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The politics of 'passing' (Southern Voice)

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The politics of 'passing'

Is there anything wrong with letting people think you?re straight?


May. 18, 2007

Whether by the braided Mohawk atop his head, the soft features on his cleanshaven face or his tendency to wear form-fitting jeans and T-shirts, Avery Sparks believes it?s not too difficult for most people to look at him and tell he?s gay.

?I don?t think I hardly ever pass for straight,? said a laughing Sparks, a 21-year-old who lives in Southwest Atlanta.

?People give me looks all the time, and I know why they?re looking, but oh well.?

Michael Young, 20, is also used to occasional stares from neighbors and passers-by, but he is more confident in his ability to be ?unclockable? than his best friend Sparks.

?I don?t feel like I scream ?gay,?? Young said. ?Most of the time, unless I?m going out or specifically trying dress a little showy, people aren?t going to look at me and think first that I?m gay.

?When we?re around our house or in certain areas,? Young continued, ?I usually try to be unclockable, just

to avoid drama.?

Sparks agreed that comments about his appearance are sometimes both irritating and intimidating.

?You want to be who you really are, but you don?t want to get beat up for that,? Sparks said.


The practice of ?passing? has long been a way for some members of an underprivileged or oppressed group to escape the consequences of belonging to that group, while benefiting from being perceived as belonging to the privileged group.

The most noted passing phenomenon in America?s history was the decision by some light-skinned blacks to pass as white in order to avoid the repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow. But some also used their passing ability to ferry others out of slavery by posing as their owners.

?Passing? used to be a popular term to describe gay men and lesbians who kept their sexual orientation secret, until the Stonewall Riots era ushered in a new term known as ?the closet,? said Cheryl Clarke, director of the Office of Social Justice Education & LGBT Communities at Rutgers University. The closet has long been portrayed as hell-on-earth by the gay rights movement, but many gay men and lesbians have a more tolerant view of their fellow queers who pass as straight, Clarke said.

?We have a more nuanced response to passing than we did 25-30 years ago,? said Clarke, who characterized passing as ?conscious effort to de-emphasize the queer identity.?

?I think as a community we are a little more forgiving of people and their need to pass,? Clarke added. ?There are some times when passing might be healthy. It depends on the context of the situation, and it depends on what is at stake.?

The ability to pass is often ?the ultimate goal? for transgender individuals hoping to avoid social and economic hardships, said Tracee McDaniel, executive director of the Juxtaposed Center for Transformation, a transgender advocacy group in Atlanta.

?To me, passing is sort of like a means to survival ? sometimes it?s just easier to blend in than expressing who you truly are,? said McDaniel, who lived for decades passing as a woman before coming out as transgender a few years ago.

?In a lot of cases, it may be detrimental to our physical well being if we?re openly expressing who we are because everyone is not accepting,? McDaniel said. ?I have to be honest, I am happy I can go through life and not have some of the blatant discrimination that some of my transgender brothers and sisters do.?

Passing is an often-employed shield among black gay and transgender individuals, Clarke said.

?Lots of time we?re still beholden to black respectability and it?s not respectable to be a homosexual or queer in a lot of middle-class settings,? Clarke said.?We have a double-bind, and may have a need to pass that is more urgent than it is in other communities.?

Whereas the closet is usually reserved for people uneasy about their sexual orientation or gender identity, Clarke said virtually all gay men and lesbians pass in some parts of their life.

?I consider it to be a political responsibility to be out, but I don?t go into situations announcing it any more like I used to, and I don?t come out in situations when I feel it won?t be helping whatever my agenda is,? she said.

And an increasing amount of passing involves not so much gay men and lesbians themselves, but those who are observing them, said Mattilda, author of ?Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender & Conformity.? There are well-adjusted gay men who happen to be masculine, as well as feminine lesbians who most people will perceive as heterosexual; rather than passing, these types of gay people have an opportunity to challenge the sexual and gender norms that box people into categories, and thus make passing an issue,Mattilda said.

?I love the incredible, liberatory potential of the femme identity to undo the idea that the femme identity is compulsory,? said Mattilda, who is transgender and is also known as Matt Bernstein Sycamore.


While passing may offer gay and transgender people some shelter from a hostile society, ?the kind of suppression that it sometimes entails can be more violent than the act of not passing,? Mattilda said.

Passing ? which Mattilda defines as ?following the correct standards of behavior in order to be accepted as a legitimate member of an identified category? ? has a harmful impact both on those who are trying to pass, and members of the group they are attempting to flee,Mattilda said.

?I think what it does is marginalize every one that doesn?t pass. When someone passes, generally someone else is failing,? Mattilda said. ?I?m most inspired by people who either can?t pass or choose not to pass. I believe in celebrating the margins.?

McDaniel senses a similar discomfort between transgender individuals who cannot pass and those they see taking advantage of heterosexual privilege.

?There are some people who feel like this person is able to go through life without the discrimination and possible physical abuse, so I think there does exist some tension,? said McDaniel,who realized about five years ago that acknowledging she was transgender was essential for her self-acceptance, and her fight for equal rights.

?If I can?t express who I am, how am I going to expect someone else to accept me as a transgender, gender-variant individual,? McDaniel said. ?Passing is a form of remaining in the closet.?

It?s not just queer individuals who are attempting to ?pass,? said Mattilda, as the mainstream gay rights movement is currently concentrated on attaining ?the ultimate signs of great conformity? ? namely marriage and military service.

In an attempt to present themselves as clean-cut, hardworking, family-minded, patriotic Americans, gay leaders have whitewashed longtime aspects of gay life ? from flamboyantly queer folks, to gay cruisers and sex clubs, to gay men living with HIV/AIDS, Mattilda said.

?A lot of what passing is about is invisibility, and the gay elite wants to erase that history, or make it invisible,? Mattilda said. ?If we weren?t always required to pass, what sort of opportunities might we be able to create??


Gay and transgender individuals passing could be one of the factors slowing the success of the gay rights movement, as countless studies have shown that Americans are more willing to support gay rights if they know a gay individual, said Terri Phoenix, Safe Zone coordinator at the LGBT Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But deciding whether to pass ?is not an either/or issue,? meaning only the individual can decide if and when it is appropriate to conceal his or her sexual orientation, Phoenix said.

?I think the strategic non-disclosure is a different thing than someone not being out in general,? Phoenix said. ?Each person makes decisions based on their knowledge of the situation and knowledge of the context.?

Still, ?allowing people to assume you?re heterosexual,? can cause personal problems for gay men and lesbians, she said.

?If someone is not heterosexual, they?re playing a pretend game. If you?re pretending to be something you?re not, that is going to have an impact on your self-esteem and your ability to be authentic,? Phoenix said. ?It can be very isolating.?

Clarke of Rutgers University agreed that a life of passing won?t likely be fulfilling, and offered blunt advice to gay and transgender individuals who have a long-term habit of passing.

?If you want heterosexual privilege, you should be heterosexual,? she said.


? 2007 The Southern Voice | A Window Media Publication

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