The Problem With Passing

by: Mar Curran

This story starts out, like many others, at 1:30 a.m. on the Red line. I was returning to the northside from Logan Square after a Winter Solstice party, wearing American flag facepaint, because sometimes my Wednesday nights are weird. I sat there, minding my own business and listening to Sleater-Kinney, just hoping to get to bed soon. Then he sat down.

A twenty-something man sat in front of me turned around and started talking to me. As I have been taught to do, I pretended to ignore this stranger trying to chat with me so early before dawn. He did not relent, so after about fourty five seconds I took out my headphones and asked him, “What did you say?”

“Are you a male or a female?”

I just stared straight ahead. My brow furrowed with confusion and concern, and I repeated, “What?”

“Are you a male or a female? Because I was watching you and I couldn’t figure it out.”

If it was daylight out, if I was with friends, if I wasn’t in a train car full of drunken strangers, I might have been amused that I was ambiguous enough to confuse my fellow travelers. But that was not the case; I am acutely aware that people like me face increased risk of violence every day. The corners of my mouth turned downward.

“Why does it matter?” “It doesn’t matter,” he said earnestly, “I was just wondering because I couldn’t tell.”

I remembered all the times I had been asked that and couldn’t answer honestly, or didn’t know how to answer at all because I didn’t know. I remembered the frustration of all my genderqueer friends at only being presented binary options. I remembered my frustrations with some women I know who had told me that since I use male pronouns now I was completely separate from womanhood without asking me about my nuanced ideas of my own gender. I repeated my question, and he gave me the same answer. I put my headphones back in. He didn’t stop talking.

I took my headphones back out. “What?” I asked again, this time obviously frustrated. He was already being rude by asking me my gender; didn’t he understand the unspoken train rules about headphones? “I don’t mean to bother you or anything,” he said, “I was just wondering because I’ve been watching you and I couldn’t tell. So are you a male or female?” “Why does it matter?” “It doesn’t, I just wanted to know.”

I paused. “If it doesn’t matter, then I don’t have to answer.” “No,” he said, “I guess not. But I was just wondering because I couldn’t tell. Are you a male or a female? Because I’m a male and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was just wondering what you are.” Buddy, don’t even talk to me about shame.

Now I was laughing. This was possibly the most ridiculous interaction I’d had on the CTA in a while, and what else was there to do but try to make it through this with as little rage as possible?

I have often wondered how I come off to people. However, I would rather not be disappointed by the responses of my friends and do not want to ask strangers because I am not a weirdo on the train like this person. “What do you think?” I asked him. “What are you?” he responded exasperatedly. “I’m not going to tell you, this is too amusing,” I giggled. “Aw, man,” he sighed, “you won’t tell me? Fine. You got kids?” I bursted out laughing. “No, I don’t have kids.” “Hm. Okay. You really not going to tell me? Fine. Are you a lesbian?” I once again burst out laughing. I have never identified as a lesbian, ever, and always roll my eyes at people who assume that.

“Okay, you ain’t a lesbian. I thought so because of your hair. I like it, by the way. It looks good. Okay. So if you ain’t a lesbian. Are you a male?” I sighed. The problematic nature of this conversation was starting to weigh on me. “Yeah,” I responded, “sure.” “Okay! I knew it because– see, now I see your Adam’s apple and stubble. Okay, see, I’m good at these things!”

I didn’t say anything. There were actual reasons he could pin down why I was being read as male? Usually it seemed to just be my androgynous clothing and loud, brash, confident “manly” personality. But stubble? I knew I had it but didn’t know others could notice it. An Adam’s apple? I hadn’t been taking hormones that long.

He looked at me quizzically. “Are you… are you a gay male?” Sir, unless you plan on asking to fuck me you really have no place asking this. I do, however, hate hate HATE when people assume everyone uses the word gay. I sighed and said, “Queer, actually.” “Oh, okay. Have a good night!” He said gleefully as he got up and walked away.

I looked around at everyone else in the car. My hands started shaking. Now everyone knew I was a feminine, non-heterosexual male. I had always felt vulnerable to sexual attacks as a female. One of the first things I had been told by another trans man, though, was that once people saw you as male you were open game to other men to fight. A couple of trans men I had met said once they passed they were threatened by gangs of teenage boys, men with knives, drunk guys looking to punch someone in the face.

I recognize the privilege of passing. I am lucky in that I can afford to put myself on hormones. I am lucky that I can afford a binder and am physically able to wear one. I am lucky that even before I wanted to be read as male I was often seen as such. I told someone this story, though, and remarked that I felt like now I was in a new hate crime zone. Before I was going to be hated for being a woman; then I was going to be hated for being a lesbian; then I was going to be hated for being gender ambiguous; now I’m going to be hated for being a gay man.

I once read that the idea of “safe space” is an illusion we use to comfort ourselves. In what places are we really safe? I live in a neighborhood I condsider “safe” and where I have been followed and called a faggot, dyke, and bitch. In “safe queer spaces” I have been told I’m in the wrong bathroom, told I am really just a confused lesbian, asked my birth name and asked if a friend is really a boy or just a girl pretending to be one. We live in a dangerous world. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

How do we deal with the changes in how we are perceived, and how we perceive our safety? When our appearances change we all lose and gain different privileges. What can we do to create an environment where we all feel we can be free? I do not know. In light of recent events in Chicago’s queer community, I feel more questions are in the air than answers. What I do know is that love is needed. Kindness is needed. Open-mindedness is needed. We need to work to build our community into something beautiful. Because if we aren’t creating safe spaces for ourselves, how can we make the other spaces we occupy safe for all queer people?

Mattis “Mar” Curran is a trans/queer rights activist and community organizer; he is on the boards of Video Action league, Advocate Loyola, the Queer intercollegiate Alliance, and works with GetEQUAL. As spoken word artist, he has read at each All The Writers I Know event. He studies Communications and Women’s Studies at Loyola University Chicago. Curran likes beer and cats.


6 responses to “The Problem With Passing

  1. There are so many interesting ways that we, as humans can be perceived. Trans, Gay, Bi, Straight, Queer or Kinky… Whatever it may be, what I personally find important is that we are all people wanting to live a life and enjoy our existance. Tales, such as yours above are signposts that all should be cautious and vigilant. I have had some interesting conversations in my brief tenure as a Sister, most with people who were assigned one way at birth and live their true spirit outwardly, and others who believe that I am somehow doing something wrong, or subverting some order of nature to manifest as a nun.

    Having encountered, or regained that part of my soul, which finds its place and joy in the many manifestations as Sister Ida that I have ejoyed, I can simply say I feel more whole as a person these days and much happier and fulfilled. It is my desire that more people find theirs and live their truth. Humbly submitted @– Sister Ida

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