Passing Women are Quite Common
Women transition for a lot of reasons but one of the main ones is being treated like all women are treated, disrespectfully, violently, subject to many limitations, as well as getting punished specifically for being a woman out of line with the male-created ideal.
Women aren’t allowed to just exist as we please. We are encouraged and trained, starting when we are very young, to please others. If someone sexually abused us as children then we likely absorbed the message that our very bodies exist to be used for others’ pleasure. We are taught to please men especially since they have more power, including the power to dominate whomever happens to fall beneath them in the social hierarchy. Men are more likely to sexually abuse us, teach us our bodies are there to fulfill their desires. Men, white men most of all, still hold most positions of power in industry, in the professions, media, politics and religion, they still make more money and have much greater access to resources. Dominant men use their power and influence to create a culture that centers their world views and blots out or distorts the perspectives of women and less powerful men. Virtually all women are in a position where they have to please men in order to get some or all of their basic needs met. A lot of men and not a few women in this society don’t like independent powerful women. They fear and despise such women and punish those who do not bend to male expectations or work to satisfy male desires.
In this male-centric society, lesbians come to symbolize the “wrong” kind of woman, the woman who doesn’t conform to male dictates and is thus “unnatural” and deserves punishment. A woman doesn’t actually have to be a lesbian to take on this stigma and many straight women who act independently or present themselves outside femininity are presumed to be lesbians. Judging from the many straight women I’ve known who’ve been mistaken for lesbians, being seen as a dyke is often about breaking from female stereotypes and less about expressing attraction to women.
Lesbians, whatever our politics, give a lot of our energy and attention to other women instead of men. Sometimes we have as little contact with men as we can manage. In the past, some of us even tried to create a women-centered economic system within the larger capitalist one so we could channel as much money and other resources back to lesbians and other women as we could. A lot of us still try to do this. Many of us dress to please ourselves, dress for comfort, dress for each other, not to please men. I think a whole lot more women would dress in so-called “butch” or “androgynous” styles if they weren’t worried about social and economic punishments or were taught that doing so made them unnatural. If you “look like a lesbian” you look like you don’t care about men and this will not go unremarked or unpunished in a male-dominated culture.
Butch or otherwise non-conforming women face everything other women tend to face such as not being paid as much as men, being expected to do more emotional work, being treated like a sex object, living in danger of rape and other sexual assault, seeing demeaning images of other women in the media. We also face a particular alienation and often a particular form of hatred and hostility. We see images of women reduced to sex objects and helpmates and other appendages to men but we hardly ever see someone like ourselves and if we do it’s likely that something awful will happen to her. I can recall so many media depictions of butch women, most of them presumably created by straight men, where the woman ends up dying or having something really terrible happen to her. Often she’s not just butch but holds a position of power. Again, women who are strong and don’t care about men are feared and hated. People often don’t know what to do with us when they meet us. Sometimes they stare, get confused, sometimes they get hostile. I let myself pass as a man a lot when I’m out in the world cuz I know social interactions will run a lot smoother if I do and I don’t trust people to treat me the same way if they know I’m female.
Women often accommodate ourselves to how people, men especially, treat us in this society. A lot of us learn to numb ourselves to it one way or another. We become experts at minimizing the importance and awareness of our own suffering. Believing that we’re not women, that this treatment isn’t really aimed at us is one way, focusing our attention on the suffering of others is another.
Women who transition to live as men or some other gender are not unique in trying to escape or cope with our degrading social status as women in a male-dominated society. We’ve just chosen a particular strategy and one that suits those of us who’ve been cast out of the official definition of “woman” because we make men uncomfortable. A lot of people would like us to disappear, would rather we live as men than admit that there really are women like us. They don’t want to admit that there’d be even more of us if there weren’t social sanctions for stepping out of line. People punish and exclude us for looking and acting as we do to keep our numbers down.
Trans theory has at best a limited understanding of how society treats females who defy their sex roles to the point where we are seen as “masculine” or otherwise fall outside “normal” and “natural” womanhood. “Masculine” women are often given token mention in the list of who can be counted as transgender, never mind that many of us don’t count ourselves as either trans or masculine. Trans theory can conceive of women with a masculine gender identity or men with “assigned female” bodies who need to transition in order to be happy. It separates the “masculine” woman from other women just as society does, marks her as “trans” first and female second (if at all) and doesn’t connect her situation to that of women in general. It can not conceive of women who transition and come to identify as men to escape social limitations or cope with woman-hatred and trauma. Much trans theory rejects the influence of social forces nor does it consider trauma as a factor in trans identity formation or transitioning. Trans theory frames the problem as how society limits or punishes the expression of a trans person’s gender identity. But what of how society inhibits all women from realizing our full power and capacity, economically, socially, physically, psychologically and spiritually? Women, all of us, whatever our desires and self-expression, are expected to conform to social rules created for the benefit of men as a group. All women are denied expression of our true selves, our desires and ambitions. The specific hardships of “masculine” and otherwise “unfeminine” women are of a piece with the struggles all women face. Ours is a specific manifestation of this struggle, not something that sets us a part as a separate category, as “trans” to their “cis”.
Butch and other women who can’t or won’t conform to sex roles are not feared and mistreated because we defy the “gender binary” or the idea that “only men are masculine and women feminine”. We are treated so poorly because we call socially sanctioned roles and ideas of women into question, namely that women exist to serve and please men. We suggest and prove that women can exist for ourselves, for our own joys, aspirations and ambitions, not anyone else’s. Men in this society are very afraid of what women would do if we could act freely. When they’re not just battering us into submission, they try to find ways to keep us fulfilled that stop far short of giving us real freedom. Transitioning is one of these deals. If we actually pass, we experience more ease and less social friction. We stop looking like scary unfeminine women and doctors and therapists make a profit while presenting themselves as compassionately treating the suffering of a marginalized minority.
Passing as a man in order to gain some measure of freedom is a strategy women have been using for centuries, probably thousands of years, whenever some of us could get away with it. Women live(d) as men not because they were actually men but because they/we could not resist an opportunity for more freedom. This strategy used to be available only to those women whose physical features allowed them to pass for male. I could’ve been a passing woman in many ages given the chance. With the availability of testosterone and surgery, this strategy has been made accessible to more women and more women are taking it up for the same reason women of old did, more freedom. More freedom from abuse, violence and disrespect and more freedom to act purposefully in the world.
Patriarchy can handle a few passing women just fine. Passing can help the individual woman have a freer life but it doesn’t change how much power women have as a group. In older eras, if a passing woman was caught, she might be punished, even killed. But she could also be reduced to a harmless curiosity, her actions tamed by attributing socially acceptable motivations. Maybe she was passing as a soldier to follow a man she loved into battle or she was just that patriotic. And some women did indeed pass as men to maintain romantic relationships with men or fight for their country but others passed to enter male dominated occupations, to form relationships with women, to live a less restricted life. In many of the latter cases, these women’s stories were re-written, heterosexualized or otherwise distorted to make them less threatening. A passing woman could become more acceptable and understandable if her existence could be explained within a heterosexual and patriarchal framework.
Likewise, the present medicalized passing woman has been tamed with scientific and cultural explanations that fit her back into society. The specter of the disobedient woman is neutralized by explaining her existence as a medical anomaly and convincing her that she is not a woman after all. Trans theory and health care providers present her with a way to understand her suffering and a way to ease it. In exchange, she must put her body under the care and control of the medical establishment and pay for their services. Doctors, surgeons and pharmaceutical companies have stepped in to regulate this female strategy and profit from it. They turn our attempts at survival into a commodity they sell back to us. Such is life in a consumer-capitalist patriarchy.
We not only conform but pay to conform. But then most women do. A woman who believes or decides that she must appear feminine to succeed socially and economically has to pay too, pay for the products and services to make herself feminine and pay with her time and energy. Most women are projecting an image around ourselves to survive and most of the time that image is what society thinks a woman should be, feminine. Many women use feminine presentation strategically, not because they find it personally satisfying.
I know from my own experience that I get treated better when I’m seen as a man. Depending on where I am, being seen as a man or not can be the difference between being safe and fearing that my life is in danger, between being a person worthy of respect and being a freak. When I’m seen as a woman I can’t trust that I’ll be treated well. If I think I can be recognized as female, I get more anxious, edgy, ready myself for potential hostility. I have been screamed at, had my breasts grabbed and been otherwise molested for being the kind of woman I am. Nothing like this has happened in a while, thankfully, but my body remembers and reminds me when I go out.
If I can’t walk through the world as myself without anticipating trouble, if I have to hide who I am to be certain of good treatment, how am I free? If women are punished, especially if we’re economically punished, for looking and behaving certain ways, how can any woman be free? As long as women are expected to follow certain rules, to look and act a certain way to be treated better, get a job, earn money, as long as we must please men to get what we need to live, none of us are free. It doesn’t matter if some women like following some of the rules or not. It’s not a free choice if a woman’s going to be punished for acting otherwise. And even if we do follow the rules, most of us are still not making as much as men, not being respected as full humans and are still subject to violence and humiliation for being women. We’re restricted and exploited no matter what we do.
I want to be seen as a woman not to satisfy some internal gender identity but because I want the reality of what women are to shine forth beyond the myths created about us and the restrictions placed on our bodies. I want to burn up the roles, the regulations, I want to remove all fear of punishment and violence from our existence. I want us to be free to act and create our own lives. I want what a woman is to be a question all those born female get to answer for ourselves. Not something told to us as girls to get us to behave, not limitations on our opportunities, not a set of shame and fears, not a reason why it’s ok to hurt us, not a justification for why our bodies are for other people and not really our own.
Our own womanhood, what it means to be female and how we exist on a basic level was taken from us. Taken from women long ago, before we were born, when men started to dominate us and define what we are for their own purposes. Not only are we denied resources, jobs, education and positions of power, we also denied our very be-ing. That is what we have to regain. We’ve been treated like conquered territory and remade in the conqueror’s image but we are not property. We are alive, changing, self-creating. We are women struggling to live beyond the force imposed on us, the lies, mindfucks and cruelties. Our existence burns behind the illusions, behind the fear and refusals to recognize our power. We keep burning even if we pass or present a certain way to survive. We learn to see the living fire in each other. We keep each other warm by feeding each other stories and strength. We collect what we learn from our lives and the lives of other women and we create visions, alone and together. We create maps of the world to help each other navigate to places of greater freedom. We find the infinity inside and all around us. We learn to live in multiple realities, the male-created reality that violently restricts us and the reality we create where we are power unfolding. We don’t keep what we learn secret, we pass it on whenever we can. We come to love other women, whether or not we are lesbians. We start at different points but make the journey many women make, from the male-created myths to the female reality that can’t be killed, only obscured.
The transitioned woman is but one alienated woman in a society of alienated women. She is common and her commoness is her liberation should she find it. In finding her commoness she finds her power, for the common condition all women share is infinity, self-creating and manifesting in female form. Being butch, passing for male, transitioning and stopping, all this does not divide me from other women but brings me closer, connects me to them. My struggle to exist is one battle in the war all women must wage to exist. I look at the medical establishment and the trans movement to explain what happened to me but I also look further to the patriarchy that spawned them both. I learn about its history and how it operates all over the world, how it effects all women but effects us differently according to factors like race and class, whether we are disabled or labeled “crazy”, whether we live in the First or Third World. I am a radical feminist because I learned the hard way that treating the symptoms instead of the root cause of my problems doesn’t work. I won’t make the same mistake again.
We have to keep our vision as large as possible. As long as men as a group dominate and violate women and restrict our lives, some women will be driven to hurt and hide ourselves to survive. I will not be satisfied with helping more women come out of dissociation and heal from their transitions, nor with providing different treatments for dysphoria or raising awareness about how trauma and misogyny can cause dysphoria, though all these pursuits are worthwhile. I will settle for nothing less than turning the world upside down and abolishing patriarchy. I will not live to see the end of this struggle but I will work toward the total liberation of all women, doing what I can so that other women can find and take up their own power. That is how I will stop passing and make myself free.