Very early on in my transition, I figured out the stages of a conventional gender transition. You go from being an egg (someone that's in their shell and hasn't accepted that they are trans) to being cis-passing, where you blend in so well in the world as your true gender that people around have no idea that you are transgender. Cis-passing comes with many benefits - lesser discrimination, safety, and finally, more romantic opportunities, especially with men. It feels like the trophy at the end of a well-executed transition, but it can be argued that passing is a harmful concept as it reinforces the idea of cisnormativity. It doesn't even make sense in case of non-binary transgender people, and causes a lot of mental distress to the rest of us. I have had a love/hate relationship with this idea and my views have evolved over the years as I have progressed through different stages of my transition.
Cis-passing is a lot of work, and often, a lot of money
To be able to pass, people have to read you as your true gender. Human beings have plenty of secondary sex characteristics that signal your gender. An adam's apple in case of men, or a higher pitched voice in the case of women are good examples. Cis-passing seems easier for trans men as testosterone helps them grow a beard, and lowers the pitch of their voice. It is harder, and more expensive for transgender women because of body, and facial hair, and lack of any effect of Hormone replacement therapy on our voices.
To be able to pass, trans women like me who transition after their male puberty need to put in a lot more effort (and often, money) into changing our mannerisms, voice, and appearance. A lot of us also opt for surgeries to alter our appearance. The decision to surgically alter our appearance is a difficult one to make. On one hand, there are the benefits of passing, and on the other hand, there is resentment for giving into these ideals, and not standing up against them. Not fighting to change the world. There is the internal struggle, and there is the external one. And there is a choice to be made - to make your life easier or to stand up and educate and change the world. In my case, I picked the easier way out to blend in a bit more. However, I still feel like a cop-out.
When I started my transition, I didn't care about passing
When I started my transition, I was so tired of my mood swings and anxiety that all I wanted was a relief from that. I didn't really understand the concept of passing and I certainly didn't desire it. Also, growing up in India, I had a lot of internalized transphobia and didn't think that I'd be treated as an equal in the society anyway. A lot of my male friends reenforced that idea in my head by how they acted, and what they had to say about women (more specifically trans women). During this phase I was always in awe with trans women that passed but assumed it was beyond me. That I didn't care for it anyway and so there was no point investing time and energy into it. I wanted to find mental peace and get back to being professionally ambitious again! Time spent in transition felt like a distraction at that point.
But slowly it got harder to ignore, and to not desire
However, as I made progress with my transition, and understood and accepted my own femininity, I craved being read, and treated like a woman. My desire to pass grew substantially after my sex reassignment surgery. And so did my sense of misery, and self hatred, for not being able to pass. At the time, I was living in Colombia, a beautiful country but with very high standards for feminine beauty. Naturally, I got misgendered a lot and each time it happened, I felt terrible and blamed myself for it. The fact that I had already had a nose job a few months ago and still didn't pass made me feel even more stupid. There was a lot of self loathing and a lot of resentment for the world.
Eventually, I could pass! Almost ...
Shortly after my SRS, I moved to Barcelona, Spain and life got a bit better. Barcelona being a more cosmopolitan environment, I was gendered correctly more often, and sometimes people even told me that they didn't realize that I was transgender. I had some romantic encounters and understood just how different people treat you when they assume that you are cis-gender. It's as if they see you, and want to engage with you! You are not just an intellectual curiosity for them. You are allowed to play in the world, and not just observe.
Naturally, this made it even harder when I was misgendered, which was still, a lot. Apart from misgendering, I was still struggling myself with what I saw in the mirror. I saw too much of my old self, and the men in my family. I tried to shake it off but it refused to go away. I finally decided to undergo some more facial surgery and work on feminizing my voice. The possible suffering from these changes felt far lesser than the suffering I was experiencing each day, and had experienced for years.
After two more rounds of facial surgery, and months of work on the voice (and hundreds of dollars in voice coaching), starting mid 2019, I could finally pass. Not all the time, but a lot more than before. I started to be read female by cis hetrosexual men and was even asked out by some of them. These men tend to be the straightest, most conservative, and judgmental of the lot. Their approval meant a lot to me, in much the same way that being on Techcrunch does wonders for a startup's morale but ultimately doesn't mean much more. However, once I would mention to them that I am transgender, things would quickly revert back to the old days. They'd suddenly find me unworthy of their privilege and I'd never hear back from them again.
And finally, I understand that it doesn't matter
And now that I can pass, I feel a constant pressure to not fail in a game where failure is inevitable. It took me a long time to see the truth - passing doesn't matter. Atleast, not if you are not worried about physical safety. Sure, you get treated a little bit nicer, and you may get some more romantic interest but it all comes crumbling down once people know that you are transgender. Now, I get a lot more awe from people on how good I look, or how they can't tell that I am transgender. But it makes me cringe at how society is ready to accept transgender people if we blend in, and act like them. If we don't make them uncomfortable with our presence. Finally, I understood that no matter how much you pass, you will always fail because the entire concept is rigged and exclusionary. Cis-passing is a big deal because cis-men are a big deal in the world, and they impose absurd standards of femininity on women.
The biggest benefit of passing is being gendered correctly. Misgendering triggers a wave of doubt and self hatred that would sometimes claim my whole day, or a whole week. I am now able spend a lot more of my time worrying about other problems instead. Misgendering is seated in transphobia, and a lack of education about how diverse gender is. It should not be necessary to pass to be gendered correctly and I hope that someday we live in a world where that is the reality. I salute all transgender and gender non-confirming people who refuse to blend in, and instead educate people to respect self identification. It takes a huge toll on their emotional and physical well being.