On passing and pride
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, April 12, 2017
There’s a stand up segment, by Louis C.K. where a distinction is drawn between gay men and “f–s.” I think most people believe it is comedy gold. I certainly thought it was hilarious the first time I watched it. I laughed and thanked God that I was not like the “f–s” he mocked.
I can, and do,“pass” as straight. And for most of my life, I have been proud of that.
I have always had plenty of (mostly male) friends, played some sports (even if volleyball was one of them), and liked being outside doing “manly” things like climbing and hiking. I was “normal” enough, despite the filmed and oft cited angel dance, when I was eight, in front of the Christmas tree. When I came out to family and friends (altogether, not a great experience) I relished their surprise and disbelief. It was confirmation that I might still belong. After all, I didn’t act that gay. I was unobtrusive. I adhered to a standard that was within the realm of what kept the anxious (heterosexual) majority less anxious about the perceived onslaught of deviancy represented by the LGBTQ movement.
I strove to never make anyone uncomfortable. And I was proud of that.
Not because it meant I was never uncomfortable; quite the contrary. I do not mean to diminish the suffering that closeted people endure. The psychological, emotional and spiritual violence inflicted on closeted people by family, churches and communities is all too real for me. Yet, I simultaneously realize the immense benefit of passing. It is a survival mechanism of sorts, one that regardless of environment, often seems like the only valid strategy. My life was a hell a lot easier because I passed successfully (though I could never get over my love for fluffy animals). And while bullying, physical and sexual violence form a significant part of the LGBTQ experience, these never defined my experience. These harsh realities were never mine. So you could say my pride at successfully passing was simply about being a good survivor, at having “gotten away with it.” But I think, whether subconsciously or consciously, my pride was more than mere satisfaction.
I was proud of being different, of being “better.” I liked to think of myself as an exception to the ridiculously simplistic stereotype of gay men.
So I did what lazy, scared and selfish people have done for all of history. I subconsciously and then — for a while, consciously — defined myself in opposition to a group that I deemed worse than myself. I positioned myself as superior to some undesirable — and to me mostly unknown — other. I made myself palatable in part by convincing others that there were certain people and certain actions far less palatable than myself. In doing so, I’ve participated in constructing the false binary between “feminine” and “masculine” queer men. I’ve helped perpetuate the ridiculous idea that one’s sexuality is and should be separated from their public persona, as if straight people are expected to repress their straightness in public. I’ve proven that it is possible for LGBTQ people to fade away and leave social norms uncontested. These insidious ideas that I’ve helped sustain are the root cause of violence against gay and transgender people who do not adhere to society’s gendered expectations, who too overtly challenge the status quo.
But I adhered. I assured myself and others that I would never act “too gay,” which really means too feminine. And I was proud of my ability to do that.
I should not have been proud of adhering. There are millions of people around the world who don’t have the privilege or option to “pass.” There are millions of gay and trans people who, in order to be who they are, must make that anxious majority more anxious. There are millions of people who are brave enough to love and respect themselves more than some fabricated idea of what others wished they were. There are thousands of people in the U.S. alone who get bullied and brutalized, assaulted and traumatized. They pay the price for the unease that their existence causes others.
And I was proud that I was not readily associated with those people.
Did I think they deserved it? Of course not. Was I happy it wasn’t me? I sure was. Did I know that my palatable, “masculine,” white gay self was only palatable because gay and trans people — many of color — had fought, been beaten and killed in the name of justice for all? I did not know this; I had been too self-absorbed and sheltered to find out. But I know now. In order to avoid ignorance like mine, those of us in the LGBTQ community need to talk about and celebrate our history and our interconnectedness. We need to continue fighting for universal rights and avoid the tendency to fragment into our respective narrow interests.
If you consider yourself an ally, you can help. When a friend or family member surprises you and comes out, don’t tell them you had no clue or never would have guessed – that should not matter. Don’t let them feel contentment over having blended in, especially if they are privileged like me. While recognizing that passing probably felt necessary, don’t treat it like a victory; that only perpetuates divisions within the LGBTQ community. Instead, tell them that they never have to hide, act or pretend around you. Tell them — with your actions or words — to have pride in who they are, to be whom they are called to be or want to be and to support others in doing the same.
Still more importantly, all of us must actively dismantle the false binary that labels “masculine” gay men as acceptable and “feminine” and trans men as unacceptable. We need to recognize that this dehumanizing stigma encourages violence and brutality against LGBTQ people around the world. Together, we can discard tropes of “acceptable” people and instead recognize, respect and love each individual as exactly the person they are and want to be.
If we do this, we can all be proud.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.