Imagine it’s - I dunno - 1940. You’re in Nazi Germany, parachuted in as a British spy. For the past six months you’ve managed to move amongst the Germans undetected – speaking, dressing, eating as one of them. You’re pretty sure you’ve got away with it, seeing as how you’re still at liberty and in possession of all your finger- and toenails. Then one day you get a coded message from Whitehall to meet another agent at Der Blaue Engel coffee house in Berlin. You turn up and find that the agent is dressed in lederhose and insisting on ordering a stein of foaming beer at 9 o’clock in the morning. You wince – this chap’s fitting in as well as Churchill at a Hitlerjugend rally.
You nervously trot over to his table and exchange codewords. He’s your contact alright, but By Timothy, what does he look like? It’s a miracle he hasn’t been hauled off by the Gestapo already. As it is, you can feel the curious stares of the coffee house’s other patrons flicking over at him. And if they’re looking at him, it’s only a matter of time before they turn their attentions to you.
You speak to him in a low voice. He replies in English-accented O-level German, constantly getting his endings wrong and flinging verbs around like wet fish. He seems to be totally oblivious to his incongruous mode of dress, and once more loudly orders EINEN BIER BITTE from the bemused waiter.
And here’s your problem – if this chap carries on as he is, he’s going to blow his cover with disastrous consequences. Moreover, by associating with him, your cover is in imminent danger of being blown into the bargain. Just by sitting next to him, you’re exposing those little inconsistencies in your own German clothing, those tell-tale glitches in your own German speech. Tiny give-aways that would have escaped everybody’s notice, were it not for the fact that you are sat next to someone who might as well be holding an enormous sign saying (in German, naturlich) LOOK AT ME – I’M NOT WHAT YOU THINK I AM. Worse still, the poor fellow is either totally unaware of his inability to blend in, or he’s in some sort of denial about the situation, or else he does know deep down but is so desperately desperate to be an ace spy that he’s willing to risk disastrous exposure in his flawed attempts to pass undiscovered.
What do you do? Continue to share a table with him until the sinister men in long leather coats turn up for you both? Hiss at him to shut the bloody hell up and point out what a terrible, terrible German he makes, all the while watching his sad little face crease up in shame. Or do you just make your excuses, get up from the table, walk away and Never Be Seen With Him Again?
OK, so much for the laboured spy metaphor. Did you work out what I’m really talking about? You did? Jolly well done. Reward yourself with the fattening snack of your choice.
Passing. It’s a term much in use among those of a transgendered persuasion. What it boils down to is ‘Passing as someone of your adopted gender such that none would suspect your birth sex.’ Getting everything right – the face, the body, the clothes, the walk, the voice, the personal history, even what topics you might talk about. For some, passing is paramount – they don’t want anything to give them away, not a stray facial hair, not a prominent supraorbital ridge, not a dropped octave nor an ill-chosen pair of thigh-boots. For others, it ain’t so important – they may be happy for people to know who they were, whether their chromosomes are XX or XY. Some folks have no choice in the matter – they’re never going to pass on account of insurmountable physical giveaways – no amount of surgery can sort out 6’4” of height, nor shoulders like a prop-forward. There’s only so much an artfully draped pashmina can disguise.
If you really want to pass, and you’ve got more or less the right sort of body to start off with, and you’ve put enough effort in, and spent enough money, and suffered enough discomfort, then yes, it is entirely conceivable that you could pull it off. Many have, so successfully that nobody knows their original past. Well done to them. Then there’s those that don’t pass for whatever reason – they’re too big, too stompy, too bony, too basso profundo, too damn bloke-in-a-dressy. And somewhere in between, there’s those of us who do kinda pass, on a good day with a following wind. If we spend enough time on our hair, and dress carefully, and constantly watch what we say, and make sure we don’t stand too close too many petite born females who make us look like hulking she-trolls.
And there’s the rub. When transgendered persons gather, there’s often a mixture of thems that pass, thems that don’t pass, and thems that kinda pass. And anyone on the outside looking in, let’s call them a bunch of drunken men staggering past you in the street, are going to clock the thems that don’t pass, call them out, and then probably take a second look at the thems that kinda pass, and call them out too.
Coz for a group of TGs, you only pass as well as the least passable member of your group. See the problem? You might be a Kinda, getting by day to day, sneaking under the radar and talking your way past the security checkpoints, but as soon as you get together with a Don’t, there’s that nagging voice in the back of your head saying ‘She’s giving you away, the big blokey tranny. Walk away. Don’t be seen with her in public. She’s an embarrassment.’
I feel bad even thinking about thinking it, but I know I’ve done just that. Of course I flatter myself that I qualify as a Kinda, all 5’11” of me with my stupid hair and funny voice and face that can’t stop pulling the most unmistakeably male expressions. Not to mention my compulsion to harp on about World War Bloody Two far too much. But on a good day I like to think I’m getting away with it, fooling the Gestapo and enjoying my Kaffee at Der Blaue Engel. And then I meet up with another transgender person, someone who for whatever reason just isn’t pulling it off. Maybe it’s the short skirt fit only for a teenager, or the overdone make-up, or the voice like a lost Mitchell brother, or the constant references to tuning their motorbike. Whatever it is, they’re blowing it, and by extension they're blowing it for me too.
And these are nice people, people who might have been or are still going through a hard time, transitioning from male to female. But golly gosh, sometimes it’s hard being with them in public, you know? That’s rotten of me. Rotten and selfish and snobby, but it’s horribly, secretly true. Doubtless there are a few of thems that pass out there who have seen me, clocked me, and made a beeline for the door before I give them away, just as I fear the Don’ts give me away. Maybe. I dunno. But I’m neurotic and vain and evidently given to writing my every petty thought down for the entertainment of others, so I wouldn’t put much stock in anything I say. I’m clearly one of those needy types.
Right, I’m off to work on my voice.
Deep breath, palm on chest and say ‘Ah’.
P.S. I tried to work in a reference to The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission where they realize, halfway through disguising themselves as German soldiers, that one of them is black, so they bandage up his face. So if you could be so kind as to mentally cut and paste that reference into one of the above paragraphs where it will do the most good, I’d be terribly grateful.