My Terrible Bargain: Passing Privilege

by Shaker Kaninchenzero

[Trigger warning.]

What with Andy and Alexmac and CatieCat trans issues are really well covered here at Shakesville. Y'all folks—and especially the moderators—are amazing. In other places on the net, even places that are ostensibly trans-friendly, we get un- and misgendered, accused of everything from promoting female genital mutilation to betraying any hope of achieving real feminist/womanist progress by undermining the concept that gender is a social construct to raping all real women all the time simply by existing.

(You'll note, clever people that you are, that these vile accusations are mainly aimed at trans women; trans men tend to disappear in the accusers' rantings and are un- and misgendered as women who are just somewhat more butch than most. Which is still hideously offensive and wildly creepifying what with the fetishizing some people do of trans men's bodies but with somewhat less of an implicit call to violence. Trans people who are neither men nor women all the time don't exist at all, you troublemakers you.)

I'm not going to address these odious canards here—others have covered this territory well already—except to say that I also believe gender is a social construct. I just happen to believe it's not immutable, defined by others at birth, nor closed to immigration. So chill, Minutewomyn of the gender borders. We are not here to git yer jobs. We just want a place to live and to pee in safety and quiet, just like other women. And the insistence on using offensive and othering language like 'biological' and 'real' and 'genetic' really isn't helping, so keep that shit in your nice safe little trans-free sandboxes, 'kay?


What I'd like to talk about is one of those things that you might not even know exists unless you're trans yourself, or very close to someone who is: Passing Privilege.

To use it in a sentence: "A trans person who easily moves in cis society with hir preferred gender presentation has passing privilege." For a given value of easily. Some trans people have it, other's don't. The burly woman in a wig and a dress and badly-applied makeup that doesn't hide her heavy five o'clock shadow that is the endlessly hilarious TV version of a trans woman that breaks my heart every single time I see it? Does not have passing privilege. Hedwig, in the eponymous Angry Inch, has more.

I personally have tons and have since forever. I don't think anyone here has met me in person yet, but there are pictures. I have had no trans-related surgeries, some electrolysis, and don't wear makeup because I mostly can't be bothered to. It was fun at first and I do on special occasions but these days it's another chore I don't have the energy to do and frankly as long as I feel shitty I'd like to look kind of shitty too. (Also I have rosacea but it's not the reason I don't wear makeup.)

A friend of mine tried to explain it once to my brother, who thought his high school friend who'd done some modeling was a counterexample. "He's pretty and he's still a guy."

"Dave, your friend is boy pretty. Moira is girl pretty."

"I don't see it."

"You're one of the few who don't."

My grandmother—the fountain of awesome one I've mentioned in the context of coming out and abuse—once asked "So how many people think you're actually a woman?" Ooo, nicely phrased! Puts me in my place right at the beginning.

"People who didn't know me before?" It is kind of an important point. People who have already made a judgment as to a person's gender often have a very difficult time changing it, even with new information.


"Jesus, everybody does."

It sounds to me like I'm bragging here but I don't mean to be. Parts of my early transition (like coming out, transition doesn't ever seem to be over either) were easy. I just stopped trying to look and talk and act like a boy and presto! instant girl. Short hair and flat chest and tomboyish wardrobe and all. Y'know, sort of. This thing that all my life had marked me as weird and wrong, had gotten me beat up at school, had earned me shouts of "Faggot!" and beer cans hurled from passing trucks, was suddenly a good thing!

Only so many women I knew didn't have it nearly so much and struggled constantly. Voice, hands, wrists, feet, throat, facial hair, jawline, forehead, allopecia, musculature—none of that changed who they were, but it sure hell changed how people reacted to them. (The social model is the Swiss Army knife of any discussion of privilege, I swear. It's always useful.) I felt guilty as hell that that part of it was so easy for me. I was never told I couldn't use a bathroom. When I talk to medical professionals—which is often, so this is good—they ask when my last period was and usually just drop it when I say I don't menstruate. I was able to get a driver's license and Social Security Card with my name and an F on them, and except for the job I transitioned at my gender has never once been questioned at work.


And then there are the cis people who've established themselves as gatekeepers and taken it upon themselves to define who we are. They'd say I was really transsexual because I looked to them like their idea of a real woman; the women with less passing privilege they defined as wanting to transition because they had a perverted fetish in finding themselves sexy. I cannot tell you how angry that makes me.

I felt—feel—guilty as hell about it. Why should I have it so easy when it was so hard for so many? Sometimes I cannot shake the guilt: hanging onto my passing privilege is another of my terrible bargains with the kyriarchy. But the kyriarchy is still a very dangerous place for trans folk and trans women in particular. The fears I have of being discriminated against or beaten or raped or killed are real. Some of them have happened to me already; all of them have happened to other trans folk. And continue to happen. I am noisy about being trans here because I feel safe to; cis people have worked to make it that way and I am grateful. I am not noisy about being trans—I bite my tongue and say nothing when something ugly is said about trans folk with less passing privilege than me—in other places because I don't feel safe.

I know, I should listen to what I tell other people; we do what we have to to survive. And I do. I just can't feel good about it.

[Terrible Bargain: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine.]

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