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Passing, in regard to gender identity, refers to a person's ability to be accepted or regarded as a member of the sex or gender with which they identify, or with which they physically present.[1] Typically, passing involves a mixture of physical gender cues (for example, hair style or clothing) as well as certain behavioral attributes that tend to be culturally associated with a particular gender. Irrespective of a person's presentation, many experienced crossdressers assert that confidence is far more important for passing than the physical aspects of appearance.[2]

Related terminology

Gender attribution

Gender attribution is the process by which an observer decides which gender they believe another person to be.[3] Once an observer makes an attribution of the gender of a person, it is often extremely difficult to make them change their mind and see the person as the opposite gender.[4]


The failure to pass as the desired gender is referred to as being read.[5] In this context, "read" is used as a verb. The event of being read is known as "a read". In this context, read is used as a noun. It can also be called "being clocked".[6]

A person is far more likely to be able to read someone of their own race but less likely to read someone of a different race. It is generally accepted that this is because gender cues within one's own race are more readily recognised than gender cues of other races. Some people opt to leave their country of origin, because gender cues can vary greatly between countries. Vocal range, physical build, hairline shape, facial structure, demeanor and clothing styles are just some of the reasons cited.[7]

Depending upon a person's presentation, anybody may read them. What is more important than whether a person is read or not is how others react if they do read that person. It is suggested by some researchers that many transgendered people who believe that they are passing are in fact being read by many observers, but the observers do nothing confrontational and hence the transgendered person is not even aware that they were read.[4]


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. In order to live in stealth,[6] an individual has to be extremely passable.


Historically, there have been circumstances wherein people have impersonated the opposite gender for reasons other than gender identity. The most common other reason was for women disguising themselves as men in order to become soldiers.


Reports exist of women doing this in both the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Examples include Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell.

Two of the most famous examples of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in battle are Joan of Arc, who fought for France against the English during the Hundred Years' War, and Hua Mulan, who, according to legend, took her elderly father's place in the Chinese army.

Modern context

In modern times the endeavor of trying to pass is most often practiced by cross-dressers and transsexuals. Because most performers, drag queens, and drag kings are often open about their natal sex and are not actually trying to appear to be the opposite gender, they are not typically referred to as passing, even though some may be able to do so. Similarly, while many cross-dressers who venture out into public areas do try to pass, unlike transsexuals, they do not (usually) undergo any permanent physical alterations or attempt to live full-time as their adopted sex in order to make passing easier.

Conversely, almost all transsexuals will attempt to live and work as their preferred gender and be fully accepted as that gender rather than their natal sex. Therefore, passing is not just an option but is seen as a necessity by many. The majority who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery or who are past the transition stage do not usually refer to themselves as passing, since they now consider themselves to actually be that gender. Those who are completely accepted after transition often choose not to disclose their natal sex and instead live in stealth.

Transgender people who do not describe themselves as either cross dressers, transvestites, or transsexuals may have different attitudes towards passing. For example, they might not try to pass at all, they may send consciously mixed signals, or they might be able to pass but do not hide the fact that they are transgender. Personal views on passing and the desire or need to pass are independent of whether an individual has had medical treatment or has legally changed their gender.

In the transgender community, those that cannot pass may sometimes view those that pass with jealousy. Because of this, there may be a tendency for some of those who pass to avoid those that are easily read. There is the perception among many that when one person is read, anyone with that person will be assumed to be transgender by association. This is one reason why people living in stealth rarely if ever associate with other transgender people.

It should be noted that the use of the term "passing" regarding sexual orientation denotes "hiding" one's identity, where use among gender-variant people (as noted above) signals acceptance and concordance with one's internal sense of or desired gender identity. However, for this reason, and because transgender persons who come to live full-time in their desired gender/sex identity often recognize their previous attempts to conceal their identity and be accepted in socially-accepted and designated roles as the real artifice they constructed and protected, some have begun to instead call their previous gender-normative and concealing behaviours as "passing".


Persons seeking to pass as the opposite gender to their natal sex will, by necessity, seek to hide or disguise features that are specific or more common in their natal sex while emphasising or artificially creating features that are indicative of the gender that they seek to present.

Passing as female

For natal males passing as female, this will typically involve wearing of a wig or styling their hair in a manner usually specific to females, removing or disguising facial hair and wearing makeup to make their face appear female, altering their body to resemble that of a female, wearing female clothing and accessories, speaking in a voice that fits their presentation and adopting 'female' mannerisms.[8]

Alterations to make the face and body appear female fall into two categories: temporary items that are applied or worn, and surgical alterations.

Temporary alteration of body proportions

A variety of materials and methods are used to alter the apparent body proportions to create the illusion of a female body shape.

Some form of breast prostheses are usually used. If the clothing being worn will reveal the breast cleavage, some type of cleavage enhancement technique is also used.

Various methods are used to create a female waist-hip ratio, by either reducing the waist size and/or enlarging the hips and buttocks. A garment such as a corset, BodyBriefer or control brief is often used to reduce the apparent waist size and/or to flatten the stomach area. Hip and buttock padding is sometimes used to enlarge the apparent size of the hips and buttocks.

Permanent alteration of body proportions

Cosmetic surgery procedures that are often used by transsexual persons living permanently as females include breast augmentation, liposuction and Buttock augmentation. The use of female hormones also alters the body, including changing the distribution of body fat.

Passing as male

For transmen, drag kings, or any female-bodied person trying to pass as male, this involves binding the breasts to create a flat-chested appearance, taking on a more masculine demeanor, and wearing male clothing. Baggy or loose clothing is usually preferred because it hides female characteristics such as breasts and rounded hips.


Often, a "packer," a prosthetic penis worn at the crotch to approximate the size and shape of flaccid male genitalia, will be worn.[9] "Packing" is generally done on a daily basis for FTMs, for the rest of their life. For other transgender men, packing is done on an as-needed basis either for personal comfort or for drag performances.

The vast majority of packers are made to look and feel like flaccid penises, but in the past few years two companies have released medical-quality prosthetics that can be used for both general packing and for sexual activity.[10]

Medical-quality prosthetics are available that can be attached with medical adhesive, other prosthetics are held in place with clothes or (rarely) specialized harnesses.


An effective male chest can be achieved in many ways. There are commercially-made specialty binders available worldwide, as well as binders designed for the treatment of gynecomastia. Both are safe and effective for the compression of breast tissue and allow for normal breathing in most people.

Other methods of binding include compression bandages, back braces, tape, modified clothing, very firm sports bras and tight-fitting shirts. These methods are more popular with young people who have not yet come out as trans, or those who have limited financial means.

Dangerous binding methods

Binding with tape or elastic/compression bandages can cause serious injury and even death due to asphyxia. If applied incorrectly, they can compress the ribcage so greatly as to make normal breathing impossible.[11]


  1. Julia Serano. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press, 2007. ISBN-13 978-1-58005-154-5, ISBN 1-58005-154-5
  2. Polare 63: A Crossdressing Perspective
  3. IJ TRANSGENDER - Special Issue on What is TransGender? - Who put the "Trans" in Transgender?
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jennifer Anne Stevens. From Masculine to Feminine and All Points in Between, Different Path Press, 1990. ISBN 0-9626262-0-1
  5. A CD glossary | The Cornbury Society
  6. 6.0 6.1 Glossary
  7. Griffin S. Boyce. Implications of Location on Gender Perception, Ladies and Gentlemen, 2007.
  8. MTF passing tips - MTROLwiki
  9. FTM Passing Tips

See also

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