Passing, or masking?

Trans people are often ambivalent about passing. Just because someone is courteous, does not mean that you pass- it could mean that they were not transphobic! If you pass, you may be worried that someone will read you, your secret will be out and you will never be seen the same again. So we pay out vast amounts for facial feminisation, for surgeons to grind away our foreheads and shape our noses, or perhaps masculinisation. The thought of a surgical scar across the top of the head, even if covered by hair (mine wouldn’t be, but by a wig) was enough to put me off.

The term used by autistic people, masking, gives a different view of the matter. Why should we (or they) pretend to be normal, just so normal people are not discomposed? This account of an autistic breakdown is a good example:

To be autistic is to live in a world where everything is too loud, too smelly and too bright, populated by people who say one thing and get angry when you fail to realise that they really meant something different. At the same time, your brain is struggling to keep track of and process the stimuli constantly bombarding it. Your brain and body then shut down and go into overdrive at the same time. Adrenaline courses through your veins. You are swallowed in a cloud of panic and cannot help but scream and sometimes lash out at others or even yourself.

That’s a clear example of the social model of disability. The autistic person does not melt down because of autism, but because of the need to mask her or his condition. Ideally, before meltdown, the autistic person would be able to reduce the sensory overload in some way, perhaps by withdrawing. Either other people nearby would notice and take care of them, or they would notice that it was getting too much. It seems the shame and exhaustion afterwards are socially enforced rather than natural. You have tried to mask too long, and that is exhausting. So, of course you have a meltdown. It should be nothing to be ashamed of.

Masking. You are different, and you hide that, because you know mockery or worse will ensue when your difference is discovered.

Autistic people devote energy to masking, to pretending to be normal so as not to disconcert the neurotypicals, when stimming or other ways of relieving the pressure would enable them to use their gifts far more productively. That we NTs demand the “normal” behaviour rather than being kind and accepting of their weaknesses, so their gifts may shine, is our loss as well as theirs.

If only we could just be people! There is no need to pass, and you would not be judged according to how well you conform. I could enjoy looking striking, without fearing the second glance that read me as Trans therefore Bad. I could be myself more, not wanting to conform so much (not that I want to conform, particularly).

Masking makes you safe. Masking avoids perturbing the neurotypicals, or the cis-het folk. We will all want to mask sometimes, even if only to go places where we would be less safe when read. But masking is a burden we take on, for no-one’s benefit really, from the stultifying social pressure to conform. If people could reveal their diversity more easily, everyone would be happier.

Everyone moderates their behaviour, in order to fit in, to a greater or lesser degree. If only we were freed from that burden!

11 thoughts on “Passing, or masking?

      • I mask to pass.

        I’ve probably been doing it for 60 plus years, and although I’m moderately successful at it in recent decades, as I approach my 70th birthday I’m finding the effort more and more exhausting.

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  1. I don’t pass and I never will. I think that the desire to pass is toxic since many of us, if not most of is, will never pass. That said, I do think there comes a point in many trans folks transitions where we “blend” well enough that reasonable people of good will are courteous and will recognize our gender. Unfortunately, there are more unreasonable people of ill will in the world then reasonable…

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    • When I first transitioned, it was difficult. I was getting a lot of abuse on the street. So passing well enough to be ignored when walking down the street is a good thing. Years later, in one week but two completely separate incidents one man called me a “slut” and another called me a “whore”, so at least they had not read me as trans.

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  2. Clare, excellent post, thank you. It brings up so much for me. I’ve 100% transitioned, had some FFS about three weeks ago. An interesting outcome of FFS, at least for me, is that my basic face is the same. It’s as if a few rough spots were sanded down.

    I’ve not experienced any negative feedback even though I’m fairly certain that I don’t pass all that well. That’s probably due to living with what we call the “bubble” of Seattle and surrounding areas. But from time to time I’m accidentally misgendered: “Thank you, sir”, that sort of thing. It cuts into me like a knife as I calmly respond with, “Please don’t call me sir” and the clerk often stumbles all over themselves as they recognize their error.

    I grew up during the Vietnam War and proudly let my “freak flag fly” through the 70s with long hair hanging past my shoulders or gathered in a ponytail. I suppose it was like having a chip on my shoulder waiting to see if anyone dared to knock it off. I wonder if I’d wish to be like that again.

    I do think it’s best if we just present ourselves walking tall and proud, with calm poise, claiming our space in the world through our body language and general presence. That’s what I try to do although I’m far from perfect. Maybe that’s “masking,” I’m not sure.

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    • Congratulations on the FFS, and the full transition. I think a lot of people don’t care. Some mean-spirited folks want to make a point of you being trans, but “you would worry a lot less about what people thought of you, if you realised how seldom they do”. So the question is, what do we do to fit in, which might not always be necessary?

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      • I lived much of the last six decades as a social chameleon, favoring fitting in over being my authentic self and trusting my feelings. Nowadays, I just live and present as a 63yo woman, dressing and moving appropriately for the occasion whether it’s a run to the grocery store, a hike, or a professional meeting. So, in some ways I’m just fitting in like any woman. And if someone sees me as trans I try not to concern myself with it.

        I try to remind myself of the following from Brene Brown:
        “Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”

        She adds:
        “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
        Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
        Hold hands. With strangers.
        Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.”

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  3. It’s said that we have but 1/10 of a second to make a first impression. It took over fifty years for me to accept my own 1/10 of a second as being a favorable and positive one. I think it was an unmasking of myself, actually, that allowed for that. I may be fortunate to live in the “bubble” of Seattle, as Emma said, but I am more fortunate to have burst my own bubble – the one I had created to shield myself. When I used to occupy myself with thoughts of passing, all I did was to blow a lot of hot air into my bubble, which made it bigger, but I was still alone in it.

    A few weeks ago, as I was getting ready to go out for the day, I was finding it difficult to accept the way I looked. I know I’m not unique in that feeling, as most women have experienced something like a bad hair day. Of course, my hair, as it sat on it’s stand, looked the same as it had the day before, but it did not make up for the way I had been feeling when I put it on my head. 🙂 Nevertheless, I left the house to make my first appointment on time, completely forgetting the impression of how I looked in the mirror earlier. As the morning went on, I probably had a half-dozen other personal exchanges with other people, all of which were positive. It wasn’t until I used the restroom and saw myself in the mirror again that I remembered how distraught I had been about my looks before leaving home. I laughed out loud at myself, as I looked at my image in the mirror, because my first impression then was that I looked pretty good. How did that happen?, I asked myself. I know that I’m my own worst critic, but I was sure, before I left the house, that I was not going to make a favorable impression on anyone, looking the way I did. I quickly remembered my own old mantra, though: You don’t really see yourself until you’ve seen your reflection in the eyes of another. It truly was a good day!

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