Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Passing:" some "privilege."

Over at this Alas a Blog thread, Sylvia has an excellent comment that I'm gonna repost in full, just because it's so very excellent and full context helps:

“Passing privilege” — I can’t believe anyone is going to argue that the alleged ability to “pass” makes a group’s oppression somehow “not as bad.” Even if individuals can pass, they can only do so by hiding and disguising who they are. Is homophobia a “lesser” oppression because gays and lesbians (at least the white ones) can “pass?” — if they STFU, anyway. Are we really going to start comparing oppressions? Is that what anyone in anti-oppression work should be doing?

Penka, you’re absolutely right. I mean, to bring it back to writing as an example — look at the Brontë sisters. If I raised an argument that they were successful because they did a great job passing as male writers, and therefore we should not talk about the fact they could not initially publish works as female writers, everyone here would be looking at me as if I had two heads and one was shoved high up my ass. Passing isn’t a privilege; it’s a survival skill. It is a choice to blend in with the oppressors to keep yourself as safe as possible from harm FROM those same people. It’s feeling knots as you hear people who care about you trash and belittle something that is a part of you you cannot change. And it is no cakewalk — it’s difficult to even couch it in terms of being a privilege.

I mean, think about these incidences of passing:

1) A woman diagnosed with a debilitating disease and experiences chronic pain tirelessly works a physically demanding job to reach managerial status as if she is able-bodied because she knows if she revealed that she had that disease and the treatments she receives, she would lose the job she loves.

2) A man attempting to join a primarily heterosexual fraternity gets an impromptu assignment to write homophobic slurs on a friend’s whiteboard. The group dives into writing; the fraternity heads are all watching. But he’s been dating this friend for a couple of weeks.

3) A woman who works three jobs to support her younger siblings while going to college part-time learns about a banquet at the end of the school year for graduating seniors. The banquet is mandatory for all graduates because they present their projects as the main event, and the cost is over $300 per person because of the event’s location. She only has $500 for groceries for the next two months.

In all these situations, people are forced to choose between “passing” and reaching a goal that is important to their immediate advancement or revealing something about themselves that could leave them vulnerable to attack or loss. How is this a privilege?

I tried to broaden these examples beyond race and gender because often the superficial examples of passing seem to scramble people’s brains as a “good thing.” Where is this hidden benefit of being able to pass?

and my response:

Yes, absolutely. In all of those instances, I suppose one could make the argument that having the "choice" at all is a "privilege" over those who can't--for instance, the young man who's so obviously gay that he never gets into the fraternity at all, and is the one who gets the slurs written on the whiteboard--but what a fucking choice. It doesn't change the basic problem, or who's at fault for perpetuating it.

also, for those who can and do make the choice to "pass," internalization, the "closet," if you will (which can exist on a number of axes, not just sexuality) is its own special kind of hell.

in fact, speaking of, an old joke (not that I'm laughing here, but by way of illustration, I actually think it's apt) suddenly comes to mind:

Person dies and goes to hell, and the devil tells hir that sie has a choice of several rooms wherein sie can go and suffer for all eternity.

The first room has people being boiled in oil.

The second room has people lying on beds of knives.

The third room has people standing chest-to-chin-deep in steaming shit, but they're actually talking to each other and holding cups of coffee, and don't seem to be in physical agony. The new infernal tenant tells the devil, "I'll take this one, then."

Choice made, the person goes to join the throng. Shortly thereafter, a demon comes in with a pitchfork and goes,

"Right everyone, coffee break's over, back on your heads."

That there would be "passing," basically.

Oh yes, passing privilege. The ability to lie about things that matter in order to make assholes happy.

--dw3t-hthr (see comments)


thene said...

A closet is any place between two high walls. imho.

Alon Levy said...

Passing ability does help improve things, though. Women and ethnic minorities can be and are denied jobs by virtue of the names they put on their job application or the way they look at the interview. With gays and religious minorities, it's harder; employers have to probe, which makes it harder to convince the judge that firing the employee had nothing to do with her being Jewish or a lesbian or an atheist.

belledame222 said...

What? How does that help improve things? All that usually means is that you can't prove it and end up having lost the gig as well as your reputation, you're a whiner or whatnot.

oh I see. ever been on the end of a don't ask don't tell? the probing is a lot harder on the probee than the prober, always. and meanwhile you sit around terrified that you might have used the wrong pronoun or been SEEN somewhere or slipped up somehow.

Alon Levy said...

It cuts down on economic inequality. Women and racial minorities are on the receiving side of a big wage gap; GLBT people and religious minorities aren't. If you go by the "Would you vote for a Presidential candidate who is ____?" polls, the most hated minority group in America is atheists; that group probably makes more money on the whole than the rest of the country. The same applies to gay men.

It also makes the humiliations harder to inflict. A black person in the segregated South would be told to go to the back of the bus, or turned away from a hospital. Doing that didn't require effort; all the offending bus driver or hospital clerk had to do was look at a person and instantly know how to treat him. Doing the same thing to a Jew would require looking at the person's name, which would involve minimal effort as well. In contrast, with a gay or an atheist, it would involve probing. So someone who's willing to invest time in keeping GLBT people down would do that, but not the average person who thinks homosexuality is a sin.

belledame222 said...

>>GLBT people and religious minorities aren't.>>

um, wrong. and again, you're assuming that it's really easy for GLBT people to "pass" even assuming they want to. some can. many can't.

also incorrect that the toll of needing to "pass" has no effect on one's income.

I don't have time to get into it more fully, but Sarah Schulman has plenty to say about this, for instance. later.

belledame222 said...

--ah. the other assumption is that discrimination against GLBT (and hello, particularly T) people has to do with their -private sex lives.- Even putting aside just how private one's relationships/sex life really is in an office setting--straight people take for granted just how open they can be without thinking of it, not to mention how much hetnormativity plays into key social networking events even without the S.O.

--but also, much of anti-queer discrimination has to do with -gender policing.- Which means that if you're judged too effeminate or too butch, respectively, guess what! It affects your job prospects; and you have no legal recourse for this at all, actually, most places. (This had much to do with the recent storm over ENDA).

rosmar said...

"Women and racial minorities are on the receiving side of a big wage gap; GLBT people and religious minorities aren't."

Attempts to create hierarchies of oppressions degenerate quickly. Partly because, as one can see by looking at the groups you listed here, the groups are far from being mutually exclusive. There are women who are racial minorities and GLBT and religious minorities, all at the same time. And many other combinations of factors.

With due attention to complexity, though, I think there is something to the argument that visible "differences" can cause someone to experience direct discrimination more frequently. (The flip side is that being "invisibly different" often leads to different kinds of pain, like in the examples you gave in your post, belledame.)

belledame222 said...


belledame222 said...

per the "wage gap" then:

I'm trying not to kneejerk just because it reminds me of the religious right line about how gay people are actually richer than you, Humble Salt O'The Earth Whose Vote We Want, so don't need any "special rights." I don't believe Alon believes that for a second, obviously. A kneejerk's a kneejerk.

But...the idea that there's -no- wage gap simply because a vanguard of Andrew Sullivan and HRC types have, in the last couple of decades, managed to live comfortably, and/or the "pink pound" actually means something...really, no, and I do think that there is a popular belief that this is so, and that at least some of it has to do with the relentless stereotyping of queer folk as the DINK Chelsea white young men. That goes for trans people too, insofar as people are aware of their existence as actual human beings at all.

for example, over at QT, there was just now this charming comment from a putatively left-wing/feminist reactionary:

‘Transwomen’ are usually white and male. It is wholly offensive of any white male person to lump his self in with black women and prostituted women, and to appropriate the language of civil rights - ‘marginalized’ - in order to increase the sexual excitement he derives from inhabiting those identities. But then, neither black women, prostituted women or prostituted black women would expect white males to understand this. see. It's a neat trick. It works sometimes, too.

Back to how the wage gap works: or that, you know, because the employer might actually have to do some work (which can be as simple as, say, so and so saw you going into __ club, is that true?), that helps, how, when there aren't actually any anti-discrimination laws wrt sexual orientation in place? And, again per ENDA, that's even more true when it comes to transsexuality or gender nonconformity in general.

Lady S said...

My rather dim take on this (being someone who CAN and does pass) is that it really doens't help at all.

It just creates an 'ok' group between 'them' and 'us'.

It cuts down on the wage gap for a few people. It doesn't remedy the overall situation, given that people that pass often have to at the expense of their identification with their origin (for want of a better word).

Passing works by isolating and forcing compromise. It's a horrible pressure on the individual.

The sad result can be 'I got here on my own effort, they can to' and expressions in support of the origin are taken as betrayal.

(apologies if this isn't very clear)

belledame222 said...

well, yeah, that's the thing: "passing" originally -was- meant in a racial/racist context, or at least that was one of the more widely understood meanings. It only becomes less important when racial discrimination becomes -somewhat- less overall accepted in the first place. But I mean, "brown paper bag test," anyone? "Pinky?" "Down These Mean Streets?"

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I was in a conversation recently with someone who basically said that the mainstream family structure should be the only one given legal status, because that nuclear family, best thing for children don'tchaknow, etc. (The person in question appeared to be making an anti-poly statement rather than a homophobic one there, but I suspect that's more because he figured overt homophobia would get him slapped down instantly in a pagan discussion forum, where anti-poly stuff wouldn't register.)

I asked, "So, do you mean that to sound like 'Well, if they weren't flaunting their private lives they wouldn't have such problems?' bigotry, or was that an unhappy accident?"

He said, "Do you want me to be honest or polite? I can't do both."

And that was, y'know, quite enough of an answer to clarify.

Because the shit that gets called 'flaunting' when it's directed at a minority would be just living their life for anyone else.

A gay man saying "my husband and I" is 'flaunting' when I say "my husband and I" is completely unremarkable.

Meanwhile, me saying "my boyfriend commented" once caused an absolute shitstorm because some jackass figured that there had to be some deep, profound reason that I didn't refer to a life-partner as a friend in order to keep him all warm and fuzzy in his comfort zone where everyone who isn't monogamous is ashamed of it and doesn't recognise their partners in public.

I've encountered people who thought that telling their spouse about their religious beliefs would be 'flaunting'. THEIR SPOUSE, for the love of little fishes, THEIR SPOUSE.

What. The. Hell.

Oh yes, passing privilege. The ability to lie about things that matter in order to make assholes happy.

belledame222 said...

I should also say: Alon, I'm now wondering, as a fellow Member of the Tribe, if when you say "religious minority" that that's what you were thining of. Specifically, whether you're looking at the assimilation of Jews in America relative to the status of people currently slotted as "non-white," and assuming that this difference is largely due to skin or passing privilege.

belledame222 said...

speaking of, btw, have you seen "Europa, Europa?"

belledame222 said...

Oh yes, passing privilege. The ability to lie about things that matter in order to make assholes happy.

that's going into the post.

Chuckie K said...

Sorry I don't have my references at hand. But I think immediately of the novels of racial passing from the 19th century on. Every one I've read depicts passing as a tragedy and a tragic consequence of the discrimination and oppression that create it.

Rebecca said...

I think you're spot on in most cases, but I think there is very much such a thing as "passing privilege" in the trans community. There's a million things I can do because I'm not going to get randomly misgendered that a whole bunch of my sisters can't.

...but yeah, passing privilege when you're queer, disabled, etc.? Bollocks.

belledame222 said...

yeah, I guess I was trying to say, in a not terribly coherent way, that within every group there's a minority of people who have "passing privilege;" but

a) it's got its own price

b) it -is- a minority of people within (most?) groups

c) most relevant to what I was trying to get at there, not only is LGBT not particularly safe wrt the "wage gap" thing because of the lack of anti-discrimination protection, but the ENDA business makes it painfully clear that "T" is even more subject to economic as well as other disparities, -overall,- than the rest of us in the LGBT cluster.

but, well, again: who's counting.

Theriomorph said...

Rock on for this post, and Syvia's comment re-posted.

As a queer/'bi' person, my 'passing' 'privilege' means I can and usually will be excluded from, targeted in, and loathed by both lesbian and het communities. Oh, and my lifelong, fully defined identity is erased and made contingent on whom I happen to be boinking at any given time, too. Which is always nice.

I *get,* cerebrally, the arguments about passing potentially creating opportunities unavailable to others, but always come back to the inevitable cost, which is not just emotional, or firing, or whatever, it's also often rape, beating, murder in payback for the transgression against the supremacist group.

Lisa Harney said...

I keep thinking of a lot of homophobic assholes I hear or read: "I don't care what gay people do in their bedroom, but they shouldn't flaunt it in front of me (as in, admit they have a same sex partner - that's exactly the same as describing intimate sex acts to these people). Those people who strut around in G strings at Pride parades make all the other gay people look bad - and why do they take pride in being gay? They shouldn't do that. The good ones are indistinguishable from straight people."

It's a passing demand. If you can pass, that makes you better because people don't have to waste time categorizing you, but if you don't pass...well, you have to be punished because you don't fit in.

Also, LGBT people don't experience wage disparity? No, we do. Seriously - we do. That's why ENDA has been going back and forth for well over a decade, and why trans people have been trying to be included in ENDA all that time, because being LGBT has no effect on our ability to find a job and make money... No, it doesn't affect people like John Aravosis and Andrew Sullivan, but there's more to LGBT than those entitled assholes.

Lisa Harney said...

And oh yeah, when you're discovered? You get punished. You get ejected from your job (like Chanelle Pickett, who lost her job, turned to prostitution, and was murdered by one of the men she met).

So you're punished for not passing, but when you're caught passing, you get in more trouble. It's a double bind.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

It's a passing demand.


Wordy word word ow.

belledame222 said...

btw, welcome, theriomorph, if I hadn't already said.

Drakyn said...

Yeah, white LGBT (I keep wanting to switch that to TBLG, but then no one would know who I mean...) and/or religious minorities sometimes have an easier time passing than POC.
But you know all these folks don't pass: trans*folk that don't pass as cissexual, queer folk that can't "act straight" aka: gender normative, religious minorities that ask for their holy days off, queer folks that mention their partner(s), trans* folks that can't come up with an excuse and/or lie for why they need surgery...And I could go on and on and on.
It's really fun when your references know you by different names and pronouns. When you put down an obviously female name on a application and show up with a beard and ask if you can follow the male dress code (or the opposite). It's a lot of fun deciding whether to ask your deeply Christian/Jewish/other-mainstream-faith boss for the day after solstice off or choosing not to observe the holy day/night and maybe piss off your gods.

Alon Levy said...

I should also say: Alon, I'm now wondering, as a fellow Member of the Tribe, if when you say "religious minority" that that's what you were thining of. Specifically, whether you're looking at the assimilation of Jews in America relative to the status of people currently slotted as "non-white," and assuming that this difference is largely due to skin or passing privilege.

I am, pretty much... though as always, this is more complicated. In the 1930s, Jews who wanted to pass could change their names: Bernie Schwarz could become Tony Curtis the way Duke Ellington couldn't. So could Italians, Poles, Irish, and some Hispanics (Martin Sheen's real name is Ramón Estevez). Most Hispanics couldn't.

You can contrast GLB and T people similarly. At least to me, trans people are far easier to tell apart than GLBT people. Maybe that's why there are all these stories you've posted about shelters for transwomen and gentrifiers pushing trans people out, but not similar stories concerning lesbians and gays (or at least far fewer than the ratio of trans people to cis gays and lesbians would suggest).

Theriomorph said...

btw, welcome, theriomorph, if I hadn't already said.

Thanks! Between my fits of shyness and blogworld-angst, I am a very bad commenter. But as you can see, I am making another round of effort. : ) Have always dug what you have to say.

And Lisa:

It's a passing demand.

Word, seconded.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

The effectiveness of passing by changing one's name is intensely variable.

I know some people who couldn't pass the scrutiny of an anti-Semite whatever name they gave, because they are clearly ethnically Jewish. I also know people, equally ethnically Jewish, who could duck awareness by dropping a -berg surname for something more Christiany. But again, there's passing privilege, and people who just won't get believed.

swarmingness said...


I broadly agree with much of the thrust of what's being said here, but would like to suggest that - in the case of transsexed people at least - there very much *is* something as "passing privilege", and it shouldn't be completely dismissed.

I say this as a young trans woman who is lucky enough to "pass" most of the time (and my, do I hate that term!) It makes my life somewhat easier, but there is still that constant oppression that has been talked about here: the fear of people discovering my trans status and how they might react, the fact I'm forced into it. As I've grown older, read more, thought more and come to terms with what it means to be trans, I've become more aware of the injustice of being forced int this situation where I strive to pass simply to *be* and that's a real downer.

On the other hand, I know a bunch of trans women (mainly my own age, and a few who are somewhat older) who are unable to pass. And I've come to recognise the difference between being in a situation where I have to do something to avoid threats of violence and having abuse shouted at me in the street, and being in the situation where that happens all the time *and the victim cannot ever do anything about it*. The difference between having to hide something about myself to get a job, and not being able to get a job at all. Maybe in some situations the difference between life and death.

Certainly, passing privilege isn't all it's made out to be: it's pretty shit, frustrating and upsetting being forced into a situation where you have to take it. I would say so that I have a definate privilege within the limited confines of the trans community. I am able to hide when I need to, to protect myself. Others are not so lucky.

swarmingness said...

Sorry, that should of been "...I would say though that I have a definate privilege..."


belledame222 said...

hey, welcome, swarmingness.

swarmingness said...

Hellos! I found your blog after following some of the latest volleys in the Great War Against Trans Activists (or: we like trans people really, as long as we shut the sinner, hate the sin?) I felt drawn to responding to your post here because I feel it's very important to acknowledge the existence of passing privilege, although I accept (and experience, daily) the fact it's not as straightforward as it might be made out, and there's still a whole load of oppression inherant in it.

GallingGalla said...

Being on the other side of the passing / non-passing divide (I don't pass) I have to agree with swarmingness, both in that passing does give *some* privilege -- I'd love to be able to walk down the street without being harassed -- and that said privilege is very limited, and evaporates when the trans person is outed, with potentially fatal results.

The tenuous nature of this privilege is something that Alon Levy doesn't understand; he thinks that life is peachy keen for those who pass.

Lisa Harney said...

Oh, totally peachy keen.

A radical feminist implied that one trans woman (Sandy Stone) hid her trans status because she knew her presence at a feminist recording label was wrong - that's the oppression inherent in passing privilege, the assumption that hiding being trans is a bad thing, and if you hide it, you know you're doing something wrong...rather than knowing that if people find out, they're likely to wrong you.

The reason I mentioned "passing demand" was because people are expected to fit in, or they're punished - but that fitting in doesn't just mean passing, it means never ever ever being different.

Anonymous said...

hey. i ended here blog-hopping. I just wanted to say, as a closeted girl who is building a lot of self-loathing over being closeted, this brought tears to my eyes. thank you.

belledame222 said...

You're very welcome, anon, and thank you for saying something. Come back anytime. Good luck.

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danadocus said...

but I think there is very much such a thing as "passing privilege" in the trans community

There is privilege in that, but it is conditional privilege. It can be taken away at any time, and generally when that happens you are worse off than if people had never seen you as "passing" in the first place. It uses the same word, but it is very different from non-passing privilege.

Also, the problem with "passing" in the trans context is the assumption you are hiding your true identity. When really for trans people, passing is generally them showing their true identity, and people just being more accepting of it in some people than others.

belledame222 said...


and welcome, danodacus.

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Winstrol said...

As I know gays and lesbians have much more privileges than usual people in the modern world