Do I Pass - Jude Samson - Culture - Transgender Universe

While it’s not always the case with every trans person the vast majority of us have some kind of image in our head on what we would like ourselves to look like as an end result. Some trans guys want to be sleek and buff, others want to be big hairy bears, while others may want to be something else entirely. The same holds for trans women – they have an image in their heads of some level of femininity that they want to strive to achieve. If you’ve spent any time on transgender facebook groups, odds are you’ve seen your share of “Do I Pass?” posts. These can be enlightening, supportive, or just annoying. Why? Because a single snapshot cannot indicate all the many factors that go into how society will perceive you and therefore determine if you pass, nor is it necessary to “pass.”

First, let’s talk briefly about “passing” and “stealth.” To “pass” is to go about your day with regular society seeing you as your correct gender (i.e. a trans man being referred to as sir/trans woman as ma’am, etc.) because you look, sound, and/or act enough like that gender for people to just assume that you’re male/female. To be “stealth” is to live so fully as your correct gender that no one except perhaps a select few know that you’re trans and the world-at-large just assumes you’re a cis person. To be “clocked” is to go about your day passing until someone notices – for whatever reason – that you may be trans and will typically ask you if you’re trans.

“The trouble with passing is that we are forcing ourselves to live within the confines of what society perceives as traits, looks, sounds and actions that directly correlate to a binary gender.”

The trouble with passing is that we are forcing ourselves to live within the confines of what society perceives as traits, looks, sounds and actions that directly correlate to a binary gender. That is – certain characteristics will clearly speak to being male or being female according to what society has established as “acceptable.” We are, however, in a very exciting, scary and changing time. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look/act/sound a certain way, it’s important for trans people to realize there is no “one way” or “right way” to be a gender and, in fact, you can even be no gender or change gender (i.e. gender fluid) or any other innumerable options (See my previous post Show Your Pride: Symbols and Flags for some more details on the vast array of gender identities). Gender traits are constantly being broken down, blended and eventually the greater portion of society will learn, but in the mean time we need to learn that we don’t have to “conform” either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also perfectly acceptable if you want to emulate masculine/feminine characteristics or live in stealth. It’s your life and you need to do what makes YOU happy. Just know that you don’t necessarily have to conform to any specific qualities.

The other major issue with asking others, more specifically strangers via an online forum, to gauge if you pass or not is that a single snapshot cannot convey all the nuances that go into what our brains use to calculate how we perceive a person. That’s not to say that some people can’t easily be determined to be masculine/feminine at a glance – but typically the person asking if they pass is someone newer into their transition and are wanting validation or words of encouragement. This can be a good and a bad thing.

Do I Pass - Sword - Culture - Transgender Universe


Being able to pass will require scrutinizing how you walk, your entire body posture, words you use, how you say those words and your overall appearance. Any time we glance at something, even for a mere second, our brain has completed untold calculations and fired off neurons to pull data that we’ve accumulated to tell us what that ‘something’ is, whether it’s seeing a tree, a bird or seeing a male or seeing a female. Most of this process is done in the subconscious and done so quickly we don’t even realize what our brain did. This is why it’s hard to break the “societal norms” – the data is so ingrained in us through so many centuries of being told what we should know and how we should know it that it’s completely automatic now. As we continue to push our presence out into the public it will eventually cause people to rewrite those neural pathways. But I digress – the point is, passing isn’t just a single microsecond image. It’s an entire package that we use to determine how we see someone.

Placating someone asking if they pass can be dangerous. How could giving someone confidence or patting their ego be dangerous? Because giving someone a false sense of security can result in a dangerous situation. That is, they get all these likes and praises of “looking good, you look great, you totally pass, you’re awesome” and so forth, and now that person goes out to the general public with a great high, thinking they pass for male/female. The problem is – society isn’t as caught up with breaking gender norms as we are and now this person will likely be misgendered throughout the day, picked on, or even put in a dangerous situation like using the bathroom (what a world where using the bathroom is now a dangerous situation). That can either result in the person having a rapid/dramatic emotional crash that could end in suicide or other self-harming activities. It could get them injured or killed by someone else. This isn’t an excuse to put someone down for any reason or not to encourage them during their journey, but it’s more important to say things like “Coming along nicely, try —– a little more/less” or something that is genuine feedback that they can use to learn from rather than empty platitudes.

“Transitioning is a journey and it can be both exciting and scary, but there are no shortcuts.”

Transitioning is a journey and it can be both exciting and scary, but there are no shortcuts. While someone may seem to have changes happening sooner or look differently than you – it’s still an individual journey and instead of looking at the end-game of what you want to look like and staying focused on that, try to enjoy the ride. Your body and life will be undergoing massive changes, embrace them and learn about your body. Love yourself for all that is happening to you right now and you will come out in the end being a better person, not just how you look on the outside.

Do I Pass - Jude Samson - Transgender Universe

(Closing note: A quick google search on “transgender how to pass” or “transgender passing” will provide you with a ton of video/text resources to give you great tips to improve your “passibility”)

  • Natasha Upchurch

    Unfortunately Stealthing as you have defined it is very important to a complete productive life.. I’ll just use myself as an example here.. I’m a trans Woman. Im 6’4″ and big boned. Because I was so old when i started my transition and because of my physical stature, I will never pass. Because of this I will never have full accepted social status among cis-gender circles. “Big deal” you may say. But the result of not fitting in correctly in today’s society is violence and poverty. I will receive less promotions and jobs, etc etc.

    Passing is important, without passing, society will never give me an equal share of life. Honestly all of the surgery help we get should be more focused on passing flawlessly.

    • It’s never a “big deal” when we face, not just discrimination but the threat of violence or disruption to our well-being – it’s a HUGE DEAL. I was terminated for transitioning. I went homeless. I lived on peoples couches and fought for work for nearly a year before something finally came through. While I absolutely understand what you mean by being stealth and passing will prevent less conflict, violence, hostility, and overall stress to our lives we also shouldn’t necessarily force ourselves into these very specific boxes of what a man or woman “SHOULD” look like because society has made pre-determined criteria. So many of cis-people do not fit within these boxes so why should we be forced to comply with them? It’s easy to say and hard to follow through but the more we refuse to conform eventually society will course-correct. Maybe not in our lifetimes but look at how much has changed for us already? But please understand, I’m not discouraging ANYONE who wants to pass or live in stealth at all. If it’s a possibility for them I fully encourage and support anyone and how they lead their own lives. I’m just saying sometimes we need to stand up and fight and stop having society tell us what “SHOULD” be and us tell society what we “ARE.”

    • Gibbs

      I agree 🙁 we have to pass!

  • “The trouble with passing is that we are forcing ourselves to live within
    the confines of what society perceives as traits, looks, sounds and
    actions that directly correlate to a binary gender.”

    I’d guess that as many trans people are perfectly comfortable with living within those “confines” as non-trans people. Except that it’s not a binary, and most people who identify as a “man” or as a “woman” see it more as two overlapping bell curves. But, they still know *which* of the two bell curves they belong in as a data point that represents their identity (either internal or externally recognized). Transitioning, as I understand it, is a matter of moving the data point for their externally recognized gender as close as possible to the one for their internal identity.