Passing (gender)

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In the context of gender, passing or blending is when someone, typically a transgender person, is perceived as cisgender instead of the sex they were assigned at birth.[1][2] The person may, for example, be a transgender man who is perceived as a cisgender man.

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 in a direct quote". GLAAD's preferred term is "not visibly transgender".[5] Some dislike the use of the terms stealth and passing, feeling those terms imply dishonesty or deception about one's gender identity.[6]

Gender attribution[edit]

Gender attribution is the process by which an observer decides which gender they believe another person to be.[7] Once an observer makes an attribution of the person's gender, it can be difficult for the observer to change their mind and see the person as another gender.[8] Gender attribution is used by people to make initial assumptions about a person to be able to infer other details or aspects about them. In most interactions one cannot observe others physical sex characteristics like their penis or vagina so therefore must use other visual cues to be able to discern others gender.[9] This concept can be summarized by the work of SJ Kessler, W McKenna and H Garfinkel, "This not directly visible 'cultural genital'[10] which is expected to be there "exists in a cultural sense if the person is assumed to have it".[11]

Passing/not passing[edit]

Passing typically involves a mixture of physical gender cues, for example, hairstyle 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.[12]

The failure to pass oneself off as the desired gender is referred to as being "read".[13] (/rɛd/) The event of being read is known as "a read" (/rd/) or "being clocked".[14]

Crossdresser in a prom dress


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,[14] 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).[15] To attain the level of gender passing to be stealth is a goal for many who choose to differ from traditional gender. Many transgender individuals find a sense of dignity and full access to their gender by living stealth instead of under the trans subcategory, or feel that they are living the adulthood they envisioned as children back when they didn't know the term "trans" or much about its realities. Many in the community fear issues of discrimination and bias due to their transgender identification.[16] According to Gillian Branstetter from the National Center for Transgender Equality, "People privilege the rights of others based off of [sic] how they look". People may feel safer being able to appear as a non-transgender person than if their gender identity was more easily identifiable.[16]


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] For those in the transgender community the ability to pass is held as the standard of sorts for which to ascribe to. However in terms of the privilege associated with passing there is a general lack of research about the impact that successfully passing has on a multitude of aspects of an individual's societal experience.[17] However it can be noted in a few studies that successfully passing can impact ones likelihood to experience homelessness as well as ones experience with homeless shelters themselves. Passing privilege in these cases can present as the following experiences or lack thereof as pertaining to homelessness. 11.4% of surveyed individuals stated that they had experienced homelessness directly related to their gender identity, with a bigger percentage of 16.3% indicating they needed to seek new or short term living arrangements due to their identity. As for those dealing with direct homelessness those who lacked the ability to pass were more likely to experience a variety of difficulties including harassment from staff and other visitors, difficulties being accepted to and staying in the shelters themselves, and due to these factors being less likely to seek assistance from shelters.[17]

Risks of not passing[edit]

The risks of not fully passing for the gender one is attempting to pass for can vary depending on the circumstances. There is a significant difference between drag queens or those who dress for performances, and transgender people or those who vary from the gender binary. For those who attempt to pass as a means of a differently gendered lifestyle the risks assumed can be greater. Being outed by ones physical attributes as a transgender or gender non-conforming individual can negatively impact one's cultural experience, resulting in neglect, abuse, or disownment by one's community.[15] According to data from the U.S. 2015 Transgender survey, 88% of those interviewed were denied "equal treatments and services" as a result of their trans identity.[16] Transgender people face high rates of discrimination and harassment, particularly among trans women of color.[18] Transgender people face high rates of harassment and violence both sexual and physical, sexual objectification and social stigma.[18][15] The experience of transphobia can also lead to negative impacts on mental health, as noted by Lombardi, Melendez & Pinto, Nuttbrock in the article "Experiences of transphobia have consistently been found to be associated with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem".[9]


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.[19][20]

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

Some form of breast prostheses are sometimes 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.[21] 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[22][23] or man-bulge[24][25]) can be among the most conspicuous signs of the gender they were assigned at birth.[26]

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.[27] 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[clarification needed] seasons to achieve the appearance of a crotch protrusion,[28] sometimes known by the slang terms moose-knuckle[22][23] or man-bulge.[24][25]

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 eight 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.[29] 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.


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.[30]

Two of the most famous examples from an earlier era are Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years' War,[31] and Hua Mulan, who, according to legend, took her elderly father's place in the Chinese army.

A Spanish woman named Eleno/Elena de Cespedes, despite being married and pregnant by the age of 16, began identifying as, as well as dressing as, a man. After a first failed attempt, she was accepted into the army to then serve for several years successfully.[32]

Catalina de Erauso was a Spanish woman, originally a nun, who grew increasingly dissatisfied with religious life and in turn decided to dress as a man and flee to a new life. Joining the army a few years later, she did remarkably well in the military. According to source material, "After serving in several campaigns against the Indians of Chile and Peru, she distinguished herself sufficiently to be promoted to the rank of ensign". She reportedly earned a reputation of "courage and daring" while involved in campaigns. However outside of combat she was known to cause trouble frequently. Known for brawling, gambling, fighting, and killing people on a few occasions her issues with violence would eventually lead her to reveal her true sex at what she thought at the time was the end of her life. Although her female identity was revealed later in life, she maintained her masculine appearance until her death.[33]

Hannah Gray was a part of the British army under the name James Gray. Due to various circumstances and issues regarding the reveal of her gender Hannah eventually ended up joining the marines instead. She was noted to have "proved to be not only a brave warrior but a good drinking companion as well and was accepted by her mates as a man", engaging in the construct of masculinity and doing successful masculine gender.[34]

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.[35] 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.[36][37][38]

Upper-class passing men[edit]

Cases of male impersonation by women appear to be more historically common than those of male impersonation of women. Outside of artistic expression, men who attempt to pass as women are not only less common but less socially accepted as a result.[39] It can be noted that therefore many known male to female cross dressers are those from the upper class who do not face the same socioeconomic risks in repercussion to their cross dressing.

Henri III of France was a historic cross-dresser, noted to dress as the opposite sex at grand parties and events. He was reported to have "dressed as an Amazon or wearing a ball gown, makeup, earrings, and other jewelry, and attended by his so called mignons, or homosexual favorites".[40]


American band leader Billy Tipton had a successful career as a jazz musician from the 1930s through the 1970s. Tipton was from the conservative Midwest. The world at large only discovered Tipton was female-bodied after his death.[41][42][43]

To maintain anonymity while in Bahrain, Michael Jackson wore women's clothes when out in public.[44]

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.[15] 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 Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes, "If we eliminate the pressure to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create?"[45]

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 (2014-02-04). 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. ^ "Trans Men Confirm All Your Worst Fears About Sexism". Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  7. ^ IJ TRANSGENDER - Special Issue on What is TransGender? - Who put the "Trans" in Transgender? Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Jennifer Anne Stevens. From Masculine to Feminine and All Points in Between, Different Path Press, 1990. ISBN 0-9626262-0-1
  9. ^ a b Varieties of transgender/transsexual lives and their relationship with transphobia. Lombardi E J Homosex. 2009; 56(8):977-92.
  10. ^ Garfinkel, H. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1967
  11. ^ KesslerSJ,McKennaW.Gender:AnEthnomethodological Approach.ChicagoandLondon:Univer-sityof ChicagoPress;1985.Reprint.Originallypublished by:NewYork:Wiley;1978
  12. ^ Polare 63: A Crossdressing Perspective Archived 2007-09-09 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ A CD glossary | The Cornbury Society
  14. ^ a b Glossary[unreliable source?] Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ a b c d Stitt, Alex (2020). ACT For Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 978-1785927997. OCLC 1089850112.
  16. ^ a b c Blanchard, Sessi Kuwabara (2019-07-25). "Six Transgender Women Explain What It's Like When They Don't 'Look Trans'". Vice. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  17. ^ a b Begun, Stephanie; Kattari, Shanna K. (2016-01-02). "Conforming for survival: Associations between transgender visual conformity/passing and homelessness experiences". Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services. 28 (1): 54–66. doi:10.1080/10538720.2016.1125821. ISSN 1053-8720.
  18. ^ a b Sevelius, Jae M. (2013-06-01). "Gender Affirmation: A Framework for Conceptualizing Risk Behavior among Transgender Women of Color". Sex roles. 68 (11–12): 675–689. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0216-5. ISSN 0360-0025. PMC 3667985. PMID 23729971.
  19. ^ MTF passing tips - MTROLwiki
  20. ^ Passing Glances A primer on passing and successful transition for the early-stage transwoman.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ a b "5 famous moose knuckles exposed". Channel 24. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ a b Bilton, Ross. "Size flatters". The Australian. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  26. ^ Unger, Tess A. Learning truths: Early childhood experiences of gender-expansive children and their families. Diss. Mills College, 2015.
  27. ^ FTM Passing Tips[unreliable source?]
  28. ^ Blackwood, Evelyn, and Ryan Plis. "Trans technologies and identities in the United States." Technologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health. Routledge, 2012. 201-220.
  29. ^ "Cost Ranges for Transition". Archived from the original on December 23, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc By Herself And Her Witnesses (1982).
  32. ^ Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. p. 94. ISBN 0-8122-3163-5
  33. ^ Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. p. 96. ISBN 0-8122-3163-5
  34. ^ Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. p.134. ISBN 0-8122-3163-5
  35. ^ Feinberg, Leslie (1993) Stone Butch Blues, San Francisco: Firebrand Books. ISBN 1-55583-853-7
  36. ^ Violence and the body: race, gender, and the state Arturo J. Aldama; Indiana University Press, 2003; ISBN 978-0-253-34171-6.
  37. ^ Omnigender: A trans-religious approach Virginia R. Mollenkott, Pilgrim Press, 2001; ISBN 978-0-8298-1422-4.
  38. ^ Gay & lesbian literature, Volume 2 Sharon Malinowski, Tom Pendergast, Sara Pendergast; St. James Press, 1998; ISBN 978-1-55862-350-7.
  39. ^ Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. p.103. ISBN 0-8122-3163-5
  40. ^ Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. p.104. ISBN 0-8122-3163-5
  41. ^ "21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture". Time Magazine.
  42. ^ Blecha, Peter (September 17, 2005). "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  43. ^ 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.
  44. ^ "Michael Jackson dons women's garb in Bahrain". CBS News. January 2006.
  45. ^ Nobody passes : rejecting the rules of gender and conformity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press. 2006. p. 19. ISBN 9781580051842. OCLC 71285289.

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