I get really frustrated sometimes, with the phrase “passing privilege,” specifically relating to sexuality, but of course it applies on other axes too. It’s something that gets thrown around a lot, because there definitely are people who are more visibly queer than others, and the idea of “passing” becomes this divisive thing; when you throw our cultural narrative about queer visibility into the day-to-day reality of your life, things become very messy. Being realistic: people want to say oh it’s 2015 and check out that marriage equality, but there really is a dirty-looks-from-strangers, street harassment, stereotyping, ignorant conservative relatives factor that can make a person feel really shitty. (On a side note: mainstream media treating marriage equality like it’s the only issue in LGBT rights does a great job of distracting people from the fact that heteronormativity is still deeply entrenched into our culture. Gross!!)
Within the context of sexuality, the face value concept of passing privilege seems a little sinister; that someone is allowing themself to be identified as straight could seem like a betrayal (or rejection?) of the queer community. Sometimes, but not always, it seems like there’s a tendency to want to push people out of queer spaces — for example, there’s this sentiment of wanting to keep bisexuals in a male – female coupling out of the LGBT community. Disregarding the fact that this is incredibly hurtful, it conveniently ignores the fact that sexuality and romantic status are two entirely different things. (They’re not “sleeping with the enemy,” they’re sleeping with their partner.)
Looking more closely, I think it’s important to look at reasons people have for passing and why they’re actually indicative of issues that are still prevalent, even if we’re supposed to just gloss over them to preserve the damn status quo. There’s:
- accidental/unwanted passing, due to the fact that people literally assume everybody they meet is straight
- passing for safety, due to the fact LGBT identification can put people in positions where their financial/physical security is at risk (especially in young people)
- passing for convenience, which sounds very duplicitous, but there are actually a lot of places where coming out can actually be quite complicated without threatening your immediate well being. The biggest example I can think of is in the workplace — being out at work can be a challenge, partly because you’re basically stuck with your coworkers reactions and it’s tricky to navigate both overt and subtle homophobia. Additionally, because heterosexuality is so normalized, identifying in another way can instantly sexualize a person, which creates issues with maintaining a workplace reputation of professionalism. (Even though, obviously, being straight is no more professional than any other sexuality.)
I think it’s a mistake to blame the individual for something they don’t ask for and don’t want; while of course nobody wants to be subjected to assorted bigoted nonsense, the fact that (for example) any vaguely femme-looking queer woman is going to be assumed straight is not a result of her attempting to access benefits by hiding herself in a lack of solidarity with other queer people — society hides her sexuality for her. When literally fucking everyone is assumed straight because we live under this heteronormative umbrella that won’t let people just be who they are without comment, the constant process of coming out and coming out and coming out again can be exhausting.
The idea of passing, especially when it is pushed on you, can be a form of erasure; whether it’s out of necessity (ex: a teenager with an unsupportive family) or out of the aggressive heteronormativity present in so many cultures, it can be incredibly isolating to deal with. People frequently have very specific ideas about what LGBT people look like, and honestly, those ideas are very white and heavily stereotyped and counterculture in a way that encourages otherness. (The idea that you’ll spot a Gay from an edgy hairstyle or an uncanny knack for interior design, ultimately, reduces real people into stereotypes. Which is, ahem, why diverse and realistic media representation matters.)
And what happens when you don’t fit into the narrow space that mainstream media and society wants to push people into? I’ve had people try to tell me over and over again that I am not, actually, really, truly correctly interpreting my desire to kiss and maybe eventually adopt a cat with people of multiple genders. (Whether that’s to my face or behind my back or politely or snuck into the pillow talk of my less-healthy relationships.) Having people question and dismiss your experiences is incredibly damaging — can you really call it a privilege?
The whole system is damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because whether you “look gay” or not, there’s a whole set of issues that come along with it. The truth is, passing in itself is not a desirable thing, in as much as it is desirable to feel safe and respected. The fact that people sometimes need to pass to do so is indicative of a system that is still deeply Fucked Up, and playing into that (either purposefully or unwillingly) in order to be treated fairly is a sign that the system is not working, not that the individual has sinister motives. Feeling like you need to hide is not a privilege. Having your autonomy disregarded is not a privilege.
And I say all of this not to invalidate harassment that many people face for being visible — just to point out that the problem here is coming from a system that doesn’t currently acknowledge the complexity of human experiences.
PS: I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to address in detail here because I have never experienced this firsthand, but passing can also be a complex topic for trans people, white-passing people, and many other groups that aren’t defined by sexuality, which is worth keeping in mind here.