The Problem of “Passing Privilege”

By Kat Kline (Community Outreach, GED, & Cultural Intern)

First, a necessary disclaimer: I am writing from my own experiences as a pansexual, nonbinary transgender, assigned female at birth, mentally ill, and invisibly disabled 25 year-old. This article is not an attempt to deny the existence of my unearned privileges as a thin, economically secure, “conventionally pretty” white person. If I offend you, it is not intentional. Consider this a general content warning — while I do not want to trigger anyone, I firmly agree with early 1900s muckraker, F. P. Dunne, who wrote in 1902 that stories should “comfort the afflicted… [and] afflict the comfortable” (Dunne & Filler, 1954). This is my story, and this piece is no exception to that school of thought.

Above, I explicitly listed some of my identities, but in person, the marginalized aspects of my life are not nearly as ostentatious. In most social interactions, I ‘pass’ as an able-bodied neurotypical cisgender female undergraduate student. My hair is short enough that I am occasionally assumed to be some flavor of “not straight”, but, most days, I pass a very privileged woman. While this mien offers the advantage of being less of a target for harassment and discrimination, it is shallow and problematic to call my appearance “passing privilege”; most of the time, passing for that which you are not, and likely never will be is problematic and results in erasure, exclusion, invalidation, and, occasionally, retaliation upon discovery that I am not what I seem (Ritchie, 2016; Sue, Rasheed, & Rasheed, 2016).

One of the most common verbal microaggressions heard by people who are mentally ill, invisibly physically ill/disabled, LGBQ, nonbinary gender, and/or transgender largely is “you’re not [insert identity here]; you’re just confused, lazy, overly sensitive, scared to admit that you are [insert incorrect identity here], and/or looking for attention”, sometimes accompanied by assertions that aspects of your identity are “not a real gender/illness/disability/thing” (Ritchie, 2016; Rood, et al., 2016; Sue, et al., 2016). Imagine being a member of all of these marginalized groups at once, and being gaslighted about the majority of your lived experiences every single day. Furthermore, consider that within the LGBTQIA+ community, there is consistent erasure of the B, T, I, and A (Ritchie, 2016; Rood, et al., 2016; Sue, Rasheed, & Rasheed, 2016). Factor in the way that society as a whole routinely ignores the existence of people who are disabled and/or ill without obvious visible symptoms, and regardless of the reason for it, most paperwork that I fill out fails to acknowledge any identity beyond the cisgender binary (Sue, et al., 2016). Every day that I leave the house, I experience frequent misgendering, assumptions about my capabilities and anatomy (or lack thereof), and vocal denial of my lived experiences (Sue, et al., 2016). Even if there is no intentional bigotry, there is still a constant burdensome need to either educate people about my conditions and pronouns to avoid mental and physical pain, suffer in civil silence with a smile plastered on my face, or risk nudging people into a defensive mindset that favors victim-blaming (Spinola, 2016; Sue, et al., 2016).

Even if I lived in cloistered solitude, illnesses do not play nicely with each other; my ability to take medication is limited by the high potential for interactions between pills, as well as between side effects and my library of chronic conditions. Here’s an anecdotal example: I cannot go on HRT to become more masculine-looking and decrease my gender dysphoria without risk of worsening my chronic severe migraines, but my periods adversely influence my level of gender dysphoria, neurological, and IBS-related symptoms. Hormonal birth control exacerbates PTSD and GERD symptoms while causing weight gain, and hysterectomies before age 30 are not covered by my insurance. Additionally, if any single illness flares up, it tends to set off the other conditions… and a flare can be triggered by stress, changes in weather, irregular sleep, low blood sugar, anxiety, blood pressure changes, muscle tension, fatigue, or even just eating a bite of one of over 30 problem foods (Spinola, 2016). There is literally no way to be entirely free of pain and symptoms for longer than an hour or so without being unconscious. The worst part, though, is that almost nobody will be cognizant that your struggles, and nearly everyone will react poorly when you are cranky as a result of expending all your energy trying to be ‘normal’ while constantly invalidated, in pain, and being told that you are too privileged to feel upset (Spinola, 2016; Sue, et al., 2016). If this sounds like a giant intersectional catch-22, that’s because it is — but it’s also my life. Despite society’s many insinuations that LGBTQIA, mentally ill, and disabled people would be better off dead (Sue, et al., 2016), I’m still here… and if Center on Halsted is willing to help me, I’d like to ensure that more of my kind can say the same.


Dunne, F. P., & Filler, L. (1954). Mr. Dooley: Now and forever. Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints.

Ritchie, R. (2016, July 3). Think bisexual people have straight passing privilege? Here’s why you’re mistaken. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved on May 23, 2017, from

Rood, B. A., Reisner S. L., Surace, F. I., Puckett J. A., Maroney M. R., and Pantalone, D. W. (2016). Expecting rejection: Understanding the minority stress experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. Transgender Health, 1(1), 151–164.

Spinola, K. (2016, May 13). Six challenges healthy people may not realize are caused by chronic pain. The Mighty. Retrieved on May 23, 2017, from

Sue, D. W., Rasheed, M. N., & Rasheed, J. M. (2016). Multicultural social work practice: A competency-based approach to diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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