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A Matter of Life and Death

How do we strike a balance between conforming for our own safety and expressing our true selves?

Passing, the concept of accurately and reliably presenting society’s image of your gender identity, is a wholly toxic idea that all of society is invested in. Transgender people are particularly concerned with this because with passing comes status, privilege, and security: all it takes is some thug to clock us in the street to get us killed, raped or maimed. This is particularly true of transfeminine people, but transmasculine people are also in danger. Often, it’s a matter of life and death.

Cisgender people are concerned with passing the same way transgender people are, but their concerns about balancing self expression with cultural expectation is mitigated by the automatic acceptance they have as members of their gender. The concern is exactly the same, but cisgender privilege mutes its effect and tends to conceal or forgive it with terms like ‘tomboy’ or ‘sensitive’. Cisgender people do catch derision for failing to conform to gender stereotypes same as transgender people, but it rarely results in violence or abuse. Such is cisgender privilege.

Still, all of humanity is invested in passing to some extent in whatever culture they live within. Transgender people are on the fringe of the boundary in most cultures, so we get the most pressure. As much as it pains me, the pressure to conform is so great that it’s hard to ignore. Failure to pass invites prejudice of the worst kind.

It’s easy for me to dismiss passing as toxic and detrimental: I pass very well. Not only do I pass very well, but the cisnormative behaviours and habits I have are an honest expression of self. I do these things because they are natural and enjoyable for me. I wear makeup because it’s fun. I dress femme because I feel good in those clothes. I wave my hands around and have my hair long-ish because that’s just what makes sense to my brain. If I didn’t pass well, I would be victimised. I would still think it’s toxic, but I might not so easily dismiss it. Even from my place of privilege, I recognise that my ability to pass keeps me safe from being murdered or worse.

“HONEST EXPRESSION, WHEN THAT QUALITY DOESN’T CONFORM TO CULTURAL NORMS, CREATES DISSONANCE AND OPPOSITION.”

Challenging cultural norms picks a fight with everyone around you. Honest expression, when that quality doesn’t conform to cultural norms, creates dissonance and opposition. Even small refusals to conform can result in a backlash – men not wearing a tie to the office might not get them sent home in some settings, but it will invite comments. When I was still trying to be a man, I staunchly refused to dress formally and would often be called out or pulled aside to have a chat about my failure to dress appropriately. I refused to conform – though I did take care to wear more casual clothes of appropriate quality and plainness – and people didn’t appreciate it.

Comparing the insistence on wearing birkenstocks to work with the refusal to, say, modify one’s voice to match gender expectation is in no way fair. But it’s a reasonable illustration of how any refusal to conform creates conflict. And with passing, several small refusals can add up to a failure to pass. It’s a rather old-fashioned way of thinking about it, but the aim is to not attract notice. I had a few exchanges with some older ladies who transitioned some decades ago, and they stress the virtue of being invisible: not being noticed meant whatever tells you had weren’t scrutinised in the first place.

The desire to not attract attention can suppress one’s identity in ways that aren’t helpful and have nothing to do with passing. I pass very well, but I most certainly stand out. I wear bright colours and have a quirky fashion sense. I am tall and I flaunt it; I love being a towering goddess. It’s not like I can be anything else – I had better own it. I look around at other women on the street and I sometimes feel a little overdressed wandering around the shops in contrasting pure colours, skirts, and crazy patterned tights with heeled boots. Not exactly an outfit for running errands, but I enjoy it so much that I just do it anyway. But none of this makes me look any less a woman. I’m just a woman with a theatrical fashion sense; it makes me stand out. Now that I think of it, I don’t actually own any ordinary street clothes. Even my jeans are brightly patched with mismatched bits of fabric.

As it happens, I encounter more prejudice for being an immigrant than I do for being transgender – largely because of my accent. I feminised my voice early in my transition so I wouldn’t be misgendered over the phone, and I’m proud to say I was successful. However feminine my voice sounds, my accent is an odd mix of American received pronunciation, New Englander, and British accents that is sometimes mistaken for a Canadian or Irish accent. Here in England, there is a lot of focus on who is British and who isn’t. I had one man go so far as to say that I couldn’t be from England – though I have lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else and I do consider myself British – with the accent I have. My identity is forever in question because of my accent.

“I ACCEPT THE ADDED CHALLENGE TO MY LIFE FOR THE SAKE OF BEING MY TRUE SELF.”

A friend suggested that I train my accent away. I managed to feminise my voice, a much harder modification, which means I could do that with relative ease. Essentially, this thing would allow me to pass as British. I said no. I feminised my voice so I could express myself properly. Training my accent would be repressing myself and I’ve done enough of that. I accept the added challenge to my life for the sake of being my true self. I think every transgender person understands that.

Of course, me keeping my mostly American accent is not a danger. Americans are relatively high status immigrants and don’t face much of the systemic discrimination that other groups face even generations after settling in this country. Anyone who tells you that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a race problem is sorely mistaken and the wrong kind of accent or skin tone will get you excluded or threatened. My old masculine voice presented a greater threat to me. Had I not felt it necessary to change as a form of personal expression, it’s likely I would have modified it for my own comfort and safety.

So where is the balance? Honestly, that depends on the person, the nature of their nonconformity, and how they feel about it. As wrong as it is, a failure to conform is a calculated risk that we each need to assess and decide how to manage. We need to accept the risk of nonconformity, even as we fight to normalise that nonconformity. We can’t fight every battle, and that means we have to compromise our self expression. It’s disgusting and sad. It shouldn’t be so, but that’s the world we live in. I’m lucky in that my tastes are aligned with cultural norms enough to not interfere with passing and I can pass without compromising my sense of self. I honestly couldn’t say what compromises I would make; I made none.

I can only hope that our visibility and continued refusal to disappear will normalise characteristics thought of as tells. I dream of a day where gender isn’t part of the web of assumption necessary to talk to strangers, or at least the negative connotations within that web are cleared away. I hope for this fully aware that, as a binary identifying woman that has no trouble with that set of assumptions, I benefit greatly from them – toxic as they are. Until then, I continue to remain visibly transgender even though I don’t have to be. I continue to speak out until I’m heard. In a war of boundaries, visibility is our greatest weapon.

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