The Math of Passing

Sometimes pass as a boy, other times as girl, and even, to my delight, as an ambiguously gendered person, which is the closest one can get to agender passing. As an introductory prelude, let it remain unspecified as to which one I prefer to pass as, or how I feel about passing in general. I’d just like to point out some mathematical correlations I’ve induced.

Inversely Proportional

Passing as a boy is inversely proportional to the liberalness of the city. That is, the success rate of passing is 1/n, where n=liberal. In English: the more conservative the town, the more I pass as a boy.

The Conservatives

This is most often evidenced when I visit my home city in Latin America, Mexico City, aka “el DF” (yes, America is a whole continent and has other countries). As soon as I cross customs, security guards are rushing to interrogate me about my age, to discern whether I’m a minor travelling alone. I can’t even leave the airport with at least a few people questioning me. To them, I look like a 14 year old boy, alone, potentially lost, in a big bad airport. I tell them “I’m old enough,” they only poke deeper; “I’m 24” is my final, truthful response. After this, they either ‘get it’ (that I’m not really a boy), or they say “Wow, how do you do it to look so young?” My brother suggested I respond with something ridiculous, like telling them I use a special face cream with whale sperm that they should check out. They get a good laugh, yet still eye me quizically as I walk away.

To further emphasize the ambiguity, my girlfriend doesn’t look very “adult-like” either; she passes as a teenager as well. And presumably, I’m her younger brother (yes, we’ve received this assumption several times). I also imagine it’s a bit awkward for random onlookers to see what appears to be a teenage sibling pair suddenly become a bit too overly cuddly with each other.

Numerous times I’m stared at, gawked at, whispered at, and even kicked out of women’s bathrooms. Waiters ask me what the “jóven” wants to eat, as my mother rolls her eyes in disapproval, and my dad offers a good-natured correction.

Last time we were visiting, my girlfriend and I took a bus to a neighboring city for a friend’s wedding. This was one of those rare occassions where I was alone, as an adult, in my own country. I realized that being perceived as a lesbian couple is actually kind of dangerous. I found myself constantly wondering if the next scary guy who stared at us would take it to the next level, and then realizing that, fortunately, in their eyes we were not a gay couple, made me breathe a sigh of relief each time. So this time, passing was a blessing. Had it not been for me passing as a boy, I would have honestly been a little fearful for my life.

The Liberals

Now, as soon as we are back in what is oft-dubbed the most liberal city of the US – San Francisco – my boy streak is over. I repeatedly start hearing the “ma’am” and the “ladies.” It does kinda make more sense for a (very cute) dyke to be ordering a sandwich in the middle of the financial district during lunchtime all by herself, than for a 14 year old boy to be doing the same. As further encouragement, in my experience it is impossible to go through a day in this city without seeing more than a couple of gender variant presenting people, including but not limited to trans, dykes, fags, schleppers, and the worst, hipsters.

Extraneous Variables

Passing rates post top surgery have interestingly not undergone any noticeable change, if only a slight shift towards more boy. I guess that binding was successful enough in that area. Hair is likely another confounding factor, as I used to sport the famously ambiguous Justin Bieber look until a few months ago when I cut it considerably shorter. Apparently a girl can have a boyish haircut, but would almost never have super short hair – gender assumption at its best.

Balancing the Equation

Because in a liberal area you are more likely to encounter other gender variant people, everyone is more used to seeing young adults who are girls who look like boys. In a conservative area, gender variance “does not exist” at least in the sense that it’s not visible. In these places, people gender others using different parameters, likely more stereotypical ones, and often not accounting for the possiblity of gender variance, so they default to what seems most obvious to them. That’s why I suspect one of the strongest indicators of passing rate is liberalness vs. conservativeness.

But this is only from my experience. What do you guys think? What has been your experience?

6 thoughts on “The Math of Passing

  1. I live in a super-conservative area, but unfortunately I can’t really contribute. My body weight rests mostly in my chest, so even if I’m wearing a guy’s shirt, my anatomy is pretty obvious. Even after my haircut, I’ve been layered up in shirts and hoodies and still gotten leers.

    This stuck out for me, though: “Apparently a girl can have a boyish haircut, but would almost never have super short hair – gender assumption at its best.”

    The first time I got my hair cut super-short, my stylist was a middle-aged woman who had super-short spiked hair dyed blue (or purple, I can’t remember) at the tips. She didn’t say anything about my cut choice. When I went a few weeks ago to get it cut again, in a different town with a woman who had shoulder-length hair, I was really startled that I kind of had to argue about the length. It was weird and frustrating.

    1. I am kind of relieved to pass in super conservative areas, I would feel very unsafe otherwise.

      Yes, one of my frustrations has always been getting a “non-girly” short haircut. I guess they assume that if you “are” a girl, it doesn’t matter how you want your hair, the assumption is it should at least look girly in some way.

  2. This is honestly a great post! And I have a few occasions in mind where this is totally true.
    And I always always wonder, how are we going to be read when we start to look older?
    Am I going to be read as your mom? Oh surprise they’ll get when we get non-motherly-cuddly…
    We’ll see how the equation changes as you add age to it.

  3. Oh wow, this happens to me too when I go to Puerto Rico (where I studied for half a year, and go back to visit my friends) vs where I live in western New York. I did not speak español a lot because most people around the university are bilingual, and my spoken Spanish sucks, but when I did, I was referred to as niño a few times, people would awkwardly use my name rather than try to pick a pronoun, and one woman referred to me as “su amigo..amiga…o…a” until I said “amigo” (I am transmasculine/genderqueer). In a scarier situation, walking through a part of town that was only “safe” during the day, the friend I was walking with told me the guys in the street were debating if I were “a bitch” or not, and decided I was. When I came back a year later, even though my hair had gotten to shoulder length, another (gay) friend told me he was thrilled that we could act amorous and flirt in public, but people would still think he was gay because I passed as male in a button down and cargo shorts. People did tend to gawk at me and glare in the women’s bathroom, but I honestly don’t know if it was because of my gender presentation or because I am pasty white, used to dye my hair bright blue, and have multiple facial piercings. I definitely agree that in Latin America, it is almost inconceivable for masculine women to exist and as such anyone presenting with short hair and menswear is assumed to be male.

    Incidentally, I traveled to Istanbul for a week on vacation once (with long hair, but still wearing all male clothing) and based on the amount of catcalls and propositions, don’t believe I passed at all. My cisfemale friend who was with me was harassed much more than I by men trying to get her number, take her out, or convince her to come home with them. When I put my arm around her defensively, I was asked in a disgusted tone, “Are you *normal*?!” (ie: You’re not a *lesbian* are you?) The same man who asked me this found out we both spoke some Spanish, which my friend did not speak, and tried to convince me to “let” him take my friend on a date in a very “come on, bro” way (to be precise, he said “¡hombre, venga!) without her understanding. This was the only time I did anything close to passing socially. The point of that anecdote was, that although Istanbul may be the European part of Turkey, it was my impression that it’s still a more conservative culture and yet I didn’t really pass there at all. Not sure what’s up with that!

    Btw, I love this site and the topics discussed!

  4. You’re the first other person I’ve seen mention this! Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I first started seriously dressing male while living in Arizona and I’d say I passed probably half of the time (the other half people just couldn’t figure me out). A few months later I moved to Portland, OR, city of liberals and weird people. I’ve been here almost 2 years now and I can count the amount of times I’ve passed as male on one hand.

    It’s a strange thing. I can visit Texas and go right into the Mens room without anyone looking at me twice. Here at home I go into the Ladies and no one bats an eyelash.

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