Passing (gender)

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In the context of gender, passing applies to a transgender individual who is generally perceived as cisgender.[1] Typically, passing involves a mixture of physical gender cues (for example, hair style or clothing) as well as certain behavioral attributes that tend to be culturally associated with a particular gender.

Irrespective of a person's presentation, many experienced crossdressers assert that confidence is more important for passing than the physical aspects of appearance.[2]

Related terminology[edit]

Gender attribution[edit]

Gender attribution is the process by which an observer decides which gender they believe another person to be.[3] Once an observer makes an attribution of the gender of a person, it can be difficult to make them change their mind and see the person as another gender.[4]

This is sometimes referred to as simply "gendering",[citation needed] not to be confused with sexing.

Passing/not passing[edit]

The failure to pass as the desired gender is referred to as being read.[5] (/rɛd/) In this context, "read" is used as a verb. The event of being read is known as "a read". (/rd/) In this context, read is used as a noun. It can also be called "being clocked."[6]

A person is far more likely to be able to read someone of their own race but less likely to read someone of a different race.[dubious ] It is generally accepted[by whom?] that this is because gender cues within one's own race are more readily recognized than gender cues of other races. Some people opt to leave their country of origin, because gender cues can vary greatly between countries.[citation needed] Vocal range, physical build, hairline shape, facial structure, demeanor and clothing styles are just some of the reasons cited.[7][original research?][better source needed]

Passing depends not only on clothing, but also on gestures and mannerisms.

Passing is much more than physical appearance, there is a spectrum of difference in the same gender, height, bone structure, appearance of having or lack of having an Adam's apple, so the mind does not just rely on the looks alone.[citation needed] Mannerisms and vocabulary are even more important. The mind picks up these inconsistencies or supporting traits, in so supporting a person's appearance (passing) or not (being read). How a person is dressed, or clothing that is out of place for the surroundings, will draw attention. A mini skirt, 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.[4]

It is also notable that "reading" and "being read" have the alternate meaning of insulting and being insulted in the context of Ball culture.[8] 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".[9]


The term stealth is used to refer to a person who passes as their desired 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 gender, and they are effectively invisible within the population of their current gender. In order to live in stealth,[6] an individual has to be extremely passable. 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).


Jennie Irene Hodgers, dressed as Albert Cashier, was an Irish-born soldier in the Union Army during the United States' Civil War.

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.

Two of the most famous examples of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in battle are Joan of Arc, who fought for France against the English during the Hundred Years' War, 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.[10] 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.[11][12][13] In the film Yentl, Barbra Streisand pretended to be male in order to attend a Jewish school.


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.[14][15][16]

To maintain anonymity while in Bahrain, Michael Jackson wore women's clothes when out in public.[17]


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 female, altering their body to resemble that of a female, wearing female clothing and accessories, speaking in a voice that fits their presentation and adopting feminine mannerisms.[18][19]

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. 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.

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.[20] "Packing" is generally done on a daily basis for FTMs, 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.

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 can be achieved 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.[21] 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 those who identify as cross-dressers, transsexuals, and transgender individuals.

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 cross-dressers who venture out into public areas do try to pass. Many transsexuals 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.

Transgender people who do not describe themselves as either cross dressers, transvestites, or transsexuals may 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.

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.

It should be noted that 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 behaviours as "passing".[citation needed]

In fiction[edit]

Women dressed as men, and less often men dressed as women, is a common trope in fiction[22] and folklore. For example, in Norse myth, Thor disguised himself as Freya.[22] These disguises were also popular in Gothic fiction, such as in works by Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Eugène Sue,[22] and in a number of Shakespeare's plays, such as Twelfth Night. In The Wind in the Willows, Toad dresses as a washerwoman, and in Lord of the Rings, Éowyn pretends to be a man.

In science fiction, fantasy and women's literature, this literary motif is occasionally taken further, with literal transformation of a character from male to female or vice versa. Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography focuses on a man who becomes a woman, as does a warrior in Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song;[23] while in Geoff Ryman's The Warrior who Carried Life, Cara magically transforms herself into a man.[23]

Other popular examples of gender disguise include Madame Doubtfire (published as Alias Madame Doubtfire in the United States) and its movie adaptation Mrs. Doubtfire, featuring a man disguised as a woman.[24] Similarly, the movie Tootsie features Dustin Hoffman disguised as a woman, while the movie The Associate features Whoopi Goldberg disguised as a man.

In the television series Hell on Wheels, season 5, Cullen Bohannon discovers the bilingual Chinese railroad worker known as Tao's son, Ah Fong, is actually Tao's daughter, Mei Fong. Mei pretended to be male both to escape being married off against her will and to work on the railroad, which hired men only.[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. ^ Polare 63: A Crossdressing Perspective Archived 2007-09-09 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ IJ TRANSGENDER - Special Issue on What is TransGender? - Who put the "Trans" in Transgender? Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ a b Jennifer Anne Stevens. From Masculine to Feminine and All Points in Between, Different Path Press, 1990. ISBN 0-9626262-0-1
  5. ^ A CD glossary | The Cornbury Society
  6. ^ a b Glossary[unreliable source?] Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Griffin S. Boyce. Implications of Location on Gender Perception, Ladies and Gentlemen, 2007.
  8. ^ Youtube clip from the movie Paris Is Burning (film) in which this is explained. Paris Is Burning. January 30, 2014.
  9. ^ Youtube Video from Paris is Burning on realness. Paris Is Burning. January 30, 2014.
  10. ^ Feinberg, Leslie (1993) Stone Butch Blues, San Francisco: Firebrand Books. ISBN 1-55583-853-7
  11. ^ Violence and the body: race, gender, and the state Arturo J. Aldama; Indiana University Press, 2003; ISBN 978-0-253-34171-6.
  12. ^ Omnigender: A trans-religious approach Virginia R. Mollenkott, Pilgrim Press, 2001; ISBN 978-0-8298-1422-4.
  13. ^ Gay & lesbian literature, Volume 2 Sharon Malinowski, Tom Pendergast, Sara Pendergast; St. James Press, 1998; ISBN 978-1-55862-350-7.
  14. ^ "21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture". Time Magazine.
  15. ^ Blecha, Peter (September 17, 2005). "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "Michael Jackson dons women's garb in Bahrain". CBS News. January 2006.
  18. ^ MTF passing tips - MTROLwiki
  19. ^ Passing Glances A primer on passing and successful transition for the early-stage transwoman.
  20. ^ FTM Passing Tips[unreliable source?]
  21. ^ "Cost Ranges for Transition". Archived from the original on December 23, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  22. ^ a b c Clute & Grant 1997, p. 395
  23. ^ a b Clute & Grant 1997, p. 396
  24. ^ Anita Silvey The essential guide to children's books and their creators p.155

External links[edit]