I was a speaker at the Sexual Attitude Reassessment and Restructuring (SAR) panel on 1/20/2013, hosted by Patti Britton, where a group of transgender people spoke to a group of people ranging from experienced to beginner psychologists/therapists. Here’s an essay I presented to the attendees:
My Outlook on the Topic of Passing for Transgender People
By: Natalie Yeh, 1/20/2013
In the spirit of the panel and to give everyone an opportunity for a thought exercise, I want to present a different perspective, something that I myself hold an ambivalent stance towards, and where the Transgender community would probably crucify me for discussing. But ever since I went ahead and changed my gender, I’ve realized there’s little to fear, so I’m going to go ahead and present this anyway.
I will be talking about transgender people passing in public. The points I will bring up here tend to be safe in an environment where people understand and empathize with who we are, and understand our situation. For mainstream society, there is still a long way to go and hence the topic of passing isn’t trivial, it’s a matter of survival.
Yet I’d like to challenge the importance of passing, and how much emphasis we put on being passable, particularly MtF transsexuals.
We all understand transgender people try to pass and blend in to be a part of mainstream society, to minimize being hassled, harassed, and possibly killed. Yet I truly believe there is an important component to passing that is commonly overlooked by transgender people and the psychological community. And since it typically is much more difficult for MtF’s to pass, MtF transsexuals will be used in this example:
Do those who are in the audience today believe transgender people want to fool everyone into thinking they are natural born women?
Should a MtF transsexual be encouraged to conform to how society thinks she ought to look like, through surgeries and body alterations, or should the definition of “what a woman is” be broadened?
Every single MtF is born with a birth defect. Their bodies come out with male traits at birth, ranging from the wrong genitalia all the way down to the molecular level of DNA, chromosomes and hormones being mismatched. Transitioning late, for some of us, results in testosterone ravaging our bodies and our resulting physical features sometimes “out” us easier, making it harder to pass in public. But the goal isn’t to fool people, or to pass as someone else. The goal is to be ourselves.
The key is not for therapists to encourage transgender clients to embrace a fantasy. What’s the fantasy? It’s the desire to be thought of as cisgendered. The fantasy of passing as a cisgendered woman, with genitalia, facial structures, and all the physical signs matching. I instead urge therapists to encourage transgender people to embrace their own truth. If transgender people are to be well adjusted in the world with their problems they have to first embrace the problem.
MtF transsexuals aren’t cisgendered, and never will be. But we are women. So maybe it’s the definition of what a woman is that needs to change, and there is actually nothing wrong with who we are as transgender people, or what I like to refer to our community as, simply, “PEOPLE.”
The goal isn’t only to look fabulous and to get surgery, and to throw away old pics of yourself, and to eliminate your past. Looking glamorous and pretty and passing perfectly is nice to have. But eliminating your past means a big chunk of who you were and spent your life living as will be discarded. Transgender people need to remember it was still we who did the presenting, those were real moments in our lives, despite those times being extremely difficult.
Recognizing our journey for our journey should be a thing of pride….not a thing to be ashamed of…..Transgender people didn’t do anything wrong with being born in the wrong gender with wrong hormones, it was beyond our control.
I have always been female. I have never been a man, but yet, I wasn’t born with XX chromosomes and I’m not cisgendered. For me to pass is important for my safety and daily ease of life, but I think it’s dangerous for me, personally, to neglect, forget, and delete my past journey. I’m a woman, but just of different upbringing and circumstances.
I’d even go a step further and say transition should be universally and globally redefined as “de-transition.” Because since I was born a woman, the transition actually occurred when I was 2 or 3 and learned about the word gender and its meaning. From then on, I was accidentally put into a category in which I didn’t belong, but yet, had to endure. And the transition happened then. And now I will always speak “woman” with an accent. I will spend the rest of my life “de-transitioning” and allowing the woman that was put away for so long to finally shine through.
In this new light of perspective, I truly believe it’s not an insult or something worth getting upset over, when I get called sir or the wrong pronoun, regardless of its rare occurrence or if it contains malice behind it. But not taking offense to being called the wrong pronoun doesn’t mean I’m okay with people being unaware of who we are and neglecting the respect that we deserve as a community.
If a person walked into a store with highly visible birth defects or scars from an accident, and a salesperson addressed this person with insults, it’s not the reflection of the person that came in, it’s a reflection on the salesperson’s discomfort and inability to cope with what’s presented. That discomfort, which can be restructured, is the result of psychosocial pressures created by a society that judges a certain set of traits as acceptable or not. These root causes, based on arbitrary placeholders that hold no real scientific benchmark value, are what needs to be addressed in our society. Regardless of if the salesperson might have been insulting, or meant it out of ignorance, or a joke, is irrelevant. The key is what causes that reaction or behavior in the first place.
The judgments we cast upon ourselves as transgender people is appalling. There is enough judgment to go around from society alone, and we as a minority community, sadly, are quite judgmental towards each other as well. We don’t need to add fuel to the fire.
Growing up with shame cast on our true identities, and to overcome it and embrace our true selves, is incredibly brave and should be lauded as a monumental victory.
So instead of basing my self-judgments on my feelings of shame, I’d rather go by the knowledge of what I know to be true about myself.
Whenever I get called the wrong pronoun, outed, etc, I see it as an opportunity to remind myself where I came from, and how there is truth to not passing 100% of the time. That I am an Asian American, 5-10, bisexual, transgender woman. And despite hating labels, the transgender label, to me, is like all the other benign labels, such as being 5-10, and Asian. Passing only reinforces the current narrow-minded view society upholds about gender, about how women should or ought to look.
Do people really believe passing and conforming to blend into an already dysfunctional, broken, limiting, spiritually myopic societal structure will really help us progress? It might keep us safe, but it won’t result in great change. We will be comfortable if we conform, but it won’t result in equal civil rights across the board. And it certainly won’t contribute to my wishes of seeing society recognize transgender people as the gender they truly identify as; where society has taken the effort to broaden the definition of gender towards empathy and inclusion, not bullying and exclusion.
I find it unfortunate when I hear transgender sisters of mine feel so down about passing, as if their entire self worth, womanhood, and right to be here on this planet is based on their ability to pass. It’s okay to have some masculine features to our physical appearance. If I accept myself as I am, it automatically contributes to making the definition of a woman bigger, to encompass transgender people. It’s what the definition of a woman is that has to change, not me that has to change my face and breasts and genitals. My truth is my womanhood, not how well I pass. Getting read has nothing to do with my womanhood.
Suppose a transgender woman passes phenomenally well. Everyone she knows, including the person she is dating, thinks she’s cisgendered. Hasn’t she put herself in a closet, just on the opposite extreme? The very closet she sought to escape from, has now captured her on the other end of spectrum. She passes so well now to the general public, that her lack of transparency will still plague her. True freedom is to be able to express yourself completely without fear or judgment, and such an example is indicative of how societal views of what a woman ought to be still dictates the bottom line of her decision making. Sometimes I wish transgender people who pass very well could safely take the initiative to tell people all the time that they are TRANSGENDER, and not hide who they are, as it would stretch the boundaries of people’s mindsets and shatter incorrect convictions.
Being transgender isn’t some disease or thing we should hide. Not only am I stronger for having dealt with it, I have insight that other women and men don’t have. It makes me a better woman when I embrace it. When I look at transgender women that I can tell are transgender, they are beautiful, and what “gives them away” doesn’t take away from their femininity whatsoever.
The key is to address the causes of the wounds, not the patchwork of passing. We have already achieved major milestones in California law, where sexual reassignment surgery is no longer necessary for transgender people to be legally recognized as female. If a transgender woman can be legally recognized as female while still having a penis, then why can’t they be called feminine pronouns and be recognized as female physically through visual cues by people in the general public, despite having certain masculine facial or bone structure features?
Only when the definition of what a woman ought to be is updated to present day knowledge, will we begin to minimize the unnecessary pain and suffering of those in our community, to stop the violence and hate crimes, to regain our dignity that has been skewed by stereotypes, and to diminish the exclusion from family, friends, and community.
I say the truth is way cooler than what people are afraid of discovering.
So how do I suggest to go about it?
Go out of our comfort zones and continue fighting and informing the public in all areas. When prior convictions and facts collide, one must yield. The comfortable choice may not be the correct one. I for one believe we will be comfortable when we die; that’s why it’s called rest in peace. So I intend on continuing my activism.
But I can’t make a decision for each of you, your careers, and your level of involvement. Each situation will be unique and unforgettable in their own way. They will each carry their merits and serve as educational experiences towards your growth as therapists and individuals. Your activity and level of involvement will depend on your personal boundaries, all of which are valid. But just know that when the opportunities present themselves, you are in the forefront for seizing chances to plant seeds of change, and in a position to truly empower those that follow.