Passing (gender)

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In the context of gender, passing or blending refers to someone, especially a transgender person or crossdresser, who is perceived as the gender they wish to be seen as. (For example, a trans woman who is correctly gendered by a store employee who calls her "ma'am".) [1][2]

The appropriateness of the term passing, and the desirability of blending into cisgender society, are both debated within the transgender community. A trans person who is perceived as cisgender may face less prejudice, harassment, and risk of violence, as well as better employment opportunities, and this is sometimes termed passing privilege.[3]


The term passing is widely used but also debated within the transgender community. Trans writer Janet Mock says that the term is "based on an assumption that trans people are passing as something that we are not" and that a trans woman who is perceived as a woman "isn't passing; she is merely being."[4] The GLAAD Media Guide advises that "it is not appropriate" for mainstream media to use the term passing "unless it's a direct quote." Alternate terms are blending or not visibly transgender.[5]

Gender attribution[edit]

Gender attribution is the process by which an observer decides which gender they believe another person to be.[6] Once an observer makes an attribution of the person's gender, it can be difficult for the observer to change his or her mind and see the person as another gender.[7]

Passing/not passing[edit]

Passing typically involves a mixture of physical gender cues, for example, hair style or clothing, and certain behavioral attributes that tend to be culturally associated with a particular gender. Many[who?] experienced cross-dressers say, regardless of a person's presentation, confidence is more important for passing than the physical appearance.[8]

The failure to pass oneself off as the desired gender is referred to as being "read".[9] (/rɛd/) The event of being read is known as "a read". (/rd/) or "being clocked".[10]

Crossdresser in a prom dress

Passing entails much more than physical appearance, since there are many factors : height, bone structure, appearance of having or lacking an Adam's apple.[citation needed] Mannerisms and vocabulary are important; the mind picks up these inconsistencies or supporting traits to determine whether the person is "read" or not. A person's dress, for example out-of-place clothing for the surroundings, will draw attention. A miniskirt, mink coat and knee high boots even on a cis woman in a supermarket will focus one's attention on her, leaving her open to observation for other tell-tale traits.[citation needed][tone]

Depending on a person's presentation, anyone may be able to read them. What is more important than whether a person is read or not is how others react if they do read that person. It is suggested by some researchers that many trans people who believe that they are passing are in fact being read by many observers, but the observers do nothing confrontational and hence the trans person is not even aware that they were read.[7]

It is also notable that "reading" and "being read" have the alternate meaning of insulting and being insulted in the context of Ball culture.[11] Very often the subject of the read is a flaw that would result in not passing. The term used for passing in Ball culture is "realness".[12]


The term stealth in its most extreme sense refers to a person who passes as their desired sex or gender at all times and who has broken contact with everybody who knew their gender history. Thus, everybody around them is unaware that they were not always presenting as the current sex or gender, and they are effectively invisible within the population as trans. If a trans person in stealth living also wishes to be sexual, effective Sex Reassignment Surgery would be required. In order to live in stealth,[10] an individual has to be extremely passable.

In practice, people who struggle for stealth integration usually become known after a time, yet the effort and need to be of the other sex and gender can remain for decades or an entire life. And there are problems that can come with stealth living such as an inability to enter into situations that could reveal, an inability to complain to authorities about discriminations, or even to file a complaint with police if suffering a hate crime, as such a complaint can create an official file or court documents of information the stealth trans person is trying to conceal.[13]

People may also choose to be stealth in some parts of their lives and not other, disconnected parts (for instance, being stealth at work, but openly transgender amongst friends).


Passing privilege is the concept that transgender people face less prejudice when they are perceived as cisgender, including less risk of harassment and violence and better employment opportunities.[3]


Joan of Arc on horseback

Historically, there have been circumstances wherein people have impersonated the opposite sex for reasons other than gender identity. The most common reasons for women disguising themselves as men were so that they could go into battle as soldiers, or in order to work in male-dominated professions that would not hire women.


Reports exist of women doing this in both the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Examples include Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell.[14] and Hua Mulan, who, according to legend, took her elderly father's place in the Chinese army.

Working class passing women[edit]

In Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg wrote about working class, butch lesbians in the 1960s who chose to pass as men in order to find jobs that would enable them to support their families.[15] While the 1993 novel is fiction, there are females, including Feinberg, who took testosterone in this era for these reasons. Factory jobs, in particular, usually only paid men a living wage that could also support a partner and children. Some of these passing women later identified as transgender, while others stopped taking hormones and returned to a butch female presentation once gains made by feminists allowed for better employment opportunities.[16][17][18]


American band leader Billy Tipton had a successful career as a jazz musician in the 1930s through the 1970s. Tipton was from the conservative Midwest. The world at large only discovered Tipton was female-bodied after his death.[19][20][21]

To maintain anonymity while in Bahrain, Michael Jackson wore women's clothes when out in public.[22]


Passing as female[edit]

For persons assigned male at birth passing as female, this will typically involve wearing of a wig or styling their hair in a manner usually specific to females, removing or disguising facial hair and wearing makeup to make their face appear as a cisgender female, altering their body to resemble that of a cisgender female, wearing female clothing and accessories, speaking in a voice that fits their presentation and adopting feminine mannerisms.[23][24]

Alterations to make the face and body appear female fall into two categories: temporary items that are applied or worn, and surgical alterations.

Some form of breast prostheses are usually used. If the clothing being worn will reveal the breast cleavage, some type of cleavage enhancement technique is also used.

Various methods are used to create a female waist-hip ratio, by either reducing the waist size and/or enlarging the hips and buttocks. A garment such as a corset, BodyBriefer or control brief is often used to reduce the apparent waist size and/or to flatten the stomach area. Hip and buttock padding is sometimes used to enlarge the apparent size of the hips and buttocks.

Tucking refers to the practice of hiding the penis and testicles so that they are not visible through tight clothing.[25] The most effective way of tucking involves pushing of the testicles up into the inguinal canal; most can do this without any pain. Once this is done the penis is pulled back between the person's legs and a tight pair of panties or a gaff is then worn over the top to hold everything in place. Trans women particularly resort to tucking when wearing more revealing clothing such as leggings or swimwear, as for trans women who have not or do not undergo genital reconstruction surgery, the penile crotch protrusion (sometimes known by the slang terms moose-knuckle[26][27] or man-bulge.[28][29]) can be among the most conspicuous signs of the gender they were assigned at birth.[30]

Cosmetic surgery procedures that are often used by transgender persons living permanently as females include breast augmentation, liposuction and Buttock augmentation. The use of female hormones also alters the body, including changing the distribution of body fat, though these changes are less permanent and will reverse if transgender hormone replacement therapy is discontinued.

Passing as male[edit]

For transgender men, drag kings, or any female-assigned person trying to pass as male, this may include binding the breasts to create a flat-chested appearance, taking on a more masculine demeanor, and wearing male clothing. Baggy or loose clothing is usually preferred because it hides characteristics like breasts and rounded hips.

A "packer," a prosthetic penis worn at the crotch to approximate the size and shape of flaccid male genitalia, may be worn.[31] "Packing" is generally done on a daily basis for transgender men, sometimes for the rest of their life, especially if they do not undergo sex reassignment surgery. For other transgender men or cross-dressing women, packing is done on an as-needed basis either for personal comfort or for drag performances.

The vast majority of packers are made to look and feel like flaccid penises, but in the past few years two companies have released medical-quality prosthetics that can be used for both general packing and for sexual activity. Such an appearance is sometimes sought out to accommodate varied clothing styles, particularly for warmer for temperate seasons to achieve the appearance of a crotch protrusion,[32] sometimes known by the slang terms moose-knuckle[26][27] or man-bulge.[28][29]

Medical-quality prosthetics are available that can be attached with medical adhesive. Other prosthetics are held in place with clothes or (rarely) specialized harnesses.

A flat chest is commonly achieved through breast binding which can be done in many ways. There are commercially-made specialty binders available worldwide, as well as binders designed for the treatment of gynecomastia. Both are safe and effective for the compression of breast tissue and allow for normal breathing in most people. Binders should still not be worn for more than 8 hours per day, or when exercising/sleeping, even if they are made by a reputable brand.

Safe binders should not flatten the chest completely, but flatten the chest enough to create the look of pectoral muscles instead of breasts.

Other methods of binding include compression bandages, back braces, tape, modified clothing, very firm sports bras and tight-fitting shirts. These methods are more popular with young people who have not yet come out as trans, or those who have limited financial means.

Binding with duct tape or elastic/compression bandages can cause serious injury and even death due to asphyxia. Bandages can compress the ribcage so greatly as to make normal breathing impossible, as they are meant to wrap tightly around injuries and not for binding.[33] Tape is also ill-advised due to potentially permanent damage to the skin caused by adhesives, and due to the inflexibility of materials which puts the wearer at a similar risk as bandages.

Modern context[edit]

In modern times the endeavor of trying to pass is most often practiced by transgender people.

Those performers (drag kings and drag queens) who are open about their natal sex are not typically referred to as "passing", even though some may be able to do so. Many people who cross-dress in public do try to pass. Many transgender people live and work in their gender and seek to be fully accepted as a member of that gender, rather than that which they were assigned. Therefore, passing is not just an option but is seen as a necessity by many.

Other transgender people, including non-binary people, have different attitudes towards passing. For example, they might not try to pass at all, they may engage in genderfuck (sending consciously mixed signals), or they might be able to pass, but do not hide the fact that they are transgender. Personal views on passing and the desire or need to pass are independent of whether an individual has had medical treatment or has legally changed their gender. Trans writer Matillda Bernstein Sycamore writes "If we eliminate the pressure to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create?"[34]

In the transgender and crossdressing communities, those that cannot pass may sometimes view those that pass with jealousy[weasel words]. Because of this, there may be a tendency for some of those who pass to avoid those who are easily read. There is the perception among many[who?] that when one person is read, anyone with that person will be assumed to be transgender or crossdressing, by association.

The use of the term "passing" regarding sexual orientation denotes "hiding" one's identity, where use among gender-variant people (as noted above) signals acceptance and concordance with one's internal sense of or desired gender identity. However, for this reason, and because transgender persons who come to live full-time in their desired gender/sex identity often recognize their previous attempts to conceal their identity and be accepted in socially-accepted and designated roles as the real artifice they constructed and protected, some have begun to instead call their previous gender-normative and concealing behaviour as "passing".[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Serano, Julia (1 October 2013). Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. Berkeley, California: Seal Press. pp. 194–195. ISBN 978-1-58005-504-8. OCLC 978600133. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  2. ^ Urquhart, Evan (2017-03-30). "Why Is "Passing" Such a Controversial Subject for Trans People?". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  3. ^ a b Godfrey, Chris (2015-03-25). "Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of 'Passing'".
  4. ^ Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. New York: Atria Books. ISBN 9781476709123. OCLC 852226339.
  5. ^ "GLAAD Media Reference Guide: 10th Edition" (PDF). October 2016. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  6. ^ IJ TRANSGENDER - Special Issue on What is TransGender? - Who put the "Trans" in Transgender? Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ a b Jennifer Anne Stevens. From Masculine to Feminine and All Points in Between, Different Path Press, 1990. ISBN 0-9626262-0-1
  8. ^ Polare 63: A Crossdressing Perspective Archived 2007-09-09 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ A CD glossary | The Cornbury Society
  10. ^ a b Glossary[unreliable source?] Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Youtube clip from the movie Paris Is Burning (film) in which this is explained. Paris Is Burning. January 30, 2014.
  12. ^ Youtube Video from Paris is Burning on realness. Paris Is Burning. January 30, 2014.
  13. ^ Ware, Jenna (2016). Shadow Life: Aerospace, Love and Secrets. KDP. pp. 267–306. ISBN 978-1-946438-02-7.
  14. ^ Creighton, Margaret S.; Norling, Lisa (1996). Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 38. ISBN 0801851599. Retrieved 19 November 2018./ref> Two of the most famous examples from an earlier era are Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years' War,ref>Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses (1982).
  15. ^ Feinberg, Leslie (1993) Stone Butch Blues, San Francisco: Firebrand Books. ISBN 1-55583-853-7
  16. ^ Violence and the body: race, gender, and the state Arturo J. Aldama; Indiana University Press, 2003; ISBN 978-0-253-34171-6.
  17. ^ Omnigender: A trans-religious approach Virginia R. Mollenkott, Pilgrim Press, 2001; ISBN 978-0-8298-1422-4.
  18. ^ Gay & lesbian literature, Volume 2 Sharon Malinowski, Tom Pendergast, Sara Pendergast; St. James Press, 1998; ISBN 978-1-55862-350-7.
  19. ^ "21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture". Time Magazine.
  20. ^ Blecha, Peter (September 17, 2005). "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  21. ^ Smith, Dinitia (June 2, 1998). "Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  22. ^ "Michael Jackson dons women's garb in Bahrain". CBS News. January 2006.
  23. ^ MTF passing tips - MTROLwiki
  24. ^ Passing Glances A primer on passing and successful transition for the early-stage transwoman.
  25. ^ Coleman, Eli, et al. "Standards of care for the health of transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people, version 7." International journal of transgenderism 13.4 (2012): 165-232.
  26. ^ a b "5 famous moose knuckles exposed". Channel 24. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  27. ^ a b "Declan Donnelly's trouser bulge was very very distracting on last night's I'm A Celeb". The gay UK. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  28. ^ a b Harris, Michael. "If Clement isn't fit for caucus, why is he fit to be anyone's MP?". Ipolitics. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  29. ^ a b Bilton, Ross. "Size flatters". The Australian. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  30. ^ Unger, Tess A. Learning truths: Early childhood experiences of gender-expansive children and their families. Diss. Mills College, 2015.
  31. ^ FTM Passing Tips[unreliable source?]
  32. ^ Blackwood, Evelyn, and Ryan Plis. "Trans technologies and identities in the United States." Technologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health. Routledge, 2012. 201-220.
  33. ^ "Cost Ranges for Transition". Archived from the original on December 23, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  34. ^ Nobody passes : rejecting the rules of gender and conformity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press. 2006. p. 19. ISBN 9781580051842. OCLC 71285289.

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