and, thus, remain in the gender binary. The moment one becomes visible as a transgender man or woman, you are held to account for your male or female-ness; it is a complete and all-encompassing measure of you. When you exist within a binary where the parameters are determined by cisgender culture, you are expected to play by the rules and stay within those parameters. A failed ‘passing’ is read as a discredit to one’s authenticity as a person- if you are visible as a male/female, you must always be the absolute female/male; or the consequences can be hostile, threatening and even violent. Being visible as a transgender person- whether aesthetically, socially or politically, is a great risk. Every time you pass more effectively than before, you must maintain that standard; even if the standard is rife with (internalised) misogyny, toxic/hegemonic masculinity and demeaning heteronormativity.

Ultimately, the comfort I find as a genderqueer person who cannot pass is that, for many of us, passing means appeasing the cisgender gaze. Passing means that we should aspire to be 6ft, muscle-bound, low body fat males and soft, dainty, tissue-paper females. When we give cisgender people the power to tell us who we are, we are always incomplete- we are always inauthentic- we are always barely passing. Perhaps as a community we need to consider what is and isn’t worth striving to attain from the conventional conceptions of gender identity; perhaps, as a community, all that should matter is passing (with distinction) by setting our own standards for gender authenticity. It feels like an impossible task- but undoubtedly one we should strive for.

Passing is a myth; non-cisgender people are never truly allowed the civil liberties and freedoms that our cisgender counterparts are, because our identity comes with an asterisk, a clause. It is time to stop expecting one another to pass a test we never signed up to take.