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Silence, Passing, and Safety

smalina's picture

Dear Mom,

I tried to write this letter in theory. Weaving together well-crafted strands of academic prose, I knew you would take from it what I wanted you to—the editor in you comes out in the most personal, un-academic situations. I got that from you, this appreciation and reverence for published text. When I wrote that email a couple months ago, telling you that I wanted surgery, I clouded my truths with celebrated theorists, as if backing up an argument with credible sources. You understood, to some extent—responding with the same language I had introduced.

I tried to write this letter in a linear way. I wished I had been able to map out my thoughts and feelings from the beginning of this process, over three years ago. I couldn’t do this either. And to try would be to disrespect the inherently nonlinear nature of the silence and constant freewrites that ground my thoughts lately.

I don’t want to abandon this game we play, interspersing academia into our interactions. It’s fun and it’s the language we speak, a secret code we pass back and forth. But I do want to push these limits of academia—to explore the places where the written word, or the word at all, cannot reach. Over the past few months, I have tried to use theory to put logic to my situation. Even my late-night freewrites are in academic-speak, as if any five-paragraph essay could make this simple, concise. I’ve included some here, as only the succession of the pieces put next to each other can shed any light on my emotions about this.


For many trans people, to pass is to survive. So the question becomes: To pass as what? Answering this question for me requires a complex algorithm involving the individual with whom I am interacting, the background I assume they have, the environment (socially and politically), and how generally uncomfortable I am already feeling. I must feel very safe in my environment to locate myself proudly as non-binary. In her essay entitled “The Aesthetics of Silence,” referenced within Peter Elbows’ piece, Susan Sontag writes of silence’s many uses. As she explains, ‘Silence keeps things ‘open’” (Sontag 19-20).


Here, in claiming that the safety I experienced from keeping my gender identity to myself was a matter of “keeping things open,” I conflated two very different experiences of silence. Yes, when I sit alone in my room, not seeing myself, hearing myself, or being seen or heard by others, I can step away from my gender and the expectations it demands. Perhaps this is why I love to be alone so much at times—need to be alone, even—because the silence is freeing, fluid.

You asked me once why I wanted surgery if I did not want to be labeled as a man, if I wanted to avoid the violent labeling that happens all too often in places that employ binary identifiers like “sir” and “ma’am.” You remembered how I cried when I came home from that restaurant in the North End with Alyssa, forced into a complacent silence to protect myself when the waiter refused. You must have thought of the time when we went ice skating, and I raised my voice before asking for skates so the woman behind the counter would be able to read me as female. After I had ordered them, I stopped speaking for a little while—stunned into silence by my own ability to conform despite the tidy interaction it provided.

But in these moments in public, when I choose not to speak (though the silence is far more complicated than “chosen”), silence lets things swiftly come to a close, a passive acceptance of what has been assumed. Just as speaking locates me as non-binary by virtue of the mismatch between voice and physical presentation, not speaking allows my gender to be determined by the whim of the listener; if I have been “sirred,” the label remains for the duration of our interaction.

I reached toward the notion that silence can be empowering, even if it means information is left uncommunicated, and I sought undeserved solidarity with figures who believed the same. So if not speaking in these moments is a matter of safety, can I still take that silencing and turn it into agency—a charged silence—perhaps, a secret?


In her memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú, Rigoberta asserts her agency despite her lifelong experience of marginalization, through the claiming and naming of her secrets. She will unveil them to none of us, so/but we must know that they exist. Ultimately, after years of the oppression of her people and the elimination of aspects of her culture, all that is left for her to claim is her sense of self, and the identity of her culture that no one else may know.

I like this idea—and theorist Doris Sommer calls attention in her piece “Advertencia/Warning” to the significance of this “refused intimacy” on the part of Menchu and other writers. She questions: “Does it mean that the knowledge is impossible or that it is forbidden? Is she saying that we are incapable of knowing, or that we ought not to know?” (Sommer 121). Menchu might say both—that knowledge of her culture is impossible at a point due to our Western framework, and forbidden because, at the end of the day, her people’s sense of self is all they have left.

Could keeping silent in moments when I am misgendered, even if it is a conclusive way of “passing” as within a binary, be an empowering experience? Could my decision to stay silent (often a matter of safety in these moments), also be a matter of holding my identity closer to me, and refusing to share it with those who simply could not understand?


I quickly stopped myself, realizing that my thought process was exactly that which Sommer urged us to avoid—one where we used our own experiences to empathize with a minority writer, as part of the Western reader’s “quest for mastery” (Sommer xi). I had to accept that I did not know “the Other” here, and could not dare to take from her the theory behind the secret that I felt so tempted to connect to my own life. The next time I wrote, I grounded myself in personal experience alone.


Being non-binary, getting dressed every day is an empowering act made up of many smaller, silencing steps. As I pull on each article of clothing, alternating between “menswear” and “womenswear,” I am tugged back and forth toward opposite ends of the binary until my completed outfit settles me comfortably somewhere in the middle. When my dysphoria is at its worst, binding my chest is a necessity regardless of what I’m wearing—when it’s not so bad, binding operates as a counterweight, balancing out the unavoidable femininity of the rest of my body, of my face, and most noticeably: my voice. Gordon Hempton, founder of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, insists upon a less human-centric notion of silence, arguing that “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” (Hempton 2014). Getting dressed is a matter of compiling every imposed sartorial silence on my body until I have found the beautiful composite that is chosen silence—where everything is present.


After surgery, it is true that I may pass more easily, publicly, as male—and it is true that I can never pass as what I truly am, as passing is only possible within a socially constructed system that grants me privilege when I fit within it (the binary). Will I feel a greater sense of responsibility to break my silence after surgery, if only to explain myself? Perhaps not in situations where I feel my safety may be in jeopardy—these times, my conclusive silence will hold all the more weight, as breaking it could put me in too much risk. 

But I want to return to the idea of silence when I am alone, sitting on my bed, wrapped in the concealing comfort of my blankets. In these moments of chosen silence, when I am granted a reprieve from seeing my body, feeling my body in the presence of others, hearing my voice, silence excuses me from the need to pass or perform as anything in particular. These moments of freedom I experience are beyond words, they can’t be described. Life months from now may be more dangerous at times, and it may require far more emotional strength to make it through those situations where I am locked into a binary I never signed up for. But imagining my body experiencing its silent peace even when I climb out of bed and face the rest of the world is what I know will, at long last, make this all worth it.







Works Cited


Elbow, Peter. “Silence: A Collage.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford UP, 2000. 173-82. Print


Hempton, Gordon. “The Poetics of Space Across Latitutdes.” On Being with Krista Tippett. N.p., 25 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.


Sommer, Doris. Proceed With Caution: When Engaged by Minority Writing the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.  


Anne Dalke's picture

I was very moved in reading this essay, actually found myself in tears as it opened, and as I watched you opening yourself in it. Despite (or because of?) this sense of being touched, I’m also feeling a little strange commenting here, as if I am listening in and intruding on a conversation between mother and daughter, or @ least on a stage in that ongoing discussion that I in some ways instigated.

When we discussed your first webevent, on genderless silence, we agreed that you needed to  “figure out what passing means” to you (does it only refer to binary identities?), and also that you might dig a little deeper into Sontag’s notion that silence always “keeps things open”: mightn’t it sometimes (when you are with others, who have binary assumptions) allow for passive acceptance of what is assumed?

You have done both these things here, and more. Celebrating the silence of being alone, which “excuses you from the need to pass or perform”; acknowledging that public silence can allow things to “swiftly come to a close, a passive acceptance of what has been assumed,” and that “not speaking in these moments is a matter of safety,” you also begin to explore what it might mean to “take that silencing and turn it into agency.”

I think the most astonishing moment to me in this essay is your applying Gordon Hempton’s claim that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” to the presentation of a non-gender-conforming identity. You interrupt, thereby, the possibility of passing in a system constructed only to recognize the either/or of male and female.

Still feeling quite tender around all of this, I move (as you and your mother seem so seamlessly to do) back into a more academic mode. You must know Halberstam’s book, Female Masculinity? If not, I think you’ll take pleasure in the long history Halberstam gives to the sort of questions you tackle here.

Searching for other resources -- I recovered both Daniel G. Renfrow’s essay, "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life," Symbolic Interaction, 27, 4:  485-506 and Maria C. Sanchez’s book, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion (NYU Press, 2001) -- I also stumbled across some very pleasing etymological possibilities. “Passing” is the nominalization of the verb “pass,” first used in the phrase “pass for” or “pass as,” as in “a counterfeit passing for the genuine article or an impostor passing as another person.” But to “pass” can also mean to “move by,” to “go past”; it can evoke “elapsing.” And (most profoundly for me just now, in the week after my uncle’s funeral) “passing” also honors “the act of moving toward and beyond.”

Tearing up again.