From Academic Kids

For other uses of the words pass or passing, see Pass.

Passing is a slang term used when a person appears to be someone or something else or makes others believe that they are. It is attributed, generally, to being able to be accepted as a member of the opposite gender, a different race, or to appear as not having a certain disability.

Etymologically, the term may simply come from the idea of satisfying a test requirement, or it may come from the definition of pass meaning to let go unnoticed as in passed by or passed over. It has been in popular use since at least the late 1920s.

It should not be confused with the phrase "passing resemblance". This phrase means that the appearance of being someone or something else is effective only as one literally passes by the subject, but not if one were to stop and study. The origin of this phrase lies in the definition of pass meaning to physically go past.



Passing describes a transgender person's ability to be accepted as their preferred gender, to have an appearance that causes one to be assumed by strangers to be a cisgendered man (for transmen) or woman (for transwomen). The term refers primarily to acceptance by people the individual does not know, or who do not know that the individual is transgender. Typically, passing involves a mix of physical gender cues, like hair style and clothing, as well as behavioral attributes, comportment and mode and style of interpersonal communication. For example, a person who is physically female and is attempting to pass as a cisgendered male may be dressed in men's clothing and walk in a masculine manner, but if they speak with a woman's voice or using a traditionally feminine speech pattern, they will not be accepted as a male.

The endeavor of trying to pass is most often practiced by transvestites and transsexuals. Because most performers, drag queens and those drag kings who consciously perform are open about their natal sex and are not actually trying to appear to be the opposite sex, they are not typically referred to as passing, even though some may be able to or may actually do so at other times. As RuPaul once said, "How many women do you know who wear seven inch heels, four foot wigs, and skintight dresses?"

Similarly, while most cross-dressers and transvestites who venture out into public areas do try to pass, unlike transsexuals, they do not (usually) undergo any permanent physical alterations or live full-time in order to make passing easier. They should be referred to with whatever gender-specific pronouns they wish, but they do not consider themselves the opposite sex or expect others to.

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. 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 sex. Those who are completely accepted after transition often choose not to disclose their natal sex and instead live in stealth, a term used because they are so completely invisible within the population of their current sex.

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 changed their name or legal gender.

The failure to pass is called being read, being clocked, or being made. A person might say, "When I was out shopping, I could tell that sales girl read me, but she didn't say anything." However, even though a person may be read as being "cross-dressed," it is usually impossible to tell whether the person is actually a cross-dresser, or is actually a non-passing transsexual or another kind of transgender.

Compare the terms passing and stealth with in the closet, and being made or being read with being outed.

In the transgender community, those that pass may sometimes be viewed with jealousy by those that can not pass. 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.

See also: List of transgender-related topics


Racial or ethnic passing describes a member of a disadvantaged racial or ethnic group (usually member of a minority) who successfully tries to be accepted by others as another race or ethnicity, especially in the case of a person of mixed race or ethnicity being accepted as a member of the racial or ethnic majority. It is usually used derisively and is not considered politically correct to aspire to, attempt or accuse another person. It has therefore been used less often in recent years.

As an example, civil rights leader Walter Francis White, the chief executive of the NAACP from 1929 until his death in 1955, was of mixed race; five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. When he went out on investigative assignments of lynchings and hate crimes he was forced to pass as Caucasian for his own safety. Other light-skinned persons, such as Lena Horne and Fredi Washington refused the opportunity to pass. Some darker-skinned people of European ancestry, such as the Greek-American musician Johnny Otis, have chosen to pass as African Americans.

While it is extremely uncommon for dark-skinned Europeans to aspire to pass as African American, at some stages in history some Caucasoid peoples living in the United States, who may have at one time or another been excluded from White American society and categorized as non-Whites, allied themselves with African Americans and other coloured for common causes such as civil rights.

African Americans passing as whites in the United States brought the possibility of running afoul of miscegenation laws in several states in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

See also: racial anonymity; whitewashing; blackface


In fiction, Passing is the title of a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about a light-skinned African-American woman posing as white (ISBN 0142437271). (See Nella Larsen for a discussion.) Jessie Redmon Fauset's novel Plum Bun of the same year and Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel Imitation of Life featured similar plots to Passing, and the latter was made twice into successful films by Universal Pictures, first in 1934, and later in 1959. A recent passing narrative is Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain (ISBN 0375726349) (2000).

The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Howard Williams, and Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone are other non-fiction books on the topic. Also in non-fiction, Black Like Me is an account by journalist John Howard Griffin about his experiences as a Southern white man passing as a black in the late 1950s.

Pinky was a 1949 Oscar Award-winning film on the topic.

2004 the Copeland brothers featured in the movie White Chicks two black policemen who tried to be accepted by white girls as women.

Rock band Big Black released a song regarding this subject called Passing Complexion on their 1986 album Atomizer.


In the disabled community, Passing describes those with "invisible disabilities" who can pass for able-bodied: for example those with autism, hearing impairments or depression-spectrum illnesses, as compared with those who have facial disfigurements, motor impairments (cerebral palsy) or paraplegia.

There is a certain amount of rivalry between passing and non-passing groups in the various communities. Disabled persons who can pass are viewed as having advantages that those who don't pass do not have -- less discrimination and public attention. This can lead to a view that they are not "properly disabled." Conversely, in many parts of the world, funding and care is less available for invisible disabilities. For example, Medicare in the US provides much less funding for mental than physical disabilities.

Other uses of the term

See also pass.


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