On ‘Passing’ in the Transgender Community

Published in: January-February 2018 issue.



I CAN REMEMBER every time I have used a men’s restroom since coming out as a man. The first time, I was walking through my university with a friend, and I hesitated at the door as the outline of a male stick figure drilled into my gaze, my hesitation prompting my friend to shove me inside. It wasn’t a busy restroom stop—there was actually no one else in there at the time—but still I was terrified. What if someone else came in? How would I escape? Would there be enough time to wash my hands? All these thoughts ran through my head. In the end, no one came in, and with subsequent visits to other, busier men’s rooms, I’ve come to realize that it’s not so different from being in the women’s room. For the most part, no one really cares.

Still, those first few visits terrified me, and I didn’t really start to use the men’s room until I truly felt that I could “pass.” Passing, for those untutored in the vocabulary of the trans community, is the concept, in the words of the Trans Student Educational Resource, of “being perceived by others as a particular identity/gender or cisgender regardless of how the individual in question identifies.” Passing is important to many trans people and is often considered a matter of safety. However, the practice of passing is itself quite controversial, as it is based upon an underlying acceptance of gender as binary, the assumption that the goal is to emulate one half of the traditional dichotomy between masculine and feminine appearance. This excludes trans people who do not accept a binary gender system and those who don’t want to pass or are physically unable to do so for medical or other reasons.

In defense of passing is the issue of violence aimed at transgender people, which happens mainly to those who are unwilling to pass or unable to do so successfully. A study of over 400 transgender women showed that 55 percent had been targets of street harassment, and ten percent had been assaulted with a weapon.* Passing is a privilege in the trans community, the privilege of (relative) safety. This experience is amplified when it comes to gendered spaces, especially restrooms. For example, a 2014 study involving eight transgender men found that most avoided using public restrooms unless gender neutral ones were available, fearing physical consequences upon entering that bastion of male exclusion.

As of 2016, Canada has a law that protects people against these forms of discrimination—a legal change brought about by adding the words “gender identity and gender expression” to a list of categories protected from discrimination. Needless to say, legal protection cannot shield people from all private acts of hostility. But it’s worth noting that Canada accomplished this expansion of rights through a simple addition of protected categories, a measure that the U.S. could easily enact through a simple tweak to the Civil Rights Act—if the political will to do so were there.

Fortunately, there are resources for people who share my experiences. Refuge Restrooms is a service that “seeks to provide safe restroom access for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals” (see www.RefugeRestrooms.org). They also have an app that allows users to find where nearby gender neutral restrooms are located. As more and more restroom locations are added to this app, my hope continues to grow for a future where apps like this are obsolete and all restrooms are safe for all genders.


Adrian Ritchie is an artist and student at York University in Toronto.


*          D. P. Schrock, et al. “Emotion Work in the Public Performances of Male-to-Female Transsexuals.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 2009.


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