Trans Visibility and the Expectations of 'Passing'

This Transgender Day of Visibility, I want to share a story about travel.

While recently planning a trip to Southeast Asia, a travel agent recommended a tour through Vietnam. My partner and I agreed the unique itinerary would make our travel easier and more enjoyable. We got excited and decided to put down a deposit the following day.

Later, I read the terms and conditions. Under ‘Accommodation’ it read: “Multi-share same-sex accommodation is used on this tour, as such, if you are travelling with someone of a different gender you will not be in the same room.”

I started to panic. I looked into the suggested hostels and their policies, I investigated the tour company’s other itineraries and relevant disclaimers, and finally, I called their customer support line to seek clarification.

The man on the phone was polite and helpful. He explained that the tour company was committed to the comfort and safety of its travellers, and as such they booked same-sex dorms so that women wouldn’t have to sleep in a room with men they don’t know.

I told him I’m transgender. I told him I was anxious about being put in a room with strangers for the very same reasons he outlined.

He told me that the tour company worked to ensure its LGBTQ travellers felt comfortable and safe. As such, accommodation would be provided based on how the traveller identifies. I thanked him for his time.

Despite his assurances, however, the problem remained. In saying the company would accommodate based on gender identity, what he really meant is they accommodate based on how effectively the traveller can ‘pass’ as cisgender. No, that may not be the intended effect of their policy, but it’s the reality of it. To honour transgender travellers’ gender identity, yet only offer same-sex accommodation, is to assume the traveller presents in a way that’s congruent with cisnormative expectations. There’s no room for non-binary or visibly non-conforming people.

But much like gender, visibility is not binary. As an androgynous, transfeminine person, I’m never certain of how I’m being perceived by others. In the same moment, I could be visibly trans to some and invisible to others. Furthermore, I could be ‘passing’ as multiple genders that I’m not.

In effect, by joining the tour I’d have to choose between ‘passing’ as a man or a woman. On the one hand, I can present as I feel comfortable, but I have to bunk with men and forgo my personal comfort and sense of security. On the other hand, I can bunk with women, but I have to work overtime to try and ‘pass’ as a woman for two weeks in an unfamiliar country where I do not speak the language, do not know the societal attitudes towards the queer community, and do not know whether my fellow travellers will take issue with me.

This difficult situation is a microcosm of the day-to-day reality of being transgender. Visibility as a man or woman often demands concealing one’s transness. Non-normative presentation – whether it’s body hair, chest size, speaking voice, or clothing choice – is treated as evidence of a body that has failed to assimilate. All too often, being non-binary nullifies any chance of being widely affirmed in one’s gender.

Until transness is normalised, many will continue to reduce transness to an assumption that all people want to appear cisgender. This is why 'transition narratives' tend to focus on an overly simplistic journey from 'being trapped in the wrong body', through the process of medical and social transition, to a fully-realised and cis-passing self. To many, the notion of wanting to appear trans isn't even a consideration.

Therein lies the importance of trans visibility. Trans representation, in everyday interactions as much as in media, is a pivotal part of moving past simply acknowledging trans existence, on the path towards normalising gender non-conformity in all its forms. The more varied the stories we tell, the less reductive the greater narrative will be. The more nuanced the narrative, the less dangerous visibility becomes.

The need for a Transgender Day of Visibility is testament to the fear that visibility invokes for so many. In truth, we move back and forth between states of visibility, making moment-to-moment judgements of how visible we can safely be. We are not visible or invisible. We are, in a moment, accepted or not.

Contemplating my accommodation choices, I tried to determine whether it was worth declaring my transness and expecting others to understand and respect that. Or else I could hide my transness, put myself in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation, in order to avoid others’ ignorance. Or perhaps I reveal my transness only in part, hesitantly trusting others to respect trans womanhood even as I anticipate their rejection of non-binary genders.

In the end, my partner and I decided to book a more expensive tour with private accommodation. In doing so, I exercise a privilege that many can’t. ‘Passing’ is a survival mechanism, one that isn’t accessible to many.

Despite its appeal, I don’t need every person I meet to know that I’m transgender, that I’m non-binary, that I’m queer even. What I need is for people to understand what it means to be visibly transgender: perpetually weighing safety against emotional wellbeing, security against the right to expression.

Transgender Day of Visibility is a chance to shed light on these experiences. The more visible trans stories are, the sooner we can move away from the assumption that visible transness is undesirable. We can move away from trans people needing to pass, in whichever way, in whichever situation, in order to survive. Visibility is not a measure of validity. It’s simply a means by which we can express ourselves. And it’s the expression that matters.