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Many cross-dressers and most transsexuals want to be able to participate in normal social activities such as shopping, going out, going to work or simple activities like walking down a street, without being recognized as a transgender person.
Where the person is being perceived by the public as anything other than their birth sex this is described as passing. Thus, a man cross-dressed as a woman would be deemed to pass if nobody realized that the person they were seeing was not in fact female.
If someone correctly determines that somebody is transgendered then they are said to have been read. However, many members of the public will be very discreet if they think they've read someone - this may be out of politeness, sympathy, respect, shyness or because they are uncertain and are too embarrassed to mention it in case it's not.
Some trans* people find the term "passing" to be inappropriate. From their perspectives, "passing" suggests trying to appear as something you are not, while their concern is in trying to appear as they actually are. "Passing" in this context can sound like one is trying to fool others or otherwise perform a form of acting, when the trans* person is actually trying to be recognized by others the same way they see themselves.
Degrees of 'passing'
It is possible to pass at a distance, but be noticeable close up. Some people can pass in all respects except voice, and so are 'undetectable' unless they speak. Often the majority of the public won't read someone until they take the time to pay attention to the trans* person. More often, an individual from the crowd will "break the ice" causing a crowd reaction that otherwise might not have happened because of politeness norms.
The term stealth is used to refer to a person who passes as their desired gender at all times, and who has broken contact with everybody who knew their gender history. Thus, everybody around them is unaware that they were not always of the gender presented, and they are effectively invisible within the population of their current gender.
Attitude towards 'passing'
While it is more common with trans* people, some cis people can also claim to be misgendered, usually unintentionally. While undesired by both the trans person and the cis person, the attitude presented towards the person or group misgendering can either resolve the issue or magnify it.
A separate issue is the use of 'passing' as a form of validation. It is important that the use of external feedback be used as a measure of success and not a motivation factor for any permanent form of transition. One of the most common reasons for detransition is lack of social support, especially from family. Therefor medical changes should be to reflect the inner self and not for a reaction in another person or group of people.
Common barriers to 'passing'
- Body size (large or small statue)
- Beards (on males assigned at birth)
- Voice (inappropriate or incorrectly used for the gender one is presenting as)
- Posture and movement
- Adams apple (or lack of)
- Body shape (hips and/or shoulders)
- Facial characteristics
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