Brett WatsonComment

The Paradox of Passing - A Scientific Look at Why We Care

Brett WatsonComment
The Paradox of Passing - A Scientific Look at Why We Care

It’s common nowadays to hear someone make the apparent concession that, for instance, a transgender woman should be allowed to use women’s restrooms – provided she “looks like a woman”.

This standard has been advanced by opinionated cis people ranging from Joey Salads to Peter Sprigg, a spokesman with the Family Research Council.

Peter Sprigg: A lot of transgender people are not – a lot are not convincing in their presentation as the opposite of their biological sex, and so it’s obvious to the people who see them that this is actually a man in a dress and not a biological woman. And that can create – I can understand how that would create fear and anxiety on the part of women and girls in a ladies’ room.

Jessica Taylor: Oh, so only well-dressed women can go into the ladies’ room, is that what you’re saying? Only women that are attractive – just like the Donald Trump thing – only women that are attractive can have these positions, or use the restroom in this case?

Sprigg: Well, if you appear to be female then you probably will not be challenged with respect to something like this—

Taylor: Okay, so who’s going to set the standard to appearance of ‘female’? Is there gonna be a TSA watching the door of the bathroom, and you’re gonna say ‘oh, you’re not womanly enough’? I know a lot of women that are very, you know, neutral in their gender, and you’re gonna tell them they gotta go use the men’s restroom now in North Carolina? Boy, that makes sense.

At first glance, this seems like an intuitive idea. It would supposedly minimize any disruptions, and many trans people do voluntarily choose which bathroom to use based on their current gender presentation. But this expectation could never function as a consistently applicable standard in practice, because it relies on false assumptions about how individuals perceive gender. In everyday life, interactions between the expression and interpretation of gender are so diverse that whether someone “looks like a woman” isn’t always entirely predictable.


Biases, stereotypes, and other influences on subjective gender perception

This naïve model of gender perception treats gender as a property emitted from an individual, with all others as passive receivers who simply accept this expression at face value. Yet this is precisely backwards – expressions of gender are not objective and singular; they are subjective, interpretative, and multiple. The same trans person, on the same day, with exactly the same appearance, can still have their gender read entirely differently depending on who’s looking at them. Why does this happen?

At least in part, it’s because many of the variables involved here aren’t located within the one person being observed, but rather the multiple people observing them. Research on gender perception has provided extensive evidence that there is a wide array of factors which can influence how each person will see and interpret someone’s gender or the gendered features of their appearance.

Read More about this topic here: Gender Analysis with Zinnia Jones