Why you need to reject the idea of “passing” as cis

As I’m reading through some of the older articles by one of my favorite authors, Kai Cheng Thom, I came across this beauty:

How to Love Being a Non-Passing Trans Woman in 9 Affirming Steps

And I’m reminded how crucial accepting that fact was to my coming out journey.

There is so much pressure, both in the cisnormative world around us and from other trans people, to achieve some level of “passing” where people on the street or sometimes even people in the sheets can’t tell you are trans. For so many trans people, their ultimate goal is to get to a point where people think they are cisgender. And while there is a lot of power and safety in that and I absolutely do not blame people for wanting that, it is also a dangerous trap that can hold us back from truly being happy.

For so much of my life I thought that I couldn’t be trans because my body had grown in ways that I knew I could never reverse. With my broad shoulders, my strong chin, my large hands, my massive feet, and my deep bass singing voice, I knew that no matter how much surgery I had, I could never achieve my ideal of how I thought a woman should look. And I thought that meant that womanhood itself was hopelessly out of reach and at best I could just be a feminine man who was too attracted to women to be gay but too abnormal to be loveable. And it was largely because of that false belief that I allowed myself to settle for an abusive marriage.

For me at least, the path to self acceptance lay in embracing my femme identity with the full knowledge that I will never pass. I had to grieve the body I would never have and love the body I did have. I started out looking for the people who looked like I could when I started. Nonbinary icons who have never done medical transition and proudly display their beards and stubble like Alok Vaid Menon, Jacob Tobia, and Jeffrey Marsh. I surrounded myself with trans women so gorgeous that they take my breath away and I’ve slowly come to realize that I am that person for other people too. I leaned into the aspects of myself that I could make feminine for myself even if other people gendered them differently. I found joy in finding clothing that emphasized my tall frame and those rare gems that were size 13 heels.

I had to reject consciously and daily the idea that had to look traditionally feminine to be femme. Because femme at its core is a queer identity based in simultaneously embracing and queering feminine traits while rejecting many of the oppressive gender norms. My partners who are fiercely fat and femme helped me learn through this process how to hold yourself boldly even when you get glares in public for doing so. Of course I am not confident every day or even most of the time, but putting on that armor of femme identity helps push through those moments. I am femme despite society, not because of it. And finding my corner of weirdos and unconventional beauty helps me see the beauty in myself.

Once I had laid the groundwork in embracing my body and finding the parts of it that I love, only then could I truly identify what areas of my body needed change to fit MY dysphorias rather than what other people were projecting onto me. In many ways I truly loved my beard and how dramatic it made my face when paired with makeup and a dress. But I also could see how much happier I could be if I stopped avoiding my chin and made the necessary changes to bring it in line with who I want to be. And sometimes that means that things will get worse before they get better. But it is a lot easier to bear when I am doing these things for myself and not because I think I have to.

Another thing that has helped tremendously is realizing the incredible variety that exists within gender. For me, I like to look up to the cisgender women in my life like my mom who is 6 foot and my aunt who is 6’2″ and wears the same size shoes as me. And yes, sometimes they get accosted in restrooms about whether they belong but because they clearly do, it helps me know that I can too (not that I’ve actually worked up the courage for that yet). Women literally come in all shapes and sizes so don’t let someone tell you that you aren’t fully a woman because you look a certain way. They can shove off with their internalized misogyny.

Do I walk through the world confidently every day? Absolutely not. Do I love every aspect of my body? Hell no. Do I question the path I’ve taken? Sometimes. But I have earned my femininity just as much as someone who fits whatever this decade’s ideal of female beauty is. I am a nonbinary woman and I don’t need to pass.

How clothing revealed my gender

I started estrogen yesterday! Besides feeling a little fuzzy, no changes yet but I’m really enjoying the symbology of my rebirth being on the first day of Spring.

As I’m beginning a kind of transition that people seem to be taking more seriously, I am thinking about some of the ways that “I knew” I was transfeminine. And one of the biggest ones as an adult was clothing.

I have never been that comfortable in masculine clothing. I mean I’m perfectly fine wearing jeans and a t-shirt for doing dirty work or walking the dogs. But the more formal I had to dress, the more uncomfortable and out of place I felt. It felt like I was putting on clothing that didn’t belong to me and didn’t fit my body.

For years I experimented with options to see what felt comfortable. As a kid I didn’t really think about it too much because when I was allowed to choose, I wore the jeans and t-shirt uniform. Or something practical like cargo pants when I went hiking so I could store my camera lenses. I never felt like anything looked good on me so I went for utility instead. And it was hard to disentangle my discomfort with more formal clothing from the discomfort around the situations I had to wear them in such as fundamentalist churches and cult conferences. Although I did know that wearing ties made me feel like I was being strangled, and not just in the physical sense.

Once I started having office jobs where I had to wear collared shirts, I bounced around between styles for awhile trying to find something that worked. I eventually found I felt best wearing purple so I settled on a lot of that for awhile during my “preppy” phase. But it still didn’t feel natural. I also got really bored with how few options there were for masculine clothing without accessories so I found myself collecting more and more different outfits and shades of drab pants in order to mix things up as much as socially acceptable. Everyone already thought I was gay so I was afraid of getting too adventurous about bright colors at that point.

As I got farther away from fundamentalism and more involved in LGBTQ rights as what I called a “gender nonconforming ally” at that point, I lost some of that fear of being perceived as gay. I was in a straight monogamous marriage with a woman at that point so I guess I felt that people would stop questioning me. Though as I adopted more inclusive language like calling my spouse with her gender neutral name “partner,” it didn’t do much to allay the rumors at work.

I did eventually start wearing more and more bold colors. I got brightly colored pants and fun patterned shirts that ended up being read as pretty gay. And that was the closest I came to feeling comfortable in masculine clothing. I also enjoyed the increased compliments on my appearance I got as people started reading me as more gay. Part of that was definitely the quality of the outfits I was putting together but some of it was probably due to working in women dominated fields and dressing in ways that made it more socially acceptable to comment on clothing.

Then, as I got more involved in polyamorous community and started dating other queer people, I began to realize that there was more to my identity than I was allowing myself to consider. And as I began to see myself as genderqueer, I experimented with more androgynous outfits at work. The problem is that for someone whose body is read as male to look androgynous, it is hard to dress formal. So much of what we perceive as androgyny is white, thin, AFAB (assigned female at birth) people dressing dapper or masculine of center. So on days I wanted to dress androgynous I had to dress down. And whether it was because of that or because of the change in gender expression, I realized I was getting less compliments at work and it felt like people were less likely to talk to me in general the less I fit the binary.

So I stopped pushing the boundaries as much at work. But once I escaped my marriage with a person who was ostensibly fine with queer people around her but not with any expressions of queerness or transness in her spouse, I started dressing more femme at home. It took me a long time to find things that fit me and looked good on my body (and that I could afford) but I slowly began building a wardrobe of clothing that felt much more gender affirming. And the more I wore dresses and cowl neck sweaters and tight pants, the more comfortable I felt.

In the moments when I was dressing femme it felt like I had shed the exoskeleton that was too tight and constricting my body. It felt freeing not just in an emotional sense but in a very tangible physical release as well. And that’s when I knew I was making the right choice and that I could never go back.

Because of a terrible new boss, I had to switch jobs right around the time that it was getting pretty hard to keep dressing masculine. And based on the advice of some other trans women, I interviewed in clothing that was as masculine as I could stand at that point. Which pretty much meant my gayest outfits. It took 6 months but I finally found a job and on my last day at the old job I wore a dress to say goodbye.

On the first day of my new job I outed myself to my new team as nonbinary and was amazed at how quickly they started using my pronouns. But I kept dressing as masculine as I could tolerate while I settled in. After 7 weeks I finally got the courage to talk to my supervisor about clothing and started dressing in the more androgynous outfits again while I worked on building up a wardrobe of professional femme clothing. There was some initial shock as they realized just how trans I was but it quickly faded into normal for them and now I only get compliments at work.

So the moral of the story is, if you never feel comfortable in the options you are “allowed” to wear, there might be something under that you need to explore. I am in love with femme clothing and I am so glad I have a place where I am affirmed in that expression at home and at work.

To be or to love

My deepest truth is that I have never been able to disentangle my desire to be with women from my desire to be a woman.

I have always been most comfortable in the company of women and had a hard time connecting to masculinity. The only men I have been able to get close to are the ones who are more effeminate in their interests and presentation as well. As a kid and as an adult I frequently find myself being the only non-woman in a classroom or workplace, especially since I work in a career path that is 95% women. And now, as I prepare to take feminizing hormones, I find myself having to come to grips with that fact once more.

For the past few years I have entertained the fantasy that I am queer enough to date across the full gender spectrum. But if I’m being honest with myself I can look back and realize that beyond the trends of convenience there is the sad fact that I just don’t connect as deeply with masculine people. As much as I love my transmasculine siblings, I don’t have the same chemistry with them as I do with femmes. And I always feel terribly awkward around cis men and out of place in gay male culture.

I’ve frequently joked about being a lesbian to cover up the fact that I desperately wish I could truly be considered one. And when I think about transition, this is really the biggest thing that draws me to doing a more binary route. My femininity has always been about how I relate and want to relate to women, not about my relationship to men. Which I think is why I’ve always been drawn to feminist circles even when that was highly taboo for my culture.

As terrible as the world is around us, the part that saddens me the most is the bigots within our own movement who seek to exclude people like me – the TERFs (Trans Exclusionary “Radical Feminists”). I can kinda understand why the world at large has a hard time wrapping its head around me and how I defy categories. But for a group of people who spend so much time thinking about gender and the constructs surrounding it to pretend like it is so impermeable that I can never cross that threshold really does hold me back. I desperately want to be included in everything as “one of the girls” but I know that no matter how hard I fight, I can never pass enough to do so.

I am so grateful for my friends who have made conscious efforts at inclusivity. I recently was invited to a gaming group that a friend expanded to include women and femmes. And every time someone lumps me in with a group that is primarily women I get warm fuzzy feelings. Does this mean that I am a trans woman and genderqueer is just a waypoint on my journey? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that I can only take it one step at a time. I am excited to start estrogen and see what effect that has on my brain and my body. A lot of the things people talk about experiencing are already commonplace for me like the readily accessible emotions, the frequent crying, and the mood cycles. So if I am already like this without hormones, what will that look like? Who knows. Maybe I will eventually become the lesbian I’ve always dreamed of being.