For the transgender person, who wants to transition to female or male (and not be gender fluid),
- passing is being seen by others in such a way that they do not notice that you are transgender, while
- blending refers to any trans person, no matter her or his appearance, who achieves the goal of fitting into the environment.
Many transgender women and men are able to transition to where they may be “stealth.” “Stealth” literally means to be in secret, covert. That is the idea, that one is able to keep secret that she or he is living opposite of the sex in which they were identified at birth. In other words, the transgender person appears to be cisgender, that is, a person whose gender/identity and sex/body type match.
Because of the many hurdles and potentially harmful situations faced by trans folks, those who are able to pass often prefer to remain stealth, to keep their birth identity secret. It’s not that they are ashamed to be transgender; quite the opposite, they simply are acting wisely, protecting themselves bodily, economically, and potentially in many other ways.
Many transgender women and men are not able to transition to where they may be stealth. Lots of things factor into the challenge, including physical size, facial structure, and voice. One does not want her or his presentation to be a factor, which takes us to blending.
Blending is key, even if one passes, but especially when we don’t, so that passing is not constantly on our mind, and so that we don’t stand out.
I recall the advice that I read before I ever went out as Gina. Act as if you belong, dress appropriately, and do nothing to draw attention to yourself.
The first place I ever went by myself was to a grocery store. Women don’t put on a dress and heels to get groceries. Women wear whatever they’ve been wearing around the house, likely jeans or shorts, flats or sneakers, little or no makeup.
That’s how I dressed. I entered the store, mustering every ounce of my usual self-confidence, and shopped as a woman as if I’d done it a thousand times before.
Everything went smoothly. Making my usual friendly small talk with the cashier, she was not responsive, and I felt the look on her face was not positive—that she knew I was transgender and was unapproving—but that might simply have been her usual demeanor. In the parking lot, when I finished putting the groceries into my trunk and looked up, a few cars down I caught a woman staring at me. I smiled. She quickly looked away. I got into my car and headed home.
Upon arrival, I knew that I had been tense because when I entered the kitchen my entire body relaxed. Finally, I rejoiced that I had done it, and I used the event as my springboard to going anywhere and everywhere and, now in my third year I blend in wherever I go—and I still don’t pass worth beans.
Later that year, I met a trans woman at a public event. It was outdoors, midday, a weekday, and not a dress-up event. She came in a dress, very high heels, and lots of makeup. She stood out, and terribly so. I wish I could have found a way to gently tell her that she’d overdone it, that she was not blending.
As I think about blending, I am reminded of liars. Liars tend to talk too much. They have a subconscious need to convince others that they are telling the truth, so they feel they have to create a truth, a story for people to believe, something on which to latch instead of the thing on which they don’t want them dwelling, the thing that will expose them. People who are telling the truth don’t oversell it. Since they know what they are saying is true, they don’t feel compelled to over-elaborate.
We trans folks want to appear in public as if we are telling the truth—indeed, this is why we transition; we are seeking to live authentically—that we are whom we are presenting ourselves to be. This means that we don’t want to appear, act, or speak in ways which make it seem that we are overselling it, that we are trying to cover up anything, that we are striving, if you will, to keep a lie from being exposed.
How do we do this?
- Dress appropriate to the place and occasion.
- Act as if you belong.
- Though you might feel that everyone is looking at you, they probably aren’t. (This was one of the best things my therapist told me, and repeated until I got it.) People are busy doing their thing; they aren’t on the watch for the next trans person.
- If you see someone look at you, give them a friendly smile. This is the best way to turn a potential negative into a positive.
- Be wise about where you go. Don’t go places that are unsafe, or out late at night when punks are more likely to be feeling their oats or using the cover of dark to do their vile deeds. (A trans man once told of the beating he took at a bar, and displayed some of his injuries which were still healing. He told of trouble he had there before this event. I thought, “What a dumb thing, to go back to a place you knew could hold danger.”)
- Use your gifts and abilities. Example, if you have the gift for gab, chatting with clerks, or wait staff, or doctor’s office receptionists and nurses will smooth your path. Friendliness is a marvelous cure for many ills; it sets people at ease.
- Build on your successes and learn from any failures.
It’s okay to be scared. We all experience fear in certain places. For example, though I have never had trouble in a public restroom, I always enter with a bit of trepidation. It’s okay to be scared—a bit of fear can help us to remain vigilant—but it is not okay to be stifled by fear. Overcome fear with logical thinking and practical steps.
This is how we trans folks blend into society. While most of us would love to pass so that no one can tell we are transgender, we recognize that the world is filled with a wide variety of people. There are tall women and short men. There are females who don’t have hips and men with big butts. Some males have high-pitched voices and some females’ voices are taken for males’. And on and on.
There is no standard. We are wise to remember this, that we not obsess that we can’t achieve stealth, but always striving to blend in—just another regular person out doing regular things.