But You Don’t Look Trans?
A Tale of Microagression
Veronica Esposito on the Privilege and Pain of Passing
It was the second week of grad school, and I nervously followed my professor into her office. Outside, the September afternoon was scorching, and as we sat across from one another within the room’s stifling air, I tried to figure out how to begin. There was so much I needed to say to this woman, but I felt very unprepared to say it. I had not been a student in nearly 20 years, and the return to school for my masters in counseling filled me with inadequacy and fear. I had also never been a student as a woman before. The semester’s first weeks had already brought up a dizzying number of decisions, contradictions, questions, and emotions. Amid this fatiguing whirlwind I’d felt my fuse shortening, and the mood swings that came with ever-present anxiety.
I was in my professor’s office to discuss the semester’s central assignment—worth a third of my grade—which would involve extensive interviews with my family and photos of myself as a child. I had to explain to this woman that I could do none of this. I couldn’t interview my family because they had chosen to reject me once I decided come out as transgender and transition to my true self, and also because it was profoundly unsafe to ask deep personal questions of people who had traumatized, invalidated, and abused me for years as a child. Moreover, I absolutely could not share photos of my childhood self with the rest of the class, because those photos now felt so completely painful, wrong, and humiliating. They were lies, and they were also stabbing reminders of how I had been made to live decades of my life in enforced masculinity while being taught to despise the femme woman I really was.
In short, I had to explain to my professor that the assumptions embedded in this assignment felt unbearably triggering, painful, and transphobic to me. I had to be courageous and firm as I informed her that I absolutely could not complete the assignment as it was, even if it meant receiving a low grade in her class.
But first I had to tell her that I was trans. My professor had no idea I wasn’t a cisgender woman because I no longer presented any cues that I was anything other than “normal.” This is known as passing privilege, and although it brings substantial benefits, it also comes with the major downside of having to negotiate, again and again—for the rest of my life—if, how, and when I will come out to others. On that scorching afternoon in the second week of school, I really did not want to come out to my professor. I had planned on enjoying at least a few weeks of grad school as just another girl as I took things in and decided how to proceed, but this assignment had left me with no choice. So I just spat it out. I looked from side to side, took a deep breath, and told her, “You see, I’m actually transgender.”
And then she said it to me, the thing I had been longing to hear, and also the thing I hated to hear. “Really? You don’t look trans.”
She said it with wide eyes and a smile that let me know this was meant as a compliment. And then, just to make sure I understood her intentions, she added, “We’ve had trans students in the past, and some of them have looked really obvious. But you’re not like that at all.”
Of all the microaggressions that a transwoman has to sit with through her day-to-day life, “you don’t look trans” feels especially thorny, insidious, and personal to me. It cuts to some of the deepest contradictions and misperceptions about who I am, and it also hits me in a very vulnerable spot. It’s something that makes me feel ashamed because it feels so good to hear, and it’s also something that makes me burn with anger because of the damaging assumptions that come with it.
When someone tells me “you don’t look trans,” this is what I hear: I don’t think you look like a man trying to impersonate a woman, and because of that I see your womanhood as valid. This statement carries the implication that all transpeople look alike—i.e., like weird, gender nonconforming, abnormal—and it also implies that cispeople who probably know very little about transpeople are fit judge who’s trans and who’s not. It also implies that erasing my transness from view is a cause for celebration, and that I can’t be beautiful and feminine unless I conform to cisgender standards of what a woman should be. In short, it assumes I can only be valid if I erase who I really am.It makes me feel ashamed because it feels so good to hear, and it’s also something that makes me burn with anger because of the damaging assumptions that come with it.
These are deeply hurtful implications that do great harm to the trans community, and yet, in spite of all of that, my professor’s words also felt so good to me because, after decades of systemic invalidation had taught me the only way to really be a woman was to be indistinguishable from a cisgender one, I longed to hear confirmation that I passed. I’m not alone in this. If you hang out with transpeople or look at trans message boards, we tend to be obsessed with passing, seeing it as a gateway to validity. The reasons for this are enormously complex, far too much to write about in a single essay, although I will discuss some of this in what follows.
When I hear “you don’t look trans,” it reminds me of deep insecurities that are based on a lifetime of being told that a man who wants to be a woman is inherently ridiculous, shameful, and perverse. As the recent Netflix documentary Disclosure thoroughly demonstrates, we live in an environment that is saturated with transphobic messages, particularly with regard to transfeminine individuals. Growing up in a world where a valid reaction to a woman coming out as trans was to vomit in her face—or physically assault her—I came to deeply internalize a powerful self-hatred that I am still trying to fully heal from. So when I hear “you don’t look trans,” I both feel the weight of those decades of ridicule while also feeling proud that I don’t look like “one of those” unpassable women.
When I hear “you don’t look trans,” it also invokes the history of gatekeepers who forced transpeople to erase themselves from the cis gaze in order to be able to transition. When transition first became something accessible through professional healthcare in the 1970s, it was only allowed to transpeople who were judged capable of living up to cisgender standards of normalcy. Those lucky few who were permitted to receive necessary medical care to alleviate debilitating gender dysphoria did so at a price: they were forced to hide themselves while they transitioned—because the spectacle of someone whose gender was in transformation was deemed too traumatic to the cis gaze—and they were also forced to erase the trans part of their identity.
Once they were able to pass as cisgender, it was common to make these individuals take on an entirely new life, cutting off all ties with anyone who knew them as their former gender. This again was done for the good of cispeople, so that they would not have to grapple with a world where transpeople existed. Of course, this did terrible harm to the rest of the trans population, as it robbed us of the visibility that would have made it so much more possible for others of us to come out and renounce the self-hatred we had been harnessed with for our entire lives. So when I hear somebody tell me “you don’t look trans,” I feel the historical trauma of those who were forced by cispeople to choose between either erasing themselves or never becoming themselves, and all of the consequences that came with this.
It should be clear by now that hearing “you don’t look trans” is a very wounding thing for me, but it also has the capacity to make me feel an acceptance and validation that I find both joyous and deeply troublesome. From the day I was born, the world that I live in has systemically invalidated the possibility that I could ever exist with authenticity, dignity, and safety; so, to be told that I’m cis-passing is like a cheat code to briefly escape a lifetime of invalidation and make myself feel like a whole human. That same world has also taught me that the worst thing about me is that I’m transgender, and so I can briefly escape that shame by just melting into the cis population. There are also so so many practical reasons for wanting to “not look trans.”
For instance, “not looking trans” means that I can avoid discrimination against transpeople when looking for a job. It means that I can be confident of not being discriminated against when looking for housing, that I can probably receive healthcare without being derided or told to look elsewhere, that I can date someone without being prima facie rejected—in other words, that I can basically have a fair shot at living a life free from the destitution or suicidality that is endemic to transpeople. It also means that I can feel safer when just walking down the street, that I can board an airplane with less likelihood of being humiliated in the process, that I can access women’s spaces without having to fear that someone will challenge my right to do so, that I can call my bank on the phone and not have my identity questioned because someone decides my voice doesn’t sound female enough. It means that I can largely avoid all of the intrusive questions about breasts and genitals and hormones that people believe they have a right to ask any transwoman they happen to meet, however incidentally and superficially.
These are facts that I have spent very much time grappling with, and through years of hard work—as well as because of the many courageous transpeople who choose to be out and visible—I have reached the point where I can largely see myself as a valid woman even when I do not believe I pass as cisgender. Sometimes I am even able to find my own idea of beauty in those features that I believe mark me as transgender.
As part of my healing from a lifetime of transphobia, I often choose to put my transness on full display, and this is where things can get weird. I have trans pride pins, t-shirts that inform the world I’m transgender, dangly earrings that state my pronouns. These interventions are meant to be a low-key way to inform the world that I’m really trans, and yet, I have come to learn that often despite my best efforts to project my transness into the world, cispeople still regard me as one of them. Oftentimes, I have believed my transness to be on full display, only to find that I am still being read as a cisgender person. Existentially, this leaves me in a weird spot, because it means that in transitioning “successfully” I have erased myself as a transperson. It forces me to question the idea of success and failure in regards to a gender transition. Is there a way to slay my gender dysphoria and live safely in this world without erasing the fact that I’m a transgender woman? And if there is not, then how can I actually inhabit my body without feeling a constant contradiction? Is this just the price of being born trans? If I could feel both valid and trans all at once, then what would a “successful” gender transition look like?
I once read in a book of trans theory that, possibly, one day far in the future when transpeople are fully accepted as just another part of the human race, it will be near universal to treat gender dysphoria in early childhood, much like we today treat a cleft palate. Living as their correct gender from an early age, trans kids of the future will be able to undergo the correct puberty, avoid drastic gender transformations halfway through life, and mostly live a mainstream existence without having to think too much about the fact of being trans. When I think of the 40 percent of trans teens that a Trevor Project study found had seriously contemplated suicide in the last year alone—largely because of family rejection, bullying, and an inability to access necessary medical care—this world seems miraculous to me. But it also seems very dystopian, because it is a world in which transpeople will be so thoroughly assimilated into the cis-population that we will barely exist. Is this what we want as a community?
Perhaps most of all, when I hear “you don’t look trans,” I think of all the time I have spent trying to win the approval of cispeople. The first cisperson I wanted to approve of me was my mother, and her rejection was the first of many I would face over decades of my life. I became so accustomed to rejection that when I finally did begin to show the world who I was, it felt miraculous whenever someone validated me. That validation felt so euphoric that I began to crave it, especially when compared to the rude stares and the invasive questions and the blatant forms of discrimination that became my constant accompaniment once I began coming out and embracing my femininity. Those things hurt so badly that I began to believe that the approval of cispeople could save me, and once I began passing it was so easy to play along with the illusion that I was one of them. Except that I knew this wasn’t me, this would never be me.
The day I had begun my medical transition was also the day I told myself that I would never, ever hide myself again, no matter how much shame burned in my cheeks when I spoke the words, “I’m transgender.” So it has been very hard to see just how good it feels to “not look trans.” The shame of being transgender is buried deep within me, and it pops up whether I want it to or not, like the reflex that makes you cough up water when it accidentally goes into your lungs. It has a way of betraying me when I believe myself to be at my most assertive and confident. It reminds me of a lifetime of conditioning to believe that my validity rests in the hands of others.
In passing for cisgender, I have come to shatter the cherished illusion that passing will make me feel whole, happy, and valid. Many transpeople go through transition believing that passing is the finish line, the key to our completion, and when this is shown to be false it is unbearably upsetting. In going through this stage myself, I have learned that I will never feel good about who I am until my happiness does not rely on the approval of cispeople. I cannot live by putting the key to my validity into the hands of another, for this just means that I will constantly live in the fear that this other can choose to take away my validity at any time. Real validity, wholeness, and happiness must come from within. And yet, this world makes it so very hard to find this inner wholeness, because, as I have detailed above, we live in a world where simply asserting that we are trans is very dangerous to out health.
This is what I’m working on right now, finding out how to keep this validity for myself even though I have so much reason to entrust it to others. It would be so much easier to do this if I could live in a better world. A world where my visibility is not dangerous to me—and not considered dangerous to anyone else—where my body is not a source of debate and discrimination, where my basic humanity is not something that can be stolen from me at a moment’s notice. In short, a world with so much less tension, a world more free and fluid, a world where it is so much easier to forget that I’m transgender because I’m not given so much reason to constantly remind myself of it. This is probably not a world that I will get to live in, although it is one that I am helping to build, a world where these questions about validity and approval will not be so convoluted, so thorny and puncturing. Until then, I try to replenish myself with moments of relaxation, safe spaces where I can let go of this hyperawareness and just exist, to not live myself as a human constantly becoming something but rather just simply a human being.