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What does it mean to 'pass' as a transgender person?

Roberto Trombetta

Passing - the ability to appear the way society thinks a man or woman should look - is a complicated thing in the trans community.

Not passing can have dire consequences - violence against trans women who don’t pass is much more prevelent than against those that do.

But the trans community overall says what matters most is increasing acceptance for trans people regardless of whether they look the way society expects them too.

Derek Davis works at bar in Mount Pleasant as bartender, manager, and sometimes waiter.

He has short cropped hair and a neatly trimmed layer of stubble. Tattoos run the length of his arms. By any account, the 27 year old is a good looking guy.

Which is why it may come as a surprise that…

“I knew when I was 19 that I was trans.”

Davis said it took him a long time to figure out he was trans because he grew up in Howard City, a small town west of Mount Pleasant, where there just wasn’t a lot of awareness about what being transgender even meant.

“You didn’t know about transgender people it just wasn’t talked about because you hardly talked about being gay let alone being transgender.”

He said he finally figured it out after taking a class on human sexuality.

“I took a human sexuality class and as soon as he was done reading the definition I was like ‘oh my god.’ I was like ‘this is it’ that’s what it was. I had come out as a lesbian my junior year of high school and like yes I liked girls but it didn’t feel right to say I was a lesbian you know? It just didn’t feel right.”

At the time of his realization Davis said he was dating a lesbian who wouldn’t date men - so he decided to wait on transitioning.

“When I was 24 I felt like I had enough and I needed to transition.”

Davis said his transition has been pretty easy.

“It’s been perfect. I have zero complaints. I finally feel like myself and that’s the biggest weight lifted off your shoulders and the world. To look in the mirror and recognize yourself and think ‘yeah this is me and I’m happy seeing this.”

Davis said now that he’s here on the other side of his transition, he feels a level of responsibility to have conversations with people about trans issues.

“I’m a firm believer in education ends violence, I’m in a perfect position to educate. So I have to talk about this because there are a lot of people who can’t.”

And, said Davis, he feels that as someone who passes it’s easier for him to have these conversations.

“I think it’s easier to talk to me because if you mix up my pronoun you look kind of silly, calling me a girl, you know?”

Davis said being a man with lived experience as a woman has given him a unique perspective.

“I lived my life as a woman for 24 years so I had 24 years of experience as a woman and that has made me such a better man.”

Knowing what he knows about the town he grew up in, Davis said without starting as a woman, he probably wouldn’t have been as good of a guy as he is now.

“Growing up with your surroundings and things like that I just know… thank god I was born a woman because otherwise I would be a shit human being.”

Davis said because other men see him as a man they take for granted that he feels the same way about women they do.

“That’s interesting to hear guys talk to me and degrade woman to me because they think I’m going to go along with it and I’m like…. No. That’s disgusting and I don’t ever want to hear that again. I think it’s important when I talk about woman I respect woman so that when other men see me do that they stop their behavior because women deserve the utmost respect.”

Davis said he’s benefitted by the fact that he passes but it’s important to understand that ‘looking’ the way a certain gender is expected to look isn’t the endgame.

“I think it does help me a lot that I pass. But I don’t think that passing is important because who is anybody to tell me what a man looks like or for a transwoman what a woman looks like. So by saying that we are passing is us conforming to society's view of a man or a woman.”

Yes, said Davis, it’s easier for him to be trans because he looks the way people expect a man to look, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.

“I am fortunate to pass because it’s beneficial for my safety and just overall well being but I don’t think we should have to pass just to be who we are.”

“Folks who pass as cisgender were less likely to be homeless and also less likely to experience physical and sexual violence at homeless shelters.”

This is Dr. Shanna Katz Kattari. She’s a professor at the University of Michigan who worked on a study called Conforming for Survival, which looked at the impacts of not passing for the trans community. She said it’s important to first understand what passing means.

“For a trans woman who is talking about passing it means passing to societies idea of what a cisgender woman should look like. In our society that means femininity, makeup, hair styles in a certain way all these different things.”

For trans men, Kattari said, that can mean having broad shoulders, heavier stances, how you walk, and facial hair.

“But one of the problems that comes into play is that there is no right way to be a woman or a man, cis or trans, so we’re operating on these ideals that create a false binary. So as a cisgender woman I can wear jeans and not wear makeup and it doesn’t make me any less of a woman but we ask trans women to always take on a hyper feminine roll.”

Kattari said for some trans people there isn’t a desire to conform to a certain look, not everyone wants to pass.

“And then the issue comes up that even if you wanted to pass there’s all these issues that go into it.”

Kattari said for many, transitions can be costly. From healthcare and whether procedures are covered to basics like clothing or makeup, passing is not something every trans person has access to. There are a lot of things to consider, and it can be expensive:

“Access to clothing, do you have clothing that matches trends, what women are wearing what men are wearing. Is your voice high if you’re feminine, is it low if your masculine. Those type of things. Hormones can help for folks that want to pass as a certain gender expectation.”

And, said Kattari, that matters because trans people that don’t pass are twice as likely to end up homeless. And specifically trans women are much more likely to experience violence or sexual assault while at a homeless shelter.

“We also know they are less likely to pass as cisgender because we have very specific ideals in society about what it means to be a woman.”

Cisgender, is a term used to describe people whose gender identity matches their sex at birth.

“There are some things that no matter how many surgeries you have, how many hormones you take, the access to the best clothes if you are six foot six we as society don’t think that’s very womanly.”

Kattari said all these things add up: homelessness, access to hormone therapy or procedures, access to clothing and makeup, and can be lethal to the trans woman without those things.

“Every year there have been dozens of trans people murdered in our country, in the United States, and the majority of them have been transgender women and the majority of them have been transgender women of color.”

But said Kattari, the takeaway of this research should not be that the solution is to get more people to pass, but rather to shift how we think about gender.

“I really want to reinforce that we should not ask trans people to pass in order to be safe.”

Back at the bar Derek Davis said that’s something that can get lost in the conversation about passing or not.

“My thing is the day you decide that this is what you want that is who you are. No amount of medicine or change of clothes or a haircut can change that. You are who you are. If you feel like a man then that is what you are. And vice versa for a woman. Or people who are A gender or genderfluid, things like that.”

But for people that do want to pass and struggle to get access Davis said he’s trying to do his part with a clothing pantry for trans people.

“It’s called Trans Me Downs and my counselor started doing it but she just had a little wardrobe closet so I was like ‘let me take this over and I can make it bigger.’”

Davis said he has dedicated his basement to it and has two 10 foot PVC pipes full of clothes, mostly donated, for trans people trying to find their style.

“I have wigs, shoes, hair accessories, swimsuits, bras, anything you could think that you would need. I think it’s important to have the stuff that you would need to transition so I don’t charge for any of it. I just want people to take what they need.”

There’s only been one visitor so far but Davis said he’s working with a girl who can’t get to Mount Pleasant and he will send her clothes.

“You never know what somebodies style is and that’s why everybody always asks ‘do you take this or do you take this’ and I’m like ‘just bring it all’ because you don’t know what people’s style is. You have to just let them go at it and let them figure out what they want to wear. Because that’s a big part of it. You finally get to be exactly who you are, so who are you? And that just takes time to figure out.”

For both Davis and Dr. Kattari the most important thing is giving trans people the space to find themselves, whatever that may look like, and have that space be a safe one.