To pass is a crucial issue for many trans people, connected to a feeling of being recognised as the gender they feel they belong to. As Sander Gilman points out, “‘Passing’ is not becoming ‘invisible’ but becoming differently visible – being seen as a member of a group with which one wants or needs to identify”. Passing is the “ability to become (in)visible, seen but not seen”. Invisibility involves being part of a norm instead of being considered deviant; being unmarked contrary to being marked. Passing is therefore about inclusion and exclusion, suggesting that identity involves performance and recognition of certain kinds of signifiers. Passing can be a wish, a possibility and also an imperative for certain people, for instance trans people.
The title Nobody Passes Perfectly plays with the notion of passing, implying that we all try very hard to pass, but nobody really does. Erik explains it in this way in the film:
when I was going to a party at Warehouse I used a roll of sports tape, or, if I didn’t have any, I used duct tape […] Then I put on a tight vest so it looked even smoother. So I had a chest instead […] And then I put a sock in my pants. Then I would think: “Today I’m wearing something really masculine”. And at times it hit me: “This is so fake. It’s an act”. On the other hand, it wasn’t because the feelings were inside me.
Erik’s description of the difficulty in separating the real from performance exemplifies Judith Butler’s understanding of gender as a performative practice. According to Butler, all gender is performative and therefore we are all in the very same process of becoming, striving for the effect of “realness”. But we fail in different ways and with different consequences. The film touches upon the various systems of power seen (or not seen) in the act of “passing”, thereby also making passing visible as a means through which the violence of assimilation takes place.
As Tomka states in the beginning of the documentary, the feeling of gender identity can be hard to explain:
Sometimes it might take a really long time to find out […] But it seems like it was totally clear that I was bound to do that […] But I find it really hard to explain sometimes […] I don’t know. It seems like it’s so obvious and clear […] That’s how it is. And that’s how I’m making myself happy.
Most people will recognise Tomka’s description of how hard it is to explain what feels so obvious and clear – the things that make one happy. However, non-trans people are not expected to account for their gender identity and the genealogy of that feeling. Thus, it is only a certain group of people that are required to account for themselves, namely those with a non-gender normative self-presentation. Trans people are constantly required to elucidate the origin and ongoing sense of gender.
Within the health care system trans people are commanded to narrate a coherent story about their gender identity in order to be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and access a medical and legal sex reassignment. To get access to medical treatment then, you need to “pass” these criteria:
“There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification, which is the desire to be, or the insistence that one is, of the other sex (Criterion A). […] There must also be evidence of persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex (Criterion B)”.
The diagnosis criteria used worldwide assume that gender norms are fixed and that the problem is making sure that you find the right one. Furthermore, the discomfort or distress is assumed to be derived from the trans person and not from the gender norms that it takes as fixed and intransigent. As Judith Butler explains it in Undoing Gender, “What is most worrisome, however, is how the diagnosis works as its own social pressure, causing distress, establishing wishes as pathological, intensifying the regulation and control of those who express them in institutional settings”. A coherent explanation is often also expected from trans people’s family and friends. There seems to be two possible options, either you tell the story of your lifelong suffering in the “wrong body” (enabling their understanding, but pathologising yourself) or you refrain from telling a story of suffering, explaining it as a choice you have made (keeping your feeling of “sanity” and agency, but putting their understanding and acceptance at stake). In Nobody Passes Perfectly Tomka points to this problem when he asks, “What should I explain about it? ... I just want to do what I want to do”. In this way, Tomka enacts gender as an existential choice that does not require further explanation besides being a deeply felt aspiration. Or as the theorist Christine Overall suggests, “aspirations for sex/gender transition are not necessarily different in kind from other deeply felt and long-held aspirations”.
The strength of Nobody Passes Perfectly is its reformulation of the dominant notion of a trans man as a man trapped in a woman’s body. In the film, the persons portrayed do somehow see their bodies as wrong, which necessitate a wish for a re-embodiment, but there is no core self, waiting to appear. There are, however, personal urges to connect the felt sense of gender with the physical body. The incongruence is very strong among trans people, but not at all restricted to them. Body modifications are used in an attempt to achieve intersubjective recognition in many other instances as well. What is needed is on the one hand visual explorations of trans people and the different subject positions within trans communities. On the other hand there also seems to be a need for a theoretical exploration of trans embodiment that can account more comprehensively for gender constitution and iteration on a material level. How can we reformulate the wish for re-embodiment? How can we theorise the process of becoming man/woman while taking people’s actual lives and political demands into consideration?
For some years now, transgender has become a key figure and a battlefield for feminist theory, queer theory, and transgender studies. Many feminists have, as mentioned, claimed that transgender is antifeminist and that trans men automatically access the privilege of manhood. But as Butler has pointed out, “those analyses don’t ask whether it is easier to be trans than to be in a perceived bio-gender […] If social advantage were ruling all these decisions unilaterally, then the forces in favour of social conformity would properly win the day”. Queer theory has in many ways paved the way for trans identities by pointing out that all gendered and sexual identities are socially constructed, thereby dissolving the naturalisation and pathologising of minority identities. Scholars within Transgender Studies have however stated that queer theory celebrates transgender identity as a transcendence of identity, as play, performance or a strategy, without taking trans people’s actual lives and political demands into consideration. According to Jay Prosser, queer theory bypasses the importance of embodiment. Many trans writers’ objections to queer theory’s presumed dismissal of the reality of bodily materiality and the lack of room for bodily resistance hinge, according to Gayle Salamon, on “a fundamental misreading of the meaning of social construction and a misunderstanding of the use to which it has put in theorizing gender”. This ongoing discussion, as relevant as it may seem, does however in my opinion call for collaboration instead of fractionation. Such collaboration might be the best way to understand the contradictory terms by which we think and live our lives.
While it seems important to account for trans subjectivities deprived of rights, which means to make people aware of the discrimination acted upon this group of people, it is also vital to contribute to the more general “gender fucking” that argues for an inclusive trans politics, questioning binary gender categories and recognising trans as a multiple and diverse identity. Nobody Passes Perfectly is one step in this direction.