Addressing the claim that you can always tell who is trans or not, with evidence.
A common argument encountered online when discussing trans rights is “we can always tell”, by this they mean people can always tell if someone is trans or not, and that the idea that trans people ever “pass” is a myth. If you asked any trans person if they thought people could always tell they’d probably just laugh. It’s such a common assertion that it has its own hashtag: #WeCanAlwaysTell where trans people and allies laugh at such claims. If you talked to some Gender Critical or anti-trans campaigners though they might laugh at the idea any trans people ever pass at all. So which is it?
Earlier this year Nikkie de Jager, a 25 year old makeup blogger, was forced to come out as a trans woman to her 12 million YouTube followers. To be clear she wasn’t viewed as a man up to that point, she wasn’t coming out as someone starting a transition to being a woman, she was already known as a woman and had never been publicly known as anything else. She came out to reveal that she had transitioned already when she was younger. Although she says she would have liked to have shared this information one day, the timing of this wasn’t chosen by her because she was being blackmailed.
Lynn Conway is a very influential computer scientist and electrical engineer who transitioned in 1968. She lived her life in “stealth”, which is the common term for a trans person who passes and who has no one in their life that knows they are trans, until 1999 when she learned that an investigative journalist planned to out her, so she too decided to take control and out herself.
Many trans people are not given the chance to take things into their own hands and are outed by the press, often in ultra public and very cruel ways. Caroline Cossey, a Playboy model and Bond Girl who transitioned in 1974, lost everything when she came out and was relentlessly harassed by newspapers across the world. When Tracey Norman was outed in 1980 it ended her career, a very similar story to what had happened to April Ashley, another trans woman, 19 years previously.
Fortunately though in some places things are getting better; when Janet Mock came out in 2011 after five years as an editor at People Magazine she wasn’t fired, but instead chose to leave to pursue a book deal. When Zeke Smith was outed in a game show with the intent suggesting he was being “deceptive” by being stealth — a common harmful stereotype about trans people living their lives — it backfired on the outer.
Many trans people aren’t outed in their lifetimes. Billy Tipton was a trans man who transitioned in 1940. During his life he had five partners who called themselves Mrs Tipton at various points (he never officially married), one of whom he adopted three children with. He wasn’t outed until he died in 1989 and the information “came as a shock to nearly everyone, including the women who had considered themselves his wives, as well as his sons and the musicians who had traveled with him”.
Would you be able to blackmail someone with knowledge of them being trans if everyone could already tell? Would trans people’s careers sink overnight on being outed if everyone was already aware? Would it be international news when someone was outed if everyone already knew? Would your own children be shocked to learn you were trans on your death? Would coming out and outing even be a thing? No.
Public Awareness and Laws
One of the most perplexing things about the claim that everyone can always tell is that people not being able to tell has been a pop culture meme for as long as I’ve been alive. Probably one of the most enduring (and disgusting) stereotypes about trans people is them tricking innocent cis people into being attracted to them by being “convincing”. This trope was famously seen in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), Trainspotting (1991), The IT Crowd (2008) and many others.
The general public has been aware of the idea of trans people passing for a while. Which explains why around the world there are laws in place that specifically exist because some trans people pass. For example, in many states in the USA Trans Panic is a legal defence that says it isn’t murder if you kill a trans person you had sex with without realising they were trans. In the UK it can be illegal to sleep with someone without revealing your trans medical history first. Hungary recently introduced a law that requires ID cards, which are used a lot there, to indicate that someone is trans on them. Russia has recently proposed something similar.
In the 1960s women athletes wanting to compete at the Olympics had to parade naked in front of physicians to “verify the presence of female genitalia and other sex characteristics”. As well as being invasive and undignified, gender testing does not work.
Why would we need laws to address the cases when trans people do pass if they never do? If Gender Critical people are so confident that they can always tell would they be ok with all of these laws being done away with? Usually the answer is no.
Outing Cis People As Trans?
It isn’t just that trans people often pass, sometimes cis people are read as trans people. From places that have tried to implement bathroom bills, like North Carolina, there are countless reports of cis women being kicked out of public facilities for being read as trans, and this has even gone as far as a cis woman grandmother being sent to a men’s prison.
One common response when it’s pointed out that you can’t always tell is “well we can tell 99% of the time”, or some other high percentage pulled out of nowhere. This is a clear overestimate of how often someone can tell, but let’s charitably assume that that number is true for a moment and do some maths. If you could tell who was trans or not 99% of the time, that would still lead to nearly two thirds of the people you read as trans actually being cis.
You may look at some of these photos of trans people, or trans people in your life, and think “yeah I can see it”. Whilst in some cases that might be true, there is also a common psychological effect at work here. The reality is that everyone has a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics, and if you are looking for them you can usually find one. Try it next time you’re watching TV; point at a random person and confidently announce that you know they’re trans and watch your friends say they can see it. A lot of how you perceive other people’s sex is dependant on your own internal view of them. It is actually very common for cis women celebrities to be accused of being a man for certain “masculine features”, as this Twitter thread documents.
There is even a growing conspiracy theory movement that is fueled entirely by this called “transvestigation”, which proposes most world leaders and celebrities are trans for… reasons. There are transvestigation videos for everyone from Michelle Obama to Jason Momoa which usually just involve zooming in on certain features and declaring them “too male” or “too female” to be cis. There was even a (now deleted) one for Alex Jones, the king of conspiracy theories himself, saying that he is a trans man.
Why Is This Important?
The core argument that Gender Critical and anti-trans people are trying to make is “trans women are men”. They are saying this to justify taking away the women’s rights that trans women have today. If they concede that trans people can pass completely then that makes it a lot harder to argue. If some trans women pass then that would mean they face all the same misogynistic sexism and sexual violence that cis women face, even things like not being hired because they are recently married and of childbearing age. It would mean that they are attractive to straight men and lesbian women. It would mean that they are women to everyone in their lives — friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc — in every single sense. And that is the case!
Passing is itself a complicated topic. It is subjective; whilst many people pass all the time, for many that is not the case. Sometimes you pass to one person and not another, sometimes you pass one day and not the next, sometimes you pass face to face but not on the phone or vice versa. Social expectations of gender presentation are also a factor — as we saw above most of the cis women targeted by transphobia were either lesbians and/or “gender non-conforming”. Many trans people report wearing makeup or dresses or something else traditionally coded as “something for women” just so that they pass better and face less harassment and transphobia. No one’s rights should be gated off on something so subjective and performative, and doing so would create extra pressure for women, both cis and trans, to conform to sexist societal stereotypes. Even if there was a problem with trans women using women’s spaces as they do today, which there demonstrably isn’t, bathroom bills and similar laws would still cause more harm to cis women than any supposed safety benefit they might hypothetically gain. The Trump administration just proposed a rule that would allow shelters to determine if someone was a woman based on their height or how “masculine” their features are, something which will inevitably see some of the most vulnerable women put in further danger. Policing womanhood on “passability” necessarily contributes to sexist pressures on women and puts them, cis and trans, at risk for no reason.
Many trans people across the world are in a unique position where they cannot speak up about their own rights without outing themselves. You might know a trans person without realising it, and they may be living in fear about the current backlash against trans rights and trans people, and it is important to be aware of that. I think most of the stealth trans people I know have had to endure a conversation about whether trans people deserve basic rights, right in front of them, by a load of uninformed cis people, and without feeling like they can even speak up.
In conclusion there is far too much evidence throughout history and today for the claim “we can always tell” to not be classed as demonstrably false. Whilst sometimes this claim can be funny, it is often dangerous, and although it is mainly perpetuated by ignorance, it is so widespread that it is causing real harm to people, mainly women, today.
We can always tell: FALSE