Passing and Passing

Sign Triangle Traffic Traffic Sign No Passing Zone

[image description: A bright yellow triangular road sign with bold black letters that say NO PASSING ZONE.]

There’s something funny about the way the word “passing” gets used in the Autistic community versus in the Transgender community.  And by “funny”, I mean confusing.

When an Autistic says they are “passing,” they mean they are passing as someone who is not Autistic — passing as neurotypical. Autistics sometimes talk about “passing privilege”  and that’s a reminder that not everyone is capable of passing as neurotypical and gaining all the privileges that come with passing as someone who is not disabled, someone who appears to have a neurology similar to the neurology sported by the majority. Autistic passing means to appear to be what one is not.

I’m seeing things start to shift in the Trans community, but most of the time when I hear a trans person talk about “passing,” they mean they are passing as their actual gender. For example, someone might say, “I am scared to use the bathroom I belong in because I’m not passing yet.” Transgender people talk about “passing privilege,” too.  But what is the actual privilege that comes with passing? It’s not the same thing as “male privilege”  because a trans woman can have passing privilege as well.  So, at the core, the privilege that comes with passing in this case is the privilege of passing as cis — passing as having been born assigned the gender that one is now recognized as being. Transgender passing also means to appear to be what one is not … but in everyday use, I often see people use the word “passing” to indicate appearing to be what one is.

Thus the confusion.

Both these communities have adopted language from the Black community, where the concept of “passing”  originated.  An NPR story discusses Allyson Hobbs’ book: A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America.  In the story, Hobbs is quoted as saying: “To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss.”

What losses do Transtistic people face in passing?

When passing as non-autistic, we risk losing a community of people who understand us on a level that people of other neurotypes are not as well-equipped for.  Remaining part of the Autistic community is risky.  Some Autistics use pseudonyms to protect their identity so they can reap the benefits of community while protecting their ability to pass at school or work.

Transgender passing is the same.  Some trans people don’t want Trans community or even a Trans identity.  I’ve heard trans people talk about viewing being transgender as a medical condition they are eager to leave behind them once they pass as cis.  I am sure there are similar attitudes among autistics who would prefer to hide their neurotype and live as neurotypical.  We’re more likely to see rejection of identity among trans people, though, since they are more likely to come through the Trans community while transitioning and then remove themselves from it once they pass. I’m guessing that autistics are less likely to pass through Autistic community on their way to passing as neurotypical…though that really is just a guess.

If you feel comfortable to discuss how you feel about passing, start a conversation in the comments.

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