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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

THOUGHTS ON PASSING

There is something else you must know in order to understand my perspective and its origins in my experience: I've never been able to "pass" for heterosexual. Not that I haven't tried. I understand the desire, the temptation, the need to at least LOOK like everyone else. I understand the benefits gained by "passing" for something one isn't. I've missed the privileges of heterosexuality, including the rewards for successful mimicry, and felt that lack painfully. I wanted the goodies, and have many times indeed wished fervently to be able to "pass" for heterosexual. Living on the outside of the system made me acutely aware of the validation and support that wasn't, and wouldn't be, forthcoming. But I've always looked like what I am, a dyke. When I've tried to look heterosexual, I was a failure, and I always felt ridiculous and laughable and, therefore, humiliated. My choice, in the circumstances, was to brazen it out.
- 'The Mystery of Lesbians', by Julia Penelope, pp. 506-547 in For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology

The social phenomenon of "passing" has been popping up repeatedly in my personal experience this year, not least because the quote opening this essay corresponds all but word for word with my experience. The ability to pass and act in the world accordingly is a privilege. It is a privilege to have the ability to live as a member of a social group other than your own, to present yourself as being a different race, ethnicity, social class, or gender. It can be difficult to find fault with a person who opts to pass, because passing is so often performed in order to gain social acceptance and avoid any stigma that may be attached to their own social group.1 As Penelope states in the quote above, there are benefits to passing. Those benefits may be as small as not being accosted when attempting to use a public washroom, or as great as personal safety. Life circumstances may lead a person to pass even if they would otherwise prefer to forego that privilege. Yet it is exactly the existence and likelihood of such circumstances that give away the game: rather than a neutral or positive thing, "passing" is in fact a key tool in any system that oppresses based on race, ethnicity, social class, gender, all or any combination of these.

Theodore W. Allen's definition of a social control stratum is a great help in understanding how passing can be deployed as a tool of oppression.2 According to Allen, the social control stratum is a group of people who are outside of the ruling class and can never realistically expect to enter the ruling class. They are entrained as enforcers by the ruling class, they provide the practical muscle and people infrastructure to maintain oppressive systems. This enforcement infrastructure extends well beyond police or other forms of the military. It includes what type of behaviour is encouraged or sanctioned by the social control group on behalf of the ruling class, via education, laws whether written or customary, control of access to the necessities of life and interaction with others, and a monopoly over civilian use of force.3 Notice that the social control practices can be incredibly subtle. Taking the case of racism, today very little by way of overtly racist behaviour is considered acceptable anywhere in much of north america. Passive aggressive racist behaviour is absolutely rampant, because what has happened is that few racists have actually faced up to and got to work on their internalized racism. Instead most of them have figured out different means to get away with it. When it comes down to it, the social control stratum is made up of bullies, and the ones who bully most obviously tend to end up tagged as racists, homophobes, sexists, and so on.

Let's assume that people are fundamentally good, and no one really wants to be a bully or to be perceived as one. (We're assuming it, but there is real evidence that this assumption is true.) How then can people be persuaded to become part of the social control stratum that effectively has being a bully as its entry requirement? An appeal is made to their desire to better themselves without necessarily having to work too hard, and furthermore they are encouraged to believe that anyone could avail themselves of the opportunity if only they would apply themselves — even though that isn't true. Overturning an oppressive social system is hard work, and takes more than one lifetime. If you're already struggling and not in a position to sort out how you are being oppressed and more importantly by whom, it's a tough offer to refuse. It's so much easier to believe the people making the appeal, especially when they encourage you to believe that someone different from yourself is the real reason that you are struggling, and that you will struggle less if you punish them whenever they "get out of line."

Consider how gruesomely tidy this is. Setting up a social control stratum conveniently divides the oppressed and turns them against each other by selecting one or more groups to receive privileges for policing the others. The oppressed are drawn into proxy oppressing and drawing their self-worth from the exercise of arbitrary power, however petty that power may be. Furthermore, people may be drawn into the social stratum by brutal necessity, not choice. Any gay person who is still in the closet in some part of their lives knows this all too well. They don't want to support the oppression of themselves or other gay people, but the closet, passing, is what insures they don't get fired, or lose their kids, or get killed. These sort of complications and catch 22's are why the definition of passing given in the introduction is so neutral. Passing often has nothing whatsoever to do with shame or selling out, although those are two reasons a person may choose to pass if they can. Being able to pass is truly a backhanded privilege, with considerable social anxiety tied to it.

The examples I have provided so far don't illustrate the systemic-ness of passing as a social control mechanism very well. It still sounds very personal, like a bad behaviour that could be corrected, rather than an invasive and corrosive aspect of an oppressive system. In her book Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, Judy Grahn provides an excellent illustration from her own experience: "I closed my mouth and stopped laughing. I was too astonished at what my eyes had registered: Of six people standing in the laboratory laughing at a vicious antiGay joke, five were Gay — everyone except the woman who had told the joke." Not only were five of six people gay, they knew each other to be gay, and they didn't dare take advantage of their numbers or their status as good employees to challenge the woman who told the joke. They didn't do this even though to do so wouldn't have required them to come out of the closet, but it would have put them at risk of being accused of being gay, and in a homophobic environment to be accused is to be convicted. Heterosexual women face a similar double bind if they are accused of sexual transgressions, as do young people if they are accused of using drugs.

There is no way to rehabilitate passing. It is a phenomenon constructed for the express purpose of oppressive social control. Luckily, we already know that such systems can be dismantled via determined and ongoing resistance. This is precisely what has been happening to sexism, racism, and homophobia for instance. The resistance has evidently been successful, or we would not be seeing and hearing so many hysterical responses from those who like to consider themselves "the ruling class" or the cringe-inducing sight of the american government and judiciary gutting the american voting rights act and attacking american women. But the only way to get started in the resistance to passing is of course to realize that you're doing it, and just as racists find less obvious ways to express their racism and get away with it, people who can pass, choose to do so, and help oppress those who can't pass have ways to rationalize away what they're doing. People who can pass and are forced to do so by oppressive circumstances don't have any rationalizations to make.

Here are some common rationalizations:

  • "It's important to be discrete, it helps us all"
  • "I'm not too proud to go along to get along"
  • "I'm not doing anything that I wouldn't anyway"
  • "People who "can't" pass are really just childish"
  • "I'm confident enough not to need to announce my identity to everyone"
  • "It doesn't matter if you pass or not"

The elephant in the room where passing is concerned however, is that passing is contingent on the oppressors continuing to deem passing, or at least a particular form of passing, acceptable. One marker of acceptability is that even if everyone, passing or not, knows a particular individual is passing, they never give the game away. They may occasionally give a double-edged compliment praising the passer on the quality of their performance, not least as a reminder that they know what a performance it is. But that's all. This can change, and change fast, usually via manipulation of the legal system. The most infamous examples are almost all instances of redefinition in law because the redefinitions were enforceable by means of police and the judiciary as well as mob violence. Consider for example the redefinition of "coloured" as a person having any amount of "non-white" blood whatsoever in the pre-civil war u.s. or of women as mental incompetents with no independent personhood in most recent asian4 history. The redefinition doesn't have to be a formal legal one. Just ask any survivor of the mccarthy era in the u.s., or the treatment of peaceful dissenters over the past several years across north america and europe.

Which brings me to the great irony of being a person who cannot pass as heterosexual, who found the closet torn out and burnt before I ever had a chance to learn there was such a thing for lesbians. Difficult as brazening it out can be, I am not allowed to hold onto illusions about my social position and the nature of the various passing systems in place, let alone the one that pertains specifically to me. Over the past year, I have come to appreciate how precious this knowledge is, difficult though it is at times to live with it.

  1. The Wikipedia entry on Passing was helpful in developing this definition, although there is a great deal in the overall entry to be disagreed with.
  2. Allen develops this definition as part of his exploration of how a system of racial oppression was created and embedded into american society in The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. It is also a more useful definition of the "middle class," which is otherwise a strangely amorphous thing that no one is able to identify.
  3. If this sounds strange to you, it is well worth examining the unequivocal evidence that a poor person or a woman who is involved in a violent incident, suffers disproportionate punishment in and outside of the criminal justice system of their country regardless of the outcome of legal proceedings. If the woman or poor person is charged with a violent crime, even if their act can be shown to have been in self-defence, they are highly unlikely to be acquitted. Furthermore, whether or not they can be shown to have acted in self-defence, their sentence will be longer and more severe than that given to a man or person of greater wealth.

    Peggy McIntosh has an excellent essay out dealing with this point from yet another direction, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.

  4. If this reference seems puzzling, just remember that europe is not a continent and everything will become clear.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Sunday, May 3, 2015 22:25:44