On The Down-Side of the Up-Side of Passing

“As human beings, we all want happiness, peace and release from suffering.”
His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Few of us would argue the idea that at the core of all our longing and striving is a desire for happiness and release from suffering. Whether we consciously think about it very often, or at all, we pretty much all know by experience that what we really long for is happiness—our concepts of what that is may vary and how we go about trying to achieve it may be vastly different, but we are motivated largely by a longing to be happy. While we can experience happiness during times of suffering, as humans we still seek to be relieved of suffering and a fuller, deeper happiness involves, at least, some lessening of suffering. Peace, I think, is essential to inner happiness verses a happiness of mood. Our ideas of peace also might differ. I tend to think of peace in two ways—one, is the state of being at peace at a given time and place, and the other is a deeper, inward experience of peace. In a daily practical way, peace to me is a freedom from conflict or threat, and freedom from disturbing or oppressive thoughts or feelings. On a deeper, more lasting level, I think of peace as a sense of inner calm whatever the circumstances may be, a sense of personal inner well-being and connection to an assurance of ultimate okay-ness, so to speak…a kind of inward harmony with self that extends outward to relations with others and the world. I think that real lasting happiness involves some measure of peace and some relative sense of release from suffering. Yet, clearly, being inwardly happy and experiencing peace is about more than relieving suffering.
If we were to dare to pull back the curtain on our various ideas of happiness, I’d venture to say that we would find some common categories essential to it—little bins of concepts, stacked on the shelves behind the curtain. Common to us all might be a belief that happiness involves some fully realized sense of self, some identity we call our own, as well as some idea of place and belonging for that self. We might also find common to us the idea that being truly happy includes some measure of personal freedom to embody and express that self we call our self. We may even expand that idea by saying personal agency and freedom of self-determination are fundamental to happiness. We might agree that a feeling of belonging and place not only involves mutually enriching relationships with others, but also includes some sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Perhaps, happiness involves a freedom from worry that our basic needs will be met. Perhaps, we might include the presence of things that simply make us feel good about ourselves and the world we inhabit—things like music, art, reading, engaging with the natural world. We might find, behind the curtain, the common idea that both the freedom and ability to give love and receive love are necessary for happiness. Many of us might believe that some idea of relationship to the Holy—or to our spiritual selves—is essential to lasting happiness. Personally, I include all of these in my idea of the elements that create lasting, inward happiness.
While I cannot speak for others, I can say my experience as a trans* person has meant that I have often felt a real fracturing of any cohesion in these factors so essential to human happiness. I know this is true for many others as well. One thing that consistently produces a relief of suffering—at least a reprieve—is the experience of truly being seen for who I am and being accepted. This is so significant for us, generally, that we engage various measures, individually, to ensure that we are seen more fully as who we are. For me, and for many of us, these measures include sex/gender reassignment. Naturally, a hoped for result of transition is effectively passing as the gender with which one identifies. Outwardly, and on the surface, passing says we are being seen for who we are. It means the outside is, at the very least, beginning to match the inside. I will always be able to tell you, if you asked, the day and the circumstances that revealed to me I was effectively passing as male, that there was no longer any ambiguity. While it is actually a process and doesn’t have a date and time of origination like the time stamp on a manufactured product, realizing we are being seen appropriately does seem, for many of us, to have a moment—a particular event, or short series of events, that seems symbolically significant and shouts proudly to us that we have finally, outwardly, become that person we have always been. We each have a story of the moment we knew, for sure, we were being seen. For me, it was a day of errand-running in which every store I walked into, every person behind a counter, and everyone I encountered called me “sir.” I, then, met a friend for lunch and the waitress referred to us as gentlemen: “alright, gentlemen…I’ll be back with your coffee.” From then on, I walked a little more erect, laughed a bit more freely, and held my head a little higher. I felt that, wherever I went, I was going there as fully myself. I still feel that way. This is the up-side of passing—that passing is no longer about not being pegged as my birth gender rather than my felt or experienced gender; it becomes about simply being, finally and fully, the person I have always been and being seen as such. It becomes about being able to feel fully myself with much less worry about being mis-gendered, ridiculed, or worse. It is about walking a little lighter, feeling a little more peace, and a relative relief of some long-time suffering.
So, given this experience, it was quite unsettling to me when I realized there was a very specific down-side to being seen as the male person I have always felt I was. Recently, as I encountered folks in the course of daily interactions as a chaplain, I realized that there is indeed a slippery downward slope to the up-side of passing. It would appear that there is a certain group of white males who see me and just assume that I share their particular white male perspective. In short, as they met me in my dress clothes and ties, they just assumed that I, too, held the same views regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality, politics and religion that they hold. My first encounter with said set of assumptions kind of threw me. I simply wasn’t expecting it.
A cardiac patient began to pontificate regarding all the things he tries to “teach young preachers” and began to advise me on the difficult topic of my duty to correct homosexuals. After a moment, I collected myself from the surprise of jumping from his surgery to the condemnation of gays. Then, I had before me the task that, for me, is essential in my own spiritual walk: how to kindly, lovingly, but clearly let him know that I did not share his view and did not feel that I needed training up as a man of faith. Once or twice a week, I endured such encounters. People assumed I was elitist, racist, anti-liberal and homophobic. Each time, I resisted the urge to say unproductive things. I did not say, “Well, guess what? I was born female…how about that?! You ignorant ass!” Nor did I say, “Well, I actually think that racist punk ass-holes like yourself are what is wrong with America…Have a nice day, you dumb fuck!” It saddens me to say that I did, actually, think such things. At least, I did not speak them. And, I was able to practice the principle I value: I was able to allow them to be who they are, just as I wish to be allowed to be who I am, while still holding my own set of values and principles and kindly but authentically affirming those beliefs. It was a difficult process each time, this holding myself accountable for not treating them the same way that they treat all those who are not them.
I have learned some things from the down-side of passing. Namely, it is easy to practice our principles when they aren’t challenged too severely. That is, when it is not too uncomfortable. For me, passing most certainly never means passing on my obligation to speak my truth and set myself apart from things that I do not believe. However, on the down-side slope, I learned that I am capable of kindly affirming who I am and what I value without shaming another who thinks differently. I learned something about the significance of Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I learned that kindly speaking my truth, without judgment, allowed me to see them in their pain and fear and have compassion for them. I learned quite a lot about how to resist oppressiveness without using the hateful and reactionary tools of the oppressor. I learned that, for different reasons now, people are still making assumptions about me. I can’t change that. But, I can be present in it and still assert an authentic self who can meet hate, intolerance, and judgmentalism with kind, compassionate, and affirmative resistance. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t complicated either—if I desire acceptance, I might want to try to extend it; if I value my principles, I might want to try to walk my talk. I have learned that I can grow and move toward actually practicing what I believe. Most significantly, when I practice these principles, I suffer less, have a greater sense of peace, and I am most certainly happier.


About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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2 Responses to On The Down-Side of the Up-Side of Passing

  1. JF says:

    The “Well, I actually think that racist punk ass-holes like yourself are what is wrong with America…Have a nice day, you dumb fuck!” sounds like an appropriate response

    • liammichael says:

      Hi, JF. I appreciate your reading of my thoughts. There are times when I certainly feel that saying such things is appropriate! However, such a response is likely not effective when I am functioning as a chaplain. There is, I think, a time and a place for a response that is more direct and comes from a place of righteous anger. I am however, working to learn to keep the anger aspect focused on the issues not on individual persons as much as possible. I am really working with learning to move in the world in a way that reflects both my principles and my beliefs about justice. If I respond in anger, I have NO chance of positively affecting the other person…if however, I respond with a non-judgmental, kind and matter-of-fact statement of my position, I have the opportunity to be heard. My chances increase, anyway. And, I have not responded to hate with hate. That is my main goal. Fire doesn’t put out a fire. Thanks for you thoughts on this topic. I hope you’ll keep reading.

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