I have written before on this blog about my feelings regarding passing. Several times, in fact. Now a few recent events as well as my decision to transition have caused me to expand my thoughts about passing to take in its rather awkward sibling, stealth. Before I begin in earnest, I want to stress that these thoughts are valid for me and me only. I’m not judging anyone else who has a different approach to either passing or stealth. These are my solutions to my problems. Other people’s problems will require other people’s solutions.Let’s begin with the terms themselves. What do I mean by “passing” and “stealth”, and what is the difference between the two in my mind? “Passing” is the ability to have other people look at you and believe you are in fact a lifelong member of the gender with which you identify. The ability to not be read as trans. The ability to be perceived as cis. So in my case, I would be “passing” if people believed me to be a cis woman, or with a slightly lower barrier to entry into the passing club, if I was close enough to appearing to be a cis woman that Joe and Josephine Public paid me insufficient heed to determine that I am in fact trans. I would like to pass. Let’s get that straight from the off. For my own safety, ego, confidence, I want to pass. At the same time, I’m realistic enough to know that my height is against me, not to mention the heftier-than-is-the-norm-for-a-woman torso, and some facial features which are a bit too chunky for my liking. The problem is of course that you never really know if you’re passing, or if people are just ignoring you. You can’t really ask a complete stranger “Excuse me, do you believe me to be a genetic female?” without giving the game away.
I think more importantly than convincing passers-by that I am female, I need to pass with myself. I’m not sure of the correct verb to use, but I am/want to be/need to be/believe myself to be/have a mental self-image that is/have to see myself as female, and if I look in the mirror and see a reflection that doesn’t look feminine enough, then I will have a dysphoric reaction. A horrible painful mismatch between what I see and what I feel. The converse of that statement is that when I look in the mirror and do see a reflection looking back at me that does pass, as least to my own minimum standards anyway, well then the feelings flip. I am happy, contented, right. As I should be. In this case, I am passing with myself.
I know there are other people who say yah-boo to passing, that it’s a ball and chain round the ankle of trans people, it’s kowtowing to cisnormativity, it’s reducing visibility of trans people which doesn’t do any of us any favours in the long run. Yeah, I get all that. But it’s all a bit abstract for me. Looking my best is important to me. I take pride in my appearance. I know I’m never going to be as conventionally beautiful as many other women, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy to look like a cross between Frank N Furter and Herman Munster and screw everyone else. Those trans people with, ahem, ideosyncratic dress sense are being themselves. Good for them. I’m being myself too. And I am a rather tall 45-year-old woman with a reasonably youthful outlook and a hopefully stylish and feminine fashion sense. I like dresses and heels. I like jeans and jumpers. I don’t like flipping top hats and bondage outfits. That’s not “conforming to the patriarchal cisnormative orthodoxy”, that’s just what I like. Ahem indeed.
So that’s passing, or what passes for it. I want to do it. I might not always (or even often) be successful, but I try. But really, as long as people treat me as if I was passing, that’s ok. I am Schrodinger’s transsexual, both passing and not passing at the same time, at least until I open the box and ask someone, which I’m not going to do. But stealth is a different matter. My attitude to stealth is somewhat different from my attitude to passing.
So what is this “stealth” of which I speak? Well, the best explanation I can come up with is that it’s living as a woman in such a way as to deny that you are trans. Pretending to be cis. Never mentioning the old/other version of yourself. If passing is convincing strangers that you’re cis, stealth is convincing friends that you are. And I don’t think that in good conscience I could go for stealth. When I go full time, I will still be working in the same place. Everyone will know my history. Any new staff members who come in are bound to learn of it, even if they don’t realise just by looking at me or hearing me speak.
Outside work, I have a handful of friends who have known both versions of me, and who obviously do know that I am going to transition, and who hopefully will remain friends. They’re not suddenly going to forget my past. There are also trans* friends who obviously know the full story because they have gone through some or all of it themselves.
Which leaves Kirsty’s friends, including ones I have yet to meet, by which I mean people who only know me as Kirsty. This came to a head a month or so back when I went out for a chat with my book group friend Alice. She was merrily sharing away about her home, love life, kids, family, broken marriage et al. So what is my response to that? Avoid the subject? Don’t share anything about my life so I can keep up some pretence of being a cis woman like her? Hardly. Well then, maybe I could make up a backstory with elements of the truth. Refer to Mrs K as “my better half” or suchlike. The kids are fine to talk about as kids, but maybe I could claim or at least hint that I gave birth to them myself. But I didn’t do that. Mrs K did that. And not only would it be unfair to claim otherwise, it would be unfair and dishonest to allow the impression to be given that I was their birth mother. And sooner or later, I would be caught in a lie. Overall, I did not feel like I could lie to Alice with a clear conscience. I do live with my wife and our children. I don’t yet live full time as a woman. My legal gender is still male. My legal name is not Kirsty. These are facts that I can’t escape. And I think that it is a very poor basis for a friendship to try to claim otherwise. I’m not sure I would want to be friends with someone I felt was being dishonest, evasive or just refusing to speak about some subjects. And if I’m not passing (I certainly get treated like any other woman by cis friends, but see my comments above about how it’s impossible to tell if this is passing or politeness) then trying to maintain some pretence of having had a 100% cis female life would just make me look faintly ridiculous. So I told Alice the whole truth. And she is still my friend.
I saw her again at the weekend. In fact, there were four of us altogether. Alice, Joanne (who is the leader of our book group and also Alice’s neighbour) and a male friend from the wider meetup group, Gareth. I was invited into Joanne’s house, and then we went out for a coffee, a bun, and a chat together on a lovely Saturday afternoon. Knowing that I had told Alice the full truth, and believing (or assuming) that Joanne and Gareth also knew at least the gist of that truth, I didn’t feel like I had to mind my Ps and Qs in order to avoid being read. And my history and current circumstances just weren’t an issue. We weren’t talking about that. I didn’t feel like less of a woman because of it. But I certainly felt more relaxed because I didn’t have to worry that I might do or say something that would give me away. In turn, I believe that this makes me an easier person to get on with, because I try not to have that barrier. I should stress again that my gender issues were not discussed in any way, it was just four friends talking about films, football, books and Brexit. But I do not believe that if I was going for a stealthy approach, I would have felt as relaxed and happy. I don’t want to spend my time worrying if I have been read or not, I want friends who accept me for who I am with all my flaws. Is that really too much to hope for?
So, the short version of all that is; I want to pass with strangers. I want to be honest with friends. And that means yes to trying to pass, no to stealth.