it was like a scene from a movie. low budget, i must admit, but a movie nonetheless.
my aunt, uncle and i took our seats at the table given to us in this hole-in-the-wall greek taverna style restaurant in new york city. we weren’t celebrating anything, simply just having a meal. we were dressed casually in t-shirts, jeans and trainers, looking at what was on offer on the menu when a dashing debonair waiter slid up to take our orders.
i couldn’t take my eyes off him, i could feel my face burn red with embarrassment at how his drop-dead gorgeous looks suddenly made me uneasy. he took my aunt’s order, then my uncle’s. i pretended to look at my menu when he asked “what will the lady have?”. my aunt replied by misgendering me but i couldn’t care less. i looked up to meet his gaze and buckled through my order.
i couldn’t remember anything happening after that, not even what i ordered. it was the first time someone, and someone i found gorgeous, saw me as the person i truly am.
this moment became the stepping stone for one of the most beautiful summers i’ve ever had.
for the rest of the month i was there, more instances like this had me feeling like marilyn monroe in that scene in ‘the seven year itch’ – her skirt high up in the air, trying to protect her modesty. or at least i was pretending to, and failing miserably.
everywhere i went i was addressed as ‘miss’. handsome men looked at me with the sweetest misogyny – validating my socially accepted performance and presentation of femininity. voracious stares, flirty winks and lust-filled compliments that had me nearly melt in their presence.
“great legs” and “such kissable lips” never sounded so sweet. i didn’t mind. i was in fact… flattered? at that point what little angela davis i had in me went out the window and i chose men over my principles.
i didn’t even have to put on a dress, make-up or a bra for that matter. and when i did put one on, the men stepped up accordingly: buying me drinks at the straight bars i visited with a trans friend, catcalling me on the street, opening doors for me. i was brimming with certainty.
so certain that dysphoria gave me a stinging slap in the face after coming back home and i couldn’t tell what hit me.
that tableau in the greek restaurant was my first brush with the concept of ‘passing’. in the seemingly validating experiences that ensued, i realised ‘passing’ was my goal. i was overwhelmed with euphoria at having passed, so ecstatic i could have prayed novenas to every saint there was in the catholic register.
passing, however, which seemed harmless at the beginning of my transition, revealed its insidious and nefarious true self.
my dysphoria didn’t end up easing with time. the longer i’d been on hormone therapy, the closer i’ve been getting to the person i authentically am, the more dysphoric i got.
a facial feminisation procedure and a decade on from starting medical transition i still find myself scrutinising every reflection and photograph, scrounging for but unable to find that feeling of indisputable cisness.
seeing other trans women scramble for the best cosmetic surgeons, comparing noses, foreheads and chins and being on the receiving end of endless suggestions on how to look more feminine don’t help at all. it’s exhausting.
‘passing privilege’ is a function of dysphoria and vice versa: they feed into each other.
both are capitalist and white supremacist constructions whose relationship is as twisted as psycho’s norman bates is to his mother. they are one and the same. capitalism and white supremacy have turned dysphoria into a commodity like everything else, selling us self-hatred and then seemingly offering us a solution in the form of ‘passing’.
the media orchestrates and sustains these aspirations, evidenced by the constant fusillade of advertisements promoting a plethora of beauty products that only creates a perceived unachievable version of womanhood. each a henchman for the other.
in the same way that rich white people don poverty as if it were the latest balenciaga drop, cis people dangle ‘passing privilege’ to trans people’s faces like they do a filthy bone to a rabid dog.
in the philippines, where i was born, transgender identities are not the unfamiliar territory that they are in the west. though not completely accepted and legally recognised, trans people are omnipresent in society and culture.
in pre-colonial philippines, the ‘babaylan’, who oversaw many social and religious ceremonies and were revered and considered divine, were transgender high priestesses.
even filipino, one of the country’s many languages, allows for existence that is not predicated on gender: the word ‘siya’ is a gender neutral pronoun.
this makes the concept of ‘passing’ alien: a western construct that applies loosely in the philippines and other non-western cultures where the idea of a gender binary is not necessarily implicitly upheld. i say implicitly because colonialism complicates it, as it does dysphoria.
a trans person’s experiences with ‘passing’, as a result, varies geographically. however one experiences it, ’passing’ is a concept that can further oppress trans people, an imposed exile from authenticity, derailing us from the path to self-determination.
as a migrant trans woman of colour, this exile from authenticity resonates in more ways than one. in a lot of ways i am in exile from my own country of birth, having moved to the uk seeking the rights that should have been accorded me as a trans person but continue to be denied to me by the country i come from.
i’m finding myself attempting to pass both as cis and ‘british’, further taking me away from my authentic self in search of acceptance and, consequently, safety.
the many intersections i navigate enumerate the many oppressions i have to survive through to simply exist: woman, woman of colour, migrant, trans, poor.
non-binary and gender non conforming identities have in recent years had a welcome and much needed increase in representation.
trans people offer the world freedom: from the oppressive talons that keep us encaged in a world stripped of creativity and agency, compassion and love. trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming identities, specifically black and brown transfeminine identities, lead the way in reframing the ever so traumatic capitalist concept of beauty and loosening the chokehold that the oppressive concept of ‘passing’ has on trans people so we can fully embrace authenticity and live in more certainty.
‘passing’ not as subscription to the arbitrary constructions of gender and cis heteronormativity, but as death to long held oppressive systems and violent capitalist paradigms.
seeing them thrive in a world designed to erase trans people is a sonorous reminder to all of us that we as a community can and should reject these constructions, that we are our own beauty and that dysphoria, while real, isn’t necessarily a commodity worth buying.
living in a capitalist society where one’s value as a person is equitable with one’s proximity to socially accepted beauty standards, i may never be completely free from the clutches of ‘passing’ as validation but one thing is certain: i am learning to nurture a relationship with my gender that will no longer be defined nor limited by how this cis-centred society knows and understands it.
this is one of two pieces we commissioned on the theme of ‘travelling when trans”
we’d like to acknowledge that sadly, due to systemic financial scarcity exacerbated by living in a transmisogynistic society, paired with a wider cost of living crisis in the uk, for many transfeminine people travelling represents a luxury.
we’re aware that too much trans content is centred around violence, and we hope that by providing essays which focus on the nuances of the experience of travelling whilst trans, we can tap into our memories and fantasies, breathe and smile.