Writing about the life of a transgender person isn’t all about the dysphoria we experience, nor is it all about the hate we face just living our lives. A lot of it is just the mundane, little ways we enhance our appearance in order to be perceived properly when we’re out and about. I touched on passing tools briefly in my Starting Questions post at the beginning of this blog, and now I’m going to go a bit more in depth. This isn’t a how-to guide on passing, it’s a guide for character development and world-building with transgender lives in mind. It’s here to help you learn how to write about all kinds of trans people–whether you’re cisgender and don’t have any experience, or if you identify as some kind of trans and don’t know about other identities. At the end of the day, if you want to write about trans people well, you need to know about what we use to ensure others perceive us as who we are.
Let’s start off with binding: a method of pushing out of the way, compressing, and generally obscuring breasts. It’s done generally with a special top made of a stiff fabric that either uses a zipper or velcro to close. The wearer (trans masc or nonbinary usually, but not always) pushes their breasts out towards their armpits as they close the binder tight. In my case, with my C-cups back in the day, it ended up looking like I was either semi-flat-chested or like I had some gnarly pecks, but with larger boobs, it’s harder to flatten your chest. You also still get terrible boob-sweat and you can see a the bottom of the binder sticking out a bit from underneath some shirts. The only major problem is that they’re literally meant to compress your chest, which means they’re both restrictive and not something you should wear all the time. It can even be dangerous if you don’t take breaks (if you want to know more, check out this infographic by a comic series on Tumblr called Pink, White, and Blue). When I would drive home after school, I would pop open the velcro under my shirt so I could breathe without worrying about chest pains. You can also switch them out for one or two sports bras, which doesn’t work as well, but at least you can do physical activity without feeling like you’re gonna pass out. You might ask, “What about bandages?” Look, I know Mulan did it, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. The problem is that with bandaging–especially with Ace bandages–they constrict the more you move around in them. That’s like wrapping a big snake around your chest: you can do it for a couple minutes, but after that, you’re gonna be facing some big problems.
That’s all well and good for realistic fiction writers, but what about my speculative fiction friends? The possibilities are endless! Look at the problems in the technology we have and try to find a solution. Maybe someone in your world figured out how to make bandages that wouldn’t constrict–a fabric that doesn’t have a lot of friction so it doesn’t stay locked in place. Or maybe they found a breathable fabric that is just as tight as what’s used in binders. Or maybe you have some kind of illusory magic or tech that obscures the breasts of people, regardless of their size.
Now, this is an important thing: if your world is anything like our own, and transphobia exists, then you need to take that into account when creating new passing tools. Binding, like most trans things, was not initially created for trans people. I mentioned the corset earlier, remember? It’s not just that, either: under the traditional kimono, the chest was bound with a thick cloth to make women appear thinner. Binding was adapted from cis usage by trans people to serve our needs. If you’re creating new tech or magic to help someone pass, think about what it was used for initially.
There are similar methods to binding for penises and testes, called tucking. Now this, I can say confidently, is not something I have firsthand experience in, considering I don’t have the necessary parts for it. The gist, though, is that you press the testes and penis back and use either sports tape or a gaff (which looks like a weird thong) to hold them between your thighs and/or ass cheeks. If you want a more detailed explanation, I would suggest checking out this Buzzfeed article. Like binding, it comes with some problems. Tape, for instance, can cause irritation to the skin, and tucking in general can cause chafing. Even when tucked with tape and a gaff, the sensitive bits may need to be adjusted. It also makes it so you can’t go to the bathroom without untucking, so wearers may just try to hold it, which can be dangerous. Delayed urination can cause dehydration, UTIs, bladder damage, and even kidney damage. The last two are uncommon because usually you can’t hold it in long enough to cause those kinds of issues.
This is a good time to talk about how these tools can be written poorly. I think most trans people are aware by now of the transphobia in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). There’s a scene where a woman’s transness is revealed by showing a bulge between her thighs under her clothing–she was tucking. It’s a moment of the “She’s a Dude!” transphobic trope that is all too common in media. If you’re intending to write with trans characters, please don’t do shit like this. Don’t use someone’s transness and their passing as a plot device or as a comedic encounter. Passing isn’t deceit and it isn’t funny. It just is. When you’re writing about trans lives, consider the impact of what you’re saying. Imagine a trans person is reading it–would they feel uncomfortable? If you’re not sure, get a transgender bias reader.
While binding and tucking are about taking away from things that can give dysphoria, packing and padding are tools for adding what affirms you. There are specialized pads and packers for breasts, butts, and crotches, but you can make your own by using tissues or a well-placed pair of socks. This is a really good example of something used by trans people that is also often a tool used by cisgender people to enhance their features. I used a packer/harness combo daily for a while before I had top surgery, even though any semblance of a bulge wasn’t obvious. It chafed and rode up whenever I sad down or went to the restroom, but it still helped me feel better about my body. So in writing your characters, consider the benefits and pitfalls of an item for each specific person. Not everyone is going to feel the same way, and they may change their minds later on. Nowadays, I only pull out my packer for special occasions.
A variant for a packer is known as an STP device, which stands for “Stand-to-pee”. I’m sure if you’ve read any article about trans people, you know that bathrooms are an important and dangerous space for us. For trans people wanting to use the men’s room, it can be particularly difficult, since it’s nigh impossible to stand while peeing without getting it all over your pants if you have a vagina. Personally, I’ve never used one, but I can completely understand why someone would. The anxiety I have felt going into men’s restrooms is overwhelming. I overthought every single thing I did in there–I remember one time, I waited in a stall while some guys came in and pretended to have constipation until they left. I was so scared that I wouldn’t pass well enough and one of them would find some problem with it; that they might get violent. I would even sometimes avoid using the bathroom and wait until I got home, even though I knew that holding it in could cause serious medical problems. STPs help people safely use the restroom without calling attention to themselves. In truth, all methods of passing are a way of keeping ourselves safe from violent transphobes, even if we don’t think about it all the time.
For speculative fiction writers, if you have a species that has strict gender norms that differ from our own, consider what would get someone clocked as transgender and what the consequences would be for people knowing. Then, think about it from the perspective of a trans person who’s afraid of that outcome; it’ll help you figure out some other passing tools that your characters might use.
There are all sorts of uses for makeup and shaving (both for the face and the body) that can be effective when trying to pass. Leg hair is a really straightforward one, but shaving your legs can be a real hassle. If you’ve never shaved them before and want to write a character who does, I dare you to try to shave your legs, just to learn how long it takes. Shaving both facial hair and peach fuzz have different effects. Obviously, shaving full facial hair gives you a smoother look, and with some makeup, you can get rid of the shadow there, making you look more feminine. Peach fuzz, however, inevitably makes you look like you’re either a child or a girl, so shaving that can be really helpful if you can’t grow any facial hair. Painting your nails and doing both facial and body contouring can send major signals via secondary sex characteristics to people about what category to place you in. Makeup can cause a lot of acne, though, which is particularly a problem for people who are on HRT, because zits will act up a lot more when you have more hormones in your body. If your character’s skin is sensitive, like mine, they may not wear makeup at all. There are other ways to pass, anyway, like having certain hair styles (a short feminine haircut is different from a short masculine one, as I unfortunately learned as a high schooler). Even just putting a certain kind of hat on can dramatically change how people perceive you.
Now that I’ve gone on for a while (another long post–seems like this is gonna be a theme), it’s time to wrap this up. These passing tools are important for so many reasons, and it is for that very reason that many trans people use them. Not everyone uses the same things or uses them for the same reasons. They might try them because they want to improve their general perception, their safety, or their own sense of affirmation. Writing about these in realistic fiction is all about showing them as the normal items they are, rather than as a plot device. There are also a ton of options in sci-fi & fantasy, you just have to get creative! Generally, just think about these items from the perspective of someone who uses them regularly, whether they be a normal person, a wizard, or an astronaut.