Monday, 4 October 2021


 A lot is written about 'passing', when we trans people feel we need to appear as much as possible like an unequivocal example of our gender. This is partly for our own reassurance and satisfaction but also to avoid awkward conversations or threats when perceived as different or untypical by others. Some thoughts on this from other bloggers include:- 

Hannah's take: Pride and passing 

Lynn's: To pass or not to pass 

and Clare's: Passing, or masking?

As well as fellow MtF bloggers above, I have provided links to articles on this subject in my regular dip in the archives below. 

I thought I'd write a few notes on the subject, too. Inevitably, my need to pass or not is personal and differs from that of other trans people. Furthermore, my feelings about passing have varied over the years and may well vary again. Here, then, are my current take and past experience.

When I first started going out I thought - bizarrely - that my wig, makeup, clothes, walk and mannerisms were good enough not to make me too noticed, that I was just another woman in the street. There were clues that I was taken for a woman, and clues that I wasn't. I think I have taken the hints on board and improved over the years, not least to realise that accepting the limitations of what you can do with what you have got leads to greater calmness and confidence, and that in turn leads to greater acceptance by others, which largely achieves one main aim of passing.

I have one terrific advantage - or an advantage from this point of view - in that I am petite. I am just five foot four (163 cm) tall, I take UK size 5½ shoes (European 38, US 7½), I don't have wide shoulders but I do have hips. From a distance and from behind, I pass as the woman I want to be treated as. Many TGirls complain of being taller and wider than the average woman so being smaller and curvier than the average MtF trans person is, I guess, my 'passing privilege'. The boot's on the other foot in male mode, though. In public in London, for instance, I would be stopped far more for help or directions as Sue than when I was in male mode. Some people would then be puzzled when my voice and face didn't quite match the image they developed from behind or sidelong. The fact that I am approached more as Sue than as my male alter ego also tells us that people make assumptions about women: other women see little physical or sexual threat from a woman; conversely, I suspect that not a few men asked for directions, help, a light, just to strike up a conversation that might perhaps lead somewhere. Either way, it's quite affirming.

Is it a compliment when someone reads you and says something encouraging? A train guard (one of us, though having to be in his male uniform at the time) said I really passed. Which obviously means I didn't or he wouldn't have spotted me! (Whether you as a TGirl should go up to another TGirl and let her know, however nicely, that you've spotted her is a question of etiquette that is hard to answer.) The tourist who told me at a station that it was great that I could get out and be who I wanted to be, I took in the way that was intended but, in a different way, it doesn't help confidence to know you've been read so easily. Lastly, it's a bit creepy when random men in the street compliment you or ask to accompany you to your hotel or hang around outside the door of the venue you are in just in case you'd like to spend the evening with them. Is that good? I guess it depends on how you like to interact. Many TGirls love male attention but it's not for me. It was most likely my being trans rather than a woman that was the particular attraction for those particular men, so I see it as a negative.

I vividly recall the first time I went out of my own front door for a day out (here) and my season ticket with 'M' as the sex on it was queried by the entry guard at Kew Gardens! Unusual compliment? Did I really pass? Or was it just official rigour in ensuring I hadn't stolen someone else's ticket? Hard to tell, but I've chuckled ever since that the one thing I had to do on my first walk from home was convince someone that I was legally male.

Of course the occasional catcall or yell of "look! that's a bloke!" doesn't help one's confidence. The man in the queue at a bank's outdoor ATM in Manchester asking, seemingly genuinely, if Jo and I were men didn't elicit a response from us as it seemed so ignorant and inappropriate. A more respectful approach and we'd have told him about the big transgender celebration going on that weekend. An education opportunity lost? Maybe, but his approach was, instinctively, so wrong. The man in a bar who insisted on asking again and again what my 'real' name was could hardly be as trans supportive as he claimed to be. As for the drunk loser who stared at me and my friends and kept yelling, "you're not fooling anyone", this leads to an important point: passing is not about fooling people or being in disguise but about acceptance as the gender we present as. Another point is that the more TGirls there are together, the less likely they are to pass as a group.

So I don't pass fully for female (as if there were a clear standard of femaleness!) and this can draw attention. None of it, even compliments by other women, is quite what I want. I'd rather blend in, not be noticed, so I can go about my day. I confess I'd like to pass better, not so as to disguise who I am or deny I am trans or be vain but just to feel and really be taken for the woman I am. How many people feel they have to transition for precisely that reason? All the bloggers I have linked to above agree that it shouldn't be necessary to pass but the reality is that humans are a social animal with highly complex, hierarchical societies, and like any social animal you have to conform to certain standards and practices or be ostracised, which can have serious repercussions. Ostracism from family, friends, society is not now the death sentence it used to be when human society was more tribal, yet tribalism is still a force even if not called that: what team do you support? what's your nationality? your age group? your socioeconomic status? your sex? I want to be part of the woman tribe so I wear the tribal badge (my clothes and hairstyle) but people see that badge as a bit rusty and with some of the patterns of the male tribe still on it. If I don't wear the badge and wear it well I get lumped in with the male tribe. It's only certain civilizations around the Pacific rim and East Asia that have ever really made room in their societies for trans people. Western societies are quite severe and have a gender binary and so you'd best be clearly one thing or the other. Not to mention conforming with the soul-crushing beauty and image standards that all women are held to.

It's a burden having to be extra careful with your appearance, especially in an era that's actually less formal in appearance than previous epochs, all so as to ensure that others are more likely to accept and recognise you for the gender you really are. A more relaxed society would help, but that's not something we've seen in the last few years. The extent to which some trans people go to pass, with surgery of many kinds, hormones, etc., is partly a response to this societal burden, though we must acknowledge that surgery is often related to a more personal need to reduce dysphoria and dysmorphia. I confess that looking my best is good for my own peace of mind, too, when I look in the mirror. But how much have I spent on clothes, wigs and makeup over the years, on dressing services and makeovers to help me understand my look and appearance, on unisex spectacle frames that are more costly than gendered ones, to make me accepted by society as a trans woman? As for trans women who go further and pay for laser hair removal, facial feminisation or plastic surgery, tracheal shaves, etc., how much more are they burdened by this?

It's easy to say that passing doesn't matter, it's not something to worry about, you won't pass so don't let it bother you, yet the joy when one is accepted as one's true gender is very special. I have never felt happier than when being addressed as female by shop assistants, officials, staff or public, whether it's a polite "Madam" or a cheery "thanks, love". For my part, I find it hard to be of ambiguous gender that leaves people guessing; to me, my femininity is defining and I am sad when, for instance, a scarring illness left me having to make the best of it by being somewhat androgynous instead. Androgyny is not 'me', though it may well be 'you'. So I try my best with my feminine look, succeeding in passing at a distance but not close up. But the deficits in my appearance I make up for with a smile, being really friendly and giving the appearance of confidence even if I am actually nervous, showing I have the right to be where I am, and that usually gets over the last hurdles to acceptance.

Passing, or just being accepted?


I wish it were otherwise but the reality is that people have notions set by their society and there are usually clear parameters within those societies as to what a woman or man is. Blurring the outlines helps and I think that little by little we are slowly getting to a place where poeple are just people and the legal pigeonholes we are put into, like sex, age, marital status, etc., are becoming less socially significant. But sexual dimorphism in humans, although not as obvious as in other animals, such as birds or spiders, can never result in equity and trans people are inevitably edged out of positions in the system nature has arrived at. Trans people will always have this extra burden of effort to match our reality with the demands of society and nature. I just hope for and work towards a point where being trans arouses no special attention from people.

Photo: Richard Bartz

A dip in the archives

 I said a lot is written about passing and it's a big topic with lots of implications and ramifications so here, discussing aspects of this subject in more detail, are some selected articles and blogs that may be of further interest:-

General: Teen Health Source: What is passing? with further resources

On the costs of passing: Vox: The Assimilationist, or: On the unexpected cost of passing as a trans woman by Emily VanDerWerff

On awkward compliments: Literary Hub: But you don't look trans: a tale of microaggression by Veronica Esposito

Passing privilege: What does "passing" mean within the transgender community 

Passing suggests cis people are more valuable than trans: Trans Hub: Passing

The need to pass leaves you held back and vulnerable to exploitation: Refinery 29: As a trans woman I understand the pressure to pass, but it's holding us back by Jacqueline Kilikita

From a transman perspective: Be You Network: The politics of passing by Dean Moncel

There's even a Wikipedia article about it: Passing (gender)

Always remember: you are valid, you are beautiful, you don't have to prove anything to anyone.


Sue x


  1. The sheer amount written on the subject shows just how important "passing" is to so many people, of course it's not just trans people, but other minorities also sometimes wish to pass as something they are not. I am no different to any other trans woman, I wanted to pass as being cis, mostly because I simply wanted to be treated and recognised as a woman, not as some sort of freak. There is of course also always the very big factor of personal safety, it is now nearly eight years since I went full time, and sometimes I still feel nervous about exposure in some circumstances. I have found that I am less concerned about passing, I am much more concerned about "am I presenting myself well". "Passing" for me suggests trying to be taken for something one is not, these days I am simply trying to present and be the best me.

    1. HI Paula, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. I knew the subject was keenly felt in the trans community but as I did more online reserach its vastness, implications and effects became clearer, and your experience shows how personal a matter it is for each of us and how our feelings about how we present ourselves change. Thanks for sharing and hope that full-time life is suiting you. Sounds like it is. Sue x

  2. It's a funny thing, passing. It can be difficult, seemingly unobtainable for lots of us*, and for the reasons you state: it can also be about survival.

    * I'd happily stand in that group being six foot, broad shouldered, and with a jaw that's great for clearing snow 😉 But, as you've linked to, I realised it would never change for me, so I did my best to stop worrying and do what I could.

    On the subject of links, thanks for sharing those: I'm off for a good read.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. The writers I picked had, I felt, something insightful to say about particular aspects of this issue. Enjoy.

      I don't think tall TGirls stand out as much as they used to since there seem to be ever increasing numbers of tall women. I suspect that's not just due to genetics but to the improved socioeconomic position of women that in turn provides access to better health, food, exercise and self-esteem that leads to a less suppressed body size. To illustrate, the limited diet and even malnutrition that characterised many parts of the world once - the Far East and Central Africa, for example - has largely been overcome with an extraordinary increase in body size in recent generations. I think that pattern repeats everywhere when shorter, humbler people - like women - are given better, more encouraging lifestyles. You'll be blending in fine soon. It's midgets like me who'll be the odd ones!

      Sue x

  3. "passing is not about fooling people or being in disguise but about acceptance as the gender we present as."
    That's been my experience. Unfortunately I'm not at all petite at over 6 ft (I really envy you the size 5 and a half shoes as well) but so far I've not encountered any bad reactions on walks and trips out and the few people I encounter have largely been polite and appear happy to take me for for how I present. Admittedly I now dress right down on those occasions in jeans and a sweater, another part of the 'not drawing undue attention'. Perhaps a little too much slap for an early morning walk, but then I might have a skin complaint I'm covering up. Possibly the biggest giveaway is trying to hard, too dressy or made up for the occasion (that's triggered my own t-dar more than once).

    1. Hi Susie, thanks for visiting and commenting. It's always good to share and compare experiences and feelings on matters like this. My reply to Lynn's comment about tall girls applies to you, too. I don't think height is as much of a distinction between the sexes as it once was.

      You are very much a girl after my own heart in choosing to dress down in public. I wear what other women wear and if jeans and sweaters are what's generally worn (they are) then that's my choice, too, at least for everyday activities. I want to be like any other women, just getting on with life.

      On an unrelated note, I notice you are blogging more and your recent post about belonging and blending in is very relevant here. I think I'll be adding your blog to my blogroll next. Keep up the good work online and in public.

      Sue x