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Passing Privilege

CN: Rape Mention

For most trans women, “passing” refers to the ability to be perceived and treated by strangers as a cis woman. This can be determined by any number of things, including physical traits, gender expression, vocal pitch/tone, sexuality, and more.

Although I dress almost entirely in clothes labeled for men and have short hair, because stereotypes about trans women are focused on feminine gender expressions and because I have large breasts and hips, a within-typical-range feminine voice, and a petite stature, I am still overwhelmingly perceived by strangers as a cis butch lesbian (Or, much to my chagrin, as a trans man). I know this to be true because when I am misgendered as a butch lesbian, people immediately apologize when I correct them (which is not the case when I am misgendered as a trans woman).

“Excuse me, sir?”

“It’s ma’am, actually.”

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry ma’am!”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m a lesbian, it happens.”

This ability to avoid being seen as a trans woman unless I wish to self-disclose is an enormous advantage I have compared to some trans women. Most of the time this happens without effort on my part, but if I am in a situation where my gender is under suspicion I still have a nearly 100% success rate of being able to convince people I am merely a cis woman with some embarrassing paperwork or medical history.

“Ma’am, are you aware there’s an M on your license?”

“Oh, I know! Isn’t that so embarrassing? I’ve been trying to get that corrected since obviously I’m not male! But you would not believe how complicated it is. Red Tape, amirite?”

“That must be frustrating! Well don’t worry about it ma’am, I have everything corrected in our system here. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

This has helped me with employment, education, voting, healthcare, housing, and probably every other sphere of society I’ve encountered. Here’s the thing though, while I know my ability to be perceived as a cis woman is a huge advantage I would never say I have cis privilege. Because I am not cis, and nothing I say or do can change that fact. And believe me, when you hit a wall of transmisogyny and antagonism that cannot be avoided, it becomes abundantly clear “passing privilege” is not actual cis privilege. Once my trans status is known, no amount of linguistic gymnastics or calculated omissions can take it back.

I personally loathe the concept of passing and its sister, Passing Privilege. Trans women do not “pass” as women, because we already are women even before transition. Instead, we “pass” as cis women, which in turn makes our gender worthy of respect in a cissexist society. This distinction is often lost on people who are not trans. It takes an issue which factors into our survival, the ability to avoid direct transmisogyny, and turns a weirdly silencing and alienating experience, pretending to be cis to avoid danger, into a privilege.

Similar arguments are made about trans women before we transition. Because some of us have the ability to “pass” as cis boys/men at some point in our lives, it is believed our expected ability to avoid direct misogyny is the same social mechanism as Male Privilege. But like the previous discussion of cis passing “privilege”, just because some women can momentarily pass as male in order to avoid direct instances of misogyny/transmisogyny (I know cis women who were willfully perceived as boys/men for periods of their life), that is not the same thing actual boys and men experience. Because as soon as it becomes known that we are not male (which can happen at any time, not just after transition or when we purposely reveal ourselves to be female), all bets are off and we are usually met rather swiftly with an overabundance of violent misogyny.

Although I can understand why the word Privilege is used in these discussions, when we look at other discussions of power dynamics and social justice, the definition of privilege is generally some variation of: advantages and immunities granted due to membership of a socially favored class of people.

For the sake of illustration, let’s take that “membership” and pretend it’s an actual card issued at birth based on how we are perceived and what we are assumed to grow up to be, which grant access to clubs. For instance, when I was born I may have been given the White Membership, the Able Membership, the Male Membership, the Cis Membership, the Straight Membership card, and others. With my enrollment at birth came an automatic acceptance into Club White, Club Able, Club Male, and so on, which come with members-only “perks”. However, just because initial acceptance and membership are automatic and based on birth, that doesn’t mean we can’t get kicked out of a club. Every club has its own Rules of Conduct, and violating those can result in suspension or revocation of its respective membership cards.

Using this analogy, let us compare my attempts to access cis privilege and male privilege within my lifetime to that of a cis woman attempting the same. Although I was granted Cis Membership at birth (because all babies are assumed to be cis), by permanently going against my assigned gender I violated the Rules of Conduct and had my membership revoked. However, I’ve learned to forge pretty convincing documents which “pass” inspection when I want to enter Club Cis. The bouncer looks at my forged card, looks at me, concludes I do not “look” trans, and lets me in. Once inside, I must continue to engage in deception so as not to arouse suspicion. This might include omitting aspects of my gender history, acting entitled about my gender being “real”, presenting in a gender-typical way, or even engaging in internalized cissexism to avoid scrutiny.

But if an actual member of Club Cis interrogates me (when I am attempting to get my gender marker corrected, for instance) it quickly becomes apparent I am not a real member. The bouncers might be firm but polite, or violent and abusive, but they will eject me from Club Cis. A cis woman, on the other hand, still has her authentic Cis Membership card, and nothing can be done to kick her out of the club unless she also violates the Rules of Conduct by not identifying as the gender she was assigned at birth.

Some would argue my Male Membership card is still in good standing, despite living openly as a woman and being correctly perceived as such for much of my life. But let’s go ahead and assume that’s true, for the sake of argument. When I present my membership card at the door, the bouncer takes one look at me and laughs in my face. He might ask if I really thought stealing my brother’s card was going to work or he might recognize me as a former member and ridicule me for leaving a clearly superior club. I could try to shout at him and insist this is my actual authentic card issued at birth, or insist that I am still a member, but he won’t care. A cis woman with forged documents, like me with my forged Cis Membership card, will likely face the same treatment I do from the bouncer because neither of us are accepted as men, regardless of the weight my “authentic” Male Membership is supposed to carry.

But say we’re both able to gain entry by presenting ourselves as boys/men. Me when I was younger and automatically granted entry, her by successfully forging a Male Membership card and a presentation which “passes” inspection. Once inside, we must both engage in deception to avoid suspicion. We might present in hyper-masculine ways, sexualize the bodies of other women, engage in femmephobia and internalized misogyny, or even ridicule other women to ward off suspicion, but these are all acts we put on to convince men we are one of them. We are both going to be highly aware we are in a club which would not allow our authentic selves to be members. For her, because her membership was never authentic. For me, because I have been violating the Rules of Conduct since I was born. (Rule #1: Members Must Present and Identify as Male)

Both of us might be able to remain inside Club Male for a long time and take advantage of the perks by pretending to be male to our best abilities, but neither of us do so with 100% accuracy because we are, in fact, not male. The act of pretending to be male is exhausting and confusing for both of us, and occasionally we reveal parts of who we really are, intentionally or accidentally. We might become overly upset at the way Club Men treats women, we might get funny looks about the fact that we never take off our shirt around members, the way we talk or walk might be seen as “feminine”, but whatever it is, cracks begin to appear. The longer we remain inside Club Male, the more our inconsistencies become noticed until we’re interrogated by members. At which point we might be violently disciplined to conform, be publicly humiliated and ejected from the club, or even be raped or killed. This goes on every time our membership is called into question, even if we’re able to successfully argue to remain. At any given moment we can be rejected.

Hopefully this illustrates how being able to “pass” as a privileged member of society and actually being a privileged member of society are not the same thing, even though passing can gain temporary advantages identical to those with authentic privilege. While some argue trans women have or have had access to male privilege, they are doing so based solely on initial membership and not our ability (or inability) to actually gain access to the club without resorting to deception. I would argue that for someone to actually have privilege, as we use it in social justice discussions, they must have both an authentic membership and an ability to access those membership perks without needing to engage in significant levels of deception and omission about themselves. Privilege is meant to be invisible and effortless for those who have access to it. Many of us who have certain privileges only become aware of them when a non-member points them out to us for the first time.

But if you live in fear of being “found out”, if you have to radically alter parts of yourself to get in the door and stay in, or if your entry can be easily denied based on who you actually are, then I would argue the mechanism being engaged is erasure, intentional or incidental, and not privilege. In order for me to try to gain access to cis privilege, I must first engage in my own trans erasure. The only way for me to gain these privileges is if my actual gender history remains unknown. Whereas the only thing a cis person must do to gain access to cis privilege is continue to identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, which comes so naturally many do so without awareness.

These same mechanisms were true for me as a child in regards to accessing male privilege. In order to gain access I first needed to engage in my own female erasure and ensure my actual gender remained unknown, which became increasingly difficult to do over time. Whereas the only thing boys or men have to do is continue to live as who they are. Yes, some boys/men might face some harsh discipline for violating certain Rules of Conduct, but so long as they continue to identify as men they will continue to receive benefits from their membership, regardless of what that membership “costs” them.

Passing and engaging in your own erasure is mentally taxing, and not all of us can even do so with any consistency. I did my best to pass as male during my childhood with varying degrees of failure, but was never able to do so consistently without increasingly escalating measures of deception and self-hatred. This made me so depressed I nearly died rather than continue. Ultimately I decided coming out as a woman was a better bet, and I’m glad I did.

When you can only gain privileges from self-erasure, you engage in an ongoing cost-benefit analysis. For me, passing as a cis woman usually has a low cost because I can largely rely on Cis Assumption. Passing as a male, however, I personally found so costly no benefits could make it worthwhile, but not all women come to that conclusion. Historically, many cis women considered the benefits of being perceived as male to outweigh the cost of living authentically as female. Even now, many cis girls/women make selective attempts to pass as boys/men for whatever reason. The same is true of trans girls/women who are not yet out or are only out selectively. This might be because of employment or sexuality or safety or any number of factors, but regardless, she is making a devil’s bargain in a man’s world, which men do not need to engage in for male privilege to work for them. And yet, only trans women are faced with the “able to access male privilege, banned for life” clause of feminist womanhood.

Do these women deserve to be checked when engaging in internalized misogyny and other problematic behaviors? Absolutely. It’s something all women need to unlearn if we are going to make the world a better place for our daughters, but she needs to be engaged as a fellow Sister, not a lying Mister. Can women oppress other women? Absolutely. We see examples all the time of white women oppressing women of color, able women oppressing disabled women, straight women oppressing queer women, and so on, but never do we attempt to say those women’s potential to oppress other women is reason to believe they are somehow less woman than the other. This is before we even point out that trans women as a group cannot oppress cis women as a group. Cis women have cis privilege, trans women do not. Trans women and cis women are both harmed by misogyny, but only trans women are harmed by transmisogyny. It’s just that simple.

We need to be able to have discussions of ability to “pass” for privilege versus the actual lived experience of being privileged, and we need to be able to do that in ways that do not engage in transmisogyny or the willful misgendering of another woman’s narrative. Trans women are not boys who become women, but girls who are forced to pretend to be boys until we can’t stand it any longer. To label a lifetime of being misgendered and abused as girls a “privilege” and use it as evidence that trans women are threatening or somehow less authentically female than cis women is not only ignorant, but dangerous.


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Dori Mooneyham

Dori Mooneyham is a psychology student at Texas Woman's University specializing in queer youth and their families. As a feminist, trans woman, and lesbian, she offers many unique insights and perspectives not often seen in the academic world.

4 thoughts on “Passing Privilege”

    1. Thank you for supporting it. This has been a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time, but I wanted to be able to do it in a way that was accessible to everyone while still arguing my points. The “trans women had/have male privilege” argument is tired and needs to stop.

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  1. What a superb analysis. Your ‘club’ analogy relating to privilege really nailed it with clarity, unlike most jargon laden academic discourse. I was enthralled by the directness and truth of your final paragraph. It should be compulsory reading at the start of every women’s studies course.

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