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‘Passing’ is a phrase commonly used in the trans community when someone looks cisgender (meaning whatever gender you are now is the same as what was presumed for you at birth). It was also originally used by people of colour and has been adopted in many different communities. I’m not trans, I'm cis. I’m also male. I am, however, trying to pass, in my own special way, as a healthy person. I hope the trans community will permit me to borrow this term. Anyway, I believe in solidarity between all marginalised groups, as I think the chronically ill should be considered. 

And all writing is theft. I can’t physically steal, since I use a walking stick and I fall over when I attempt to run, so consider this an example of benign shoplifting. 

Passing as a thief.

On a good day, or on a particularly bad one where the radio static in my head is overwhelming and I forget basic necessities, I leave the house without my stick. On a good day, my feet are candyfloss light and my legs two iron pillars, carving out a path through the heavy air. The pressure on my calf muscles is pleasant, pleasurable even, sending proud dopamine shots throughout my damaged internal communications system. 

On my bicycle, since a good day is almost always made better by a bike ride, I marvel at the feat of engineering that is the human body, mechanised and optimised in order to assume full forward propulsion. The uneasy vertigo of adopting a saddle-high position is neutralised by motion: advance, avanti, ahead lies hopes, dreams, the future! The past is indeed another country, to be jettisoned! You are an immigrant in the liminal purgatory of the present, optimistically heading to a new world where you will acquaint yourself with your new ambitions.

So, there you have it. On a good day, I pass. No one notices I am crooked, misshapen, my right eye stains my face, my lip quivers unstably and uncomfortably, my turning space is an algebra problem: circumference, Pi, protractors... 

“¿Está un poco borracho el guiri?” ("Is the Englishman a little bit drunk?")

Where are those good days? What happened to them? Whither the rosed memory, the nostalgia, the subtle deceit inherent in the recollection of past achievement? And what of the complex interplay - the tango - between an autoimmune condition and ageing? In reality, isn’t life a degenerative illness? The extent of the ambition of the medical professionals managing my MS is that I stave off its advance into old age, by which point, the implicit logic is that my body will be worn out and decrepit anyway. 

Passing, but as an old man.


The common conception of passing refers to the typical public throughfares and avenues in which one is compelled to interact with strangers: the pavement, the bus, the shop. I, however, have noted that the need to pass becomes all the more acute when attempting to respect common social codes with friends, acquaintances, friends of friends. Playing sport and drinking socially are seemingly near universal in their appeal to men in their thirties around here, yet these are activities I struggle with. 

Passing, but as a fat bastard.

The other week I found myself at a typically sevillano gathering: tables full of locally grown wine and imported spirits. The patio bubbled with groups of adults, sunkissed and alcohol-fuelled. Bowls of olives slowly desiccated around us, a natural, biological exemplar I unconsciously - naturally, biologically - adhered to with my consumption patterns. Wine – white and red – followed by sherry, and then whisky, all careless, internal dehydrating agents. After a few hours, much in the manner of the wintry chill gradually wresting the sun back across the paving stones, a tide of fog swept across my cognition. I was soon in a stupor, unable to execute even the most basic motor function. Far from drinking myself into a merry artifice of repartee, I had regressed myself back into a Neanderthalic vegetable, slumped on a chair, borderline comatose, struggling to pronounce myself. Under the stress of alcoholic toxins, my nervous system had decided to shut up shop for the day. This was not drunkenness, but rather, illness. 

Passing, but as a paralytic. 

I had to be hauled by the party host and my partner across the dancefloor, eyes burning into my cerebellum almost as intensely as the deep hum of a premature hangover. 

“¿Está un poco borracho el guiri?” ("Is the Englishman a little bit drunk?")

The following week, the host – obviously, a student of mine – met me for ritual caffeination (almost as toxic and bad for motor functions as alcohol, but nonetheless, socially acceptable, and even a marker of sophistication). He paid for the cortado. The lecture on responsible drinking was free. Five or ten years older than me, married with children, and in a comfortable, middle management position, his conclusion – while not explicitly stated, apparent in his condescending microaggressions - was that I was to be pitied, if not saved. He hardly ever drinks. Maybe when he is at home, with his family: 

A beer. Or two. A couple of whiskies from the – how do you say? Mueble? – Liquor cabinet. Which has a key, of course. Do you go to the gym? It’d be good for you. Swimming and cycling is OK, but you need to work on your core strength. And why don’t you open your own language school?


Passing, but as a beta male. 

Or worse. Count your blessings that knowing the Greek alphabet is not considered alpha behaviour. What is, however, is staying fit and healthy, always ready to put your body to the test. Think of the wolfpack. As they used to say to me in the rainforest:

“En guerra, tú mueres…”  (You'd die in a war)

Am I actually passing though? I am failing at being a male. MS has turned me not only into a cuck (my girlfriend is surely available, really, right guys?), but I’m also highly emotional. Tears threaten, when I become just too aware of everything, when I hear any one of a thousand songs, if the sun is bright, if the nostalgia means I struggle to breathe, or if I go through a day without intrusive thoughts. 

I am also now apparently bisexual (in theory anyway).  Even that feels somehow false, since I am in a loving, monogamous, heterosexual relationship with the most amazing person I’ve ever met of any gender, without whom life is unimaginable and a desert of cold.

Passing for a straight man.

Upon reflection, passing is more a question of aligning oneself with masculinity than anything else. As a male in my late thirties, I should be married with children, able to kick a football without falling over (I wake up in cold sweats remembering the several times a group of kickabouting teens required the return of their ball), hold my drink, not to mention hold a decent job (I’m perennially underemployed and unmotivated). I should be standing next to the barbecue in a chequered shirt, nursing a bottle, cradling a child’s head close to my hip, making sure everyone has a drink.  I should be up at 8am, in a clean pair of jeans, ready to optimise the weekend.

What the fuck do I have? If I do anything social, I’m tired (but not sleepy) the next day, or potentially the day after (sometimes the adrenaline lingers for 24 hours, giving me the delayed reverse gratification of a midweek hangover). Passing is exhausting. It requires all of my energy to walk in a straight line, to lift my fingers to type, even to chew food. Every action has to be risk-assessed, cost-benefit-analysed. A lot of things just aren’t worth it. Sometimes breathing seems like a hassle.

My work is patchy, incomplete. I spend a lot of time, filled with the curious mix of ennui and stimulation of over-exposure to screens, awaiting phone calls for which I charge by the second. I have a Master’s and I can speak three languages, but I am forgetful and I get easily confused, belying my CV’s attempt to depict me as someone who has “an attention to detail”.

Passing for an efficient worker. 

This world is inaccessible. Not just for me on a bad day, when I am out of spoons, when I am unable to pass. Not just for the trans community, who often have to invest all of their energy in matching their chosen gender identity in the eyes of others. Not just for people of colour, or LGBT, or women, or refugees.

I find myself asking: who does this world actually work for? Why are we all attempting to pass and for whom? 

Yellow ribbon

About the author


37, Spain, Relapsing Remitting, diagnosed September 2018