by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
copyright © 2001, 2008 by William A. Henkin
[This essay was written at the request of Transgender Tapestry’s editor Dallas Denny, as a response to articles on passing by Holly Boswell and Jessica Xavier; it first appeared in Transgender Tapestry, #96, Winter, 2001]
pass v, intransitive. 1. To move on or ahead; proceed. 2. To run; extend: The river passes through our land. 3. To gain passage despite obstacles: pass through difficult years…. 9. To undergo transition from one condition, form, quality, or characteristic to another…. 11. To cease to exist; die…. 13. To be allowed to happen without notice or challenge…. 14. To undergo an examination or trial with favorable results. 15. To be approved or adopted…. v, transitive. 1. To go by without stopping…. 2.a. To go by without paying attention to; let go unmentioned…. 3. To go beyond; exceed…. 4. To go across; go through…. 5.a. To undergo (a trial or examination) with favorable results…. 9.c. To circulate fraudulently….
revolution, n. 1.a. Orbital motion about a point…. 2. A sudden or momentous change in any situation…. 3.b. Activities directed toward bringing about basic changes in the socioeconomic structure, as of a minority or cultural segment of the population….
transition, n. 1. Passage from one form, state, style, or place to another. 2.a. Passage from one subject to another in discourse. b. A word, phrase, sentence, or series of sentences connecting one part of a discourse to another. 3. Music. a. A modulation, especially a brief one. b. A passage connecting two themes.
American Heritage Dictionary
The verb “to pass” has lots of denotative meanings, only some of which I’ve listed here and nearly all of which apply or have been applied to people whose very lives challenge traditional views of gender roles and identity. But the way the word is used connotatively regarding the same population – the way nuance freights it with implication and innuendo – frequently conveys many or even most of its formal definitions all at once, and gives the term a resonance far surpassing its six Scrabble® points.
For some people I have known, especially but not exclusively at the start of transition, the idea of passing is almost holy. It connotes the possibility that others will finally see me externally as I have long seen myself internally. For others I have known, especially but not exclusively among people who believe that in general they will not pass, passing even becomes anathema at some point. It connotes the possibility that others will never see me for all of who I am, and that fulfilling someone else’s ideal of what I ought to be can only result in my being inauthentically me. In between these poles I have known people to occupy every significant position I can imagine; not infrequently, a single individual may occupy many at different times.
Sometimes I think the boldest differences among people in the transgender communities are based in age. In the early days of hormones and surgery, particularly among those who transition MTF, passing was all. An oft-spoken ideal was to complete transition in secret and then to assume a new identity and a new life, the way even just 50 years ago women who became pregnant out of wedlock routinely used to disappear on holiday or to visit a sick aunt far away for the necessary weeks or months of secrecy. In those years some therapists and educators used to abet or encourage this deception in hopes it would provide a maximum of what both the individual and her counselors assumed she wanted, and some people in transition learned to hide their pasts from everyone, including the men who became their husbands.
One downside to this stealthy process was that people who transitioned successfully had secrets they could not share with anyone, which made important levels of interpersonal intimacy impossible. Another was that some people who would obviously never pass were denied the medical interventions they sought. More than one person of a certain age has told me that when she was younger a doctor refused her treatment because he could not imagine that after transition he would find her an adequately attractive specimen of feminine pulchritude.
As time went on either desires or standards changed, or both. Certainly transition became increasingly available for people who wanted it, even if today it still remains far beyond the reach of many; and, progressively, the people who sought transition were less and less often looking for lives as June or Ward Cleaver, even if they were not yet looking for a life as Eldridge, either.
Perhaps the defining events in this reconfiguration of passing came out of the 1991 Michigan Wymyn’s Music Festival, where Nancy Burkhalter was discovered, confronted, outed, and ousted. As a transsexual woman she had believed herself an appropriate participant in the women-only event she had attended without incident the previous year, but in the eyes of some of the event’s organizers she was a male who had gone to great lengths to infiltrate the sanctity of what later became known as a Womyn Born Womyn Only wymyn’s space.
If it had not already done so, from this time forward the importance of passing diminished for many people who were contemplating transgender issues simply because other questions came to the fore that concerned more compelling aspects of identity. Those issues had never been absent for individuals, of course, but Burkhalter’s ejection abruptly directed community attention toward them. Workshops at transgender conferences did not stop teaching voice modulation or 101 Ways to Tie a Scarf, but they also started to ask, What exactly constitutes a woman? A man? A female? A male? What constituents are masculine? Feminine? Even if we think we can measure sex, how do we start to measure gender? What does gender really mean, and to whom? Who passes? To what end? If purpose replaced the possibility of passing as a question in some transgender circles, the very relevance of passing began to seem rather quaint, retro, and even counter-revolutionary in others.
Now’s it’s 2001. Most of my clients who have transgender concerns were born during or after the Viet Nam War. In San Francisco, where I practice, third and multiple gender options receive serious consideration from transgender-savvy therapists, educators, physicians, and consultants, as well as from people who are questioning, exploring, or altering their own anatomical sexes or their gender roles or identities. People sometimes elect to live in alternate, complementary, opposite, and/or various genders with and/or without hormones, with and/or without surgery. Passing does not necessarily follow, but it is not necessarily expected to follow. In fact, almost no one I know who is more than passingly familiar with transgender identity issues recognizes passing as the only or even, necessarily, the critical option.
Yet, among the people who consult with me about transition, passing is still more often than not a preferred option. Two reasons seem to predominate. First, as ever, most of my clients still want to be congruent: they want to be consistently seen by others as they feel themselves to be, and despite some measure of internal conflict most still say they feel happier as either female or male than both, neither, other, all, or none of the above. Second, they want to live as comfortably outside the relatively sheltering walls of the transgender communities as they do inside; and if they do not pass, there is as yet almost nowhere in the post-Colonial, post-Industrial, post-Modernist, or even post-Surgical world they can really expect treatment from Most People that is equal in thoughtlessness to the treatment Most People grant to others of their kind who do not appear to them, on the most fleeting of cosmetic glances, as if they are trying to be what they are not.
However you define it, revolution is about change. So is transition. And change does not happen without some kind of acknowledgment, somewhere, by someone or something.
In the gaylesbi communities, among people in the BDSM and fetish worlds, and among those who find or feel themselves transgendered, I have sometimes heard how coming out particularly works as an acknowledgment. For example: coming out demands that someone become aware of you, and, whether happily or unhappily, that awareness enhances the sharing of self that is a precursor to intimacy; coming out requires some sort of break with the past and therefore lays a claim to the present; coming out asserts a political right in ways that stealth cannot, and in those ways it also denies or defies the privilege that people automatically assume who claim they have nothing to come out about.
As a psychotherapist especially serving those communities I mentioned, the most important place I see to come out is to yourself, because self-awareness and its concomitant integrity precede any really free behavior. And the most important reason I see to come out to yourself is that doing so can be a radically fulfilling step in the process of moving from a false, incomplete, inaccurate, dystonic, conflicted sense of self to a truer, more complete, more accurate, more euphoric, less conflicted sense of self. This is exactly what passing is supposed to enable, in its rosiest projections: passing is what is supposed to happen after the revolution, when transition is complete.
But what if the revolution is never over? What if transition is never complete? Like everything else in the heavens and on Earth, we are all constantly in a state of change. Life does not permit us to be static: our bodies are decomposing even now; already other people are altering their memories of who we were, and so are we. If to transition once meant to disappear, as if death had claimed a portion of a person’s life, that is no longer usually so. Few people now feel a need to make their former selves vanish altogether, and whether a person passes or not, families, friends, and colleagues often see them straight through. The meaning of transition, too, has changed, and sometimes it has changed most unexpectedly.
The day I started to write this piece a cashier in a grocery store I frequent told me it would be her last day on the job: she was quitting to move to another city where she could work full-time preparing an autobiographical play about her own gender experience. In our very brief conversation, while my goods were being bagged, I mentioned Pat Califia’s book Sex Changes, in part because I liked the book, in part because I wanted to signal my own familiarity with a subject so important in this woman’s life, and in part because I thought the way Califia’s title reads two and more ways might speak to her on the eve of her important move. My acquaintance surprised me by saying only that she had never had much respect for Califia until he started transition, because “you can never know what it’s like until you live 24/7/365.” Now my checker respected Patrick’s experience: his coming out gave his transition validity for her. She never even mentioned passing.
The conversation left me musing. As he makes extremely clear at the beginning of his book, one premise that underlay writing Sex Changes is precisely that Califia had explored his transgender options long, long ago: probably before my cashier friend was even born, when transitioning was a very different experience than it is today, and long before the writer formerly known as Pat Califia was important as a spokesperson for leatherdyke and other sexual minority rights. Did my cashier mean that Califia had no right to address trans issues before he started taking hormones? Was his experience before that first hit of T irrelevant to his discussion about the subject? Was it not an integral part of his transition? How does anyone grow thoughtful about anything without exploring what it means to her? Without putting on a costume of the life, as it were, how can we gauge how well it fits? Who among us did not learn about transition, and find revolutionary what we learned?
In our own revolutions, who we were informs who we are; and whether we transition from sex to sex, from gender role to gender role, or only from life to death, we are always passing. Passing for myself, coming out to myself as myself, is the state of perpetual transition that keeps me intimate with myself, permits me intimacy with others, lends integrity to the lives I lead both inside and out of myself. It constitutes the internal revolution, the revolution in spirit, without which any other revolution is cosmetic: a revolution in form alone.
This internal revolution is the one I see over and over again in my office, and not just among those who question their sexes or sexualities or genders. I see it as people transform their souls, their spirits, their daily lives. This perpetual transition begins when I start to recognize my inner need to know who I am. Eventually, whatever my gender or genders may be, it can allow me to be, as well as to appear to be, authentic.
When our human relationships take priority over sex or gender, race, class, or rhetoric, inside the consulting room or out, on both or even all sides of the conversation, then I think we will be able to say we pass: then we will have transitioned indeed, and that, I think, will be the real revolution.
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