Passing and Self-Identification: Managing the Power and Visibility of the Closet

I remember the first time it happened. Diffused lighting on beige walls, windows covered by black patterned fabric, everything in my room was low: mattress on the ground, coffee table for a desk, books spread along the floor in irregular stacks. His head was in my lap, my fingers going through his hair, both of us quiet as we listened to my roommate, my best friend, come home and eventually go to her room. When it seemed like she was settled, he would resume telling me his problems: he was straight, sure of it, and wanted to be true to himself, but how would the world understand? He cried, and I listened. I was struck by the irony of it, a man who passes as straight, perceives himself as straight, yet struggling with the implied queerness of intimacy with me, visibly queer and receiving daily abuses, including the one resting in my lap with the basic notion that I am degrading his self-image. As this happened more frequently, with multiple men, the only men who, in their view, risked intimacy with me, I realized this was something that would always be a part of my life, watching men who live in bubbles unable to meet on my level because of perceived social risks of being with me.

When I first read this piece on queer tourism (not to be confused with literal queer tourism), I empathized with the frustration and anger behind much of the sentiment. 100% of my intimacies were with people able to move through spaces without the constant, overt threats that encroach on my life, yet their discomforts often took center stage since they were living a multiplicity of lives, while I, in a really callous phrasing, am living in an expected amount of pain. There is a reason, however, that the article is written as an unpopular opinion by an anonymous writer, predicting it reads as biphobia and essentially dictating how a person should identify. This article upset a lot of people, particularly bisexual women, and only did some of the work to show how self-aware the author was about her effect on others. She needed to vent and nuance lost itself expressing a real frustration. Though the article caused anger and pain, I’m glad it exists because it exposes a pressing contradiction in social justice movements that deserves further discussion.

What is at stake here? This piece reveals a tension between passing, particularly as straight, while taking up space in queer communities. The author describes a line between cashing in on the social cachet that comes with being queer while playing it safe enough to receive the benefits passing as straight provides. Does this actually exist? Yes, though it most often comes out as shaming women instead of addressing how we are all socially conditioned and how that affects marginalized groups of people. What we’re seeing is a real dissonance between centering politics around public self-identification and the material effects of oppression. Action on social media creates a one-to-one connection between identification and oppression, yet passing creates a loophole in this reasoning by showing a murkier picture, that it isn’t essential to present as a minoritized person to suffer and need support from community. Because continued efforts to increase the acceptance of queer identities, and underlining the fluidity of such, are working, we are seeing queerness normalizing, or at least, the LBGT is becoming normal. Advocates like to proselytize with spectrum imagery of sexuality like the Kinsey scale, but it looks like they don’t know what to do with the people who are 1s and 2s, who are effectively not straight, yet, it seems, not queer enough for the benefits that comes with being in a queer community.

Tension with passing isn’t new, and in much of online conversion, it is equated with privilege. Passing in this context means you benefit from people assuming you are on the top part of the hierarchy while being quite the contrary. It’s often used to talk about passing as white or cisgender, but it is also wrapped up in sexuality since LGBT activism took on more of a Harvey Milk influence and stressed coming out and visibility. Now that we’re at a tipping point for queer rights, we have people like the xoJane author who views strategically staying the closet to be an act of cowardice. In my experience, it is frequent pattern that those who are or pass as dominant identities within marginalized communities tend to take up the more space and wield more power, which is why you have queer policing coming into stronger focus lately. What this requires is better conversations on how to handle power and visibility, not necessarily shaming people for being in the closet. It’s another form of oppression olympics, saying people who are visibly queer have it worse than those who remain closeted. Is it worse to receive heat for who you are than to live in secrecy? The contexts we live in make that decision complicated, or even give us surprising answers. For instance, what is the power relationship between an out queer person in a place with anti-discrimination protections telling someone who could lose support they need to come out? We all might perceive different kinds of pain differently, but it’s still pain. I also can’t cut out people from my life who aren’t completely out or unable to face the pain that will come with being out as queer in some way; to do so would rob me of pretty much every chance of intimacy available to me. While my impatience is quick with someone doing anything to avoid what looks to me a papercut when I constantly have my arm broken, I can’t fault them for the impulse to protect themselves, because, yes, any oppression is wrong. I need a praxis that involves these men into my life, because I don’t have a choice, and neither do many other people.

I don’t think many people were ready for the messiness of queerness as a political identity. In effect, most people involved in the LGBT are fighting to be ‘normal,’ to be treated exactly as straight people are and to have those two groups live harmoniously with their owned houses, 2.5 children, and laberdoodle. Yet the pervasive adoption of queerness instead of LGBT is completely at odds with that vision, instead trying to move beyond straight vs gay, where straightness inherently contains queerness by the very virtue of defining them against each other. Heteronormativity is prevalent in LGBT communities, with straight- and cis-passing people being valued as inherently more attractive and sought-after. Queerness can’t hold a straight vs gay paradigm, but it will definitely let you get off to it. And, frankly, queerness isn’t just about who you’re attracted to and how much; am I not queer because my sex life’s track record is with men? Can he not be queer because I identify as a woman? You can see the binary nature of queer policing in the treatment of trans people, who are assumed to have lived as one gender and received all of its privileges and then transitioned into another gender to then suffer oppression, or vice versa. While this is some trans people’s experiences, people like me didn’t always pass as cisgender, and even when I came to identify as non-cis, quickly received debilitating shame from the messages society gave me about who I was. It isn’t clear cut in my having x amount of privileges and then losing them, where x is the privileges all men have. This conflict implies we need to move beyond public self-identification as a method of determining who is and isn’t worth advocating for and move to addressing material problems brought on by oppression.

Having the ability to speak of our experiences without being forced to represent groups of people goes both ways. Not only can this fight tokenism and whitewashing, this also allows people who don’t feel like they need the conversation centered around them to speak without taking visibility and power from those who need it. My public identity and how I know myself are different, because I’m human and therefore messy, while identity politics presents itself as neat and organized. To the public I’m effectively a transwoman, and that is the closest term to what I feel that people will understand. I avoid using the word trans for myself because I don’t think it represents me, and sometimes with woman as well. I am Palestinian and Native American by blood, but because I am disconnected enough from what those groups face, I don’t publicly identify as that and don’t assume the group identity that comes with it. I assume queer and multi-racial black because those are political identities I want to publicly challenge. That’s not the full extent of who I am, and I don’t think anyone needs to fully, publicly identify as anything to have their oppressions fought and their experience spoken. Social justice conversations need to get better at handling more human forms of identification and being instead of the stock characters that activists are forced to assume to represent platonic ideals of the marginalized.

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