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Passing Transsexual (2002)

Passing Transsexual (2002)

©2002, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2002, Spring). Passing transsexual. Transgender Tapestry, 97, pp. 16-17.






Tapestry #97 Pages (PDF)


Passing Transsexual

by Dallas Denny


I am a passing transsexual. That means that wherever I go, in whatever situation, whether I’m getting my car repaired or giving a presentation at work or sharing a hotel room with a co-worker, whether I’m all dressed up or hot and sweaty in t-shirt with no makeup, people don’t read me as transsexual, but believe me to be and accept me as nontranssexual. Neither my appearance nor my voice nor my mannerisms tell them I’m transsexual.

Unlike some transsexuals, I don’t really care who knows about my past. I just live my life, surrounded by those who don’t know, those to whom I’ve disclosed, and those who have learned of my transsexualism from others or from my various activities and writings in the transgender community. Whatever happens, happens, and is just fine with me. No one can hurt me by outing me, yet because I can pass I’m able to participate fully in life’s rich banquet without fear of finding myself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation because I’ve been read as transsexual. Unlike many of my friends, I don’t have to survey the environment to see if I’m in a “transsexual danger zone.” With equal ease, I can hike the Appalachian Trail, go to the corner grocery store, wander into a seedy country bar, apply for a job, or dine in a fine restaurant, never having to wonder if anyone “knows” or if those people at the corner table are laughing at me. Indeed, as I go about my business, even when I’m passionately advocating about gender issues, I rarely think about my own transsexualism, for I’m not reminded of it by the actions or words of others or by my own body. My life is, from moment to moment, very little different than that of a nontranssexual woman of a like age. I find I prefer it that way, for as out as I am, I’ve no real desire to do gender education and outreach every time I go to the supermarket. I don’t have the energy, time, or patience to primp and survey my appearance before stepping out— nor do I need the drama of being clocked; I just want to grab the milk and eggs and bread and go home and make french toast.

Now, I’m not claiming to pass at all times and under all conditions. Because my name has been widely linked to gender issues in print and on the Internet and because I’ve frequently left copies of trans-related material on the copier at work, I often have no idea who knows and who doesn’t, or if anyone knows at all. If anyone wonders or has figured it out they aren’t talking about it, which is just fine by me, for I don’t want it to be all about my own transsexualism, but about gender issues in general. The end result is the same, whether my transsexualism is not known or just not talked about. I’m in control. I decide when and to whom to disclose. And that’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it.


I’m Just Lucky That Way

Although I’m happy I pass, I don’t ascribe it to any particular virtue on my part. My passing has nothing to do with my inner goodness. I pass because my most predominant masculine characteristics were amenable to change, and I changed them. I had facial hair, for which an effective removal technology existed, and a body which produced testosterone, for which an effective opposing technology existed. I was lucky, for I had no physical features which would have made it especially difficult to pass. I had no adam’s apple, my voice wasn’t particularly deep, I hadn’t lost my hair, I didn’t have a thin upper lip or heavy brows or a square jaw, I wasn’t overly tall, my hands and feet were on the small side. Those are features which were determined by chance, in a game of genetic roulette, when sperm met ovum. I was fortunate; the game of life happened to give me a body which could be whipped into shape without too much expense or effort.

At one time I was proud of my ability to pass, but I eventually disabused myself of that notion. Now I’m merely grateful, for it makes my life easy and safe. I know I pass only because of chance, and I recognize my ability to pass doesn’t make me superior in any way. I’m not “more” transsexual than others because I happen to lack secondary sex characteristics for which medical science hasn’t devised effective treatments— but I am, as I have said, grateful that by a combination of luck and technology I’ve an appearance which causes others to respond to me in ways which generally help rather than hinder me as I go through life. It’s convenient and comfortable to have the option of telling others rather than having them inevitably figure it out for themselves.

For some transsexuals, it’s quite different. However desperately they might wish to be passable, however much money they might have to spend on surgery, however gender dysphoric they might be, however much they may feel cheated by the fates by having been born into a body they find unacceptable, they do not and will never pass. They don’t have the option of telling others; as they go through life, everyone, or practically everyone with whom they come into contact with, will read them as transsexual. Because of this nonpassability, some will choose not to transition. Others will choose to, and will suffer because of it.

I feel for my nonpassable fellows, but however much I sympathize with their predicament, I’m not ashamed, as I was once told I should be, because I happen to pass. I’m not at fault because I pass any more than others are at fault because they can’t.

A fact of life for everybody, transsexual or not: our experiences differ because of our appearances. If we pass, we tend to be treated one way; if we don’t, we’re treated in another, generally much less positive way. There are no guarantees in this world. We must go through our lives, making the decisions we must make and abiding by the results of those decisions, whatever they might be, whether we like them or not. And a consequence of being a transitioned nonpassable transsexual is to face challenges passing transsexuals usually avoid— including inability to get a job, discrimination, harassment, threats of violence, and violence itself.

I am of course sympathetic with those who strive to pass and don’t, but I’ve no obligation to render myself nonpassable for their sake. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be much of a human being if I turned my back on them— not because they’re unlucky and I’m lucky— that’s merely a matter of perspective; I might in fact be the unlucky one because my life is more of a deception— but because the thing that drives us is the same. We come from a common place, and our issues and enemies are the same. People who give those who don’t pass a hard time would give me a hard time too, if only they knew I was transsexual; they don’t like me any better, they merely assume I have a history which in fact I did not have. Those who deny employment to those who don’t pass would deny me a job, too, and those who would be happy to kill them would be as happy or even more happier to murder me. I would be a fool if I ignored this, if I permitted myself to believe the evil people out there love me because I pass. They don’t. It’s for that reason I have spent the past 15 years as a transgender activist. It’s for this reason I don’t choose my friends for their ability to pass, why I don’t mind being seen in public with those less passable than myself.

Obviously, a post-transition life characterized by discrimination and hostility from others results in different experiences than a life in which one gets a job and is treated with consideration. It’s difficult not to be impacted when one’s life contains a large measure of unpleasantness. Some of my non-passable acquaintances have become cynical, pessimistic, aggressive, beaten-down, and just generally nasty because of the way they have been treated. This exacerbates their problems. A pleasant personality can defuse difficult situations and result in acceptance whether one passes or not; on the other hand, no one wants to be around someone who is unpleasant, whether they pass or not. The world being as it is, those who don’t pass and walk around with a chip on their shoulder because of it tend to find life doubly difficult.

Conversely, those who pass can easily put it all behind them, choosing to deny their history and experience and avoid those they consider less passable than themselves. Many do, and a few go to great lengths to reconstruct their lives in such a way that they completely disavow their transsexualism. This is of course intellectually dishonest, but more than that, it’s dangerous, for they enter what I have called “the closet at the end of the rainbow,” building relationships and careers which can come to an abrupt end if and when (and it’s usually when) they are outed or discovered. They base their lives on the lie that they are nontranssexual, and forevermore must spend their time and energy patrolling the ramparts. They live in a state of hypervigilance, filtering everything that happens to determine if they are in danger of being revealed. Who among us hasn’t run into one of these deep-in-the-woodwork transsexuals in public and watched them freeze in their tracks, shrinking within themselves as they pray we don’t notice them, and that if we do, we won’t speak.

I’ve little patience with those who consider themselves superior because they can pass. I’ve even less with those who consider themselves superior because they don’t. Both viewpoints are merely constructions of subjective realities which conform to the genetic hand dealt in the poker game of life. We are each working from an n of one. Our experiences speak about our individual lives, and have no meaning when applied to others who, after all, have their own experiences.

We’re real transsexuals, and our lives are equally valid, regardless of whether we pass.



 How Your Editor Feels About the Politics of Passing


Whether we’re happy with the idea or not, we live in a society with a binary gender system. As gender activists, we’re expected to challenge, undermine, and tear it down because of its restrictiveness. This is healthy because among other things it calls into question our community’s unhealthy obsession with passing — but it is at best an interesting philosophical exercise that doesn’t translate well to reality. Most transgender activists take pains to pass in public as members of one sex or the other; it’s a matter of safety.

Here’s a confession: I like the binary system. Life would be pretty darned dull without it. I can’t even begin to imagine the film “Casablanca” with a 3rd gender Bogart and a two-spirit Ingrid Bergman. What I do find offensive is the system’s unwillingness to let people choose their place within it. As far as I’m concerned, the system needs an overhaul so it will value Alan Alda as much as John Wayne and k.d. lang as much as Marilyn Monroe, but it doesn’t need to be scrapped altogether— a goal of some transgender activists, but certainly not this one.

Like other transsexuals, my gender identity isn’t somewhere in the middle of the continuum, but at or close to the end opposite the one I was assigned at birth. Kudos to those who like it somewhere in the middle. I’m happy for you— but if you’re one of those who are trying to get everybody else to join you, please stop claiming we transsexuals are singlehandedly responsible for the perpetuation of the binary system. We’re tired of your insistence that if we could only share your special enlightenment we would, like you, seek the middle ground. With all due respect, you have no idea what it’s like to be transsexual. Please stop patronizing us. We’re not impaired. We know exactly where we want to be, and it’s not stuck in the middle with you.