If something keeps coming up, I know it’s worth writing a blog article about. And in the last few weeks, with LGBT+ clients, friends, and media references, the idea of passing – intentionally or otherwise – as cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) is something that keeps coming up.
In the queer community, “passing” means being read as cisgender (meaning, not on the transgender spectrum) and heterosexual. But this means different things in different contexts, and it is rarely simple.
In fact, before diving in any further, there are a few things that I want to acknowledge. First of all, this is an incredibly complex topic and all I’m trying to do in this blog post is scratch the surface. As I consulted with a transgender friend on this subject, it became abundantly clear that the more we talked about passing, the more nuanced it became. You could fill a whole book with the intricacies of this subject, and in fact many smart people have.
Second, I am a cisgender, heterosexual woman writing from a place of all of the privilege those things carry. My perspective is that of someone who has been educated by LGBTQ+ friends, literature, lectures, clients, and community members – but should in no way be construed as the voice of someone who experiences these things firsthand.
What I’ve learned from all of the aforementioned people, conferences, and literature is that passing can have different qualities and challenges for different identities.
Passing when you’re a gay man or lesbian
Will and Grace is suddenly culturally relevant again – so think about the difference between Will and Jack. Both are gay men, out and proud… but Jack epitomizes gay stereotypes. On the other hand, Will, in a room full of straight people, might not be read as gay. In a heteropresumptive context, straight people might assume him to be “one of them”.
When gay people aspire to pass, it’s for a variety of reasons. Some of these are feeling safe, fitting in, and taking advantage of the privilege it affords them. But the presumption of straightness can be very invalidating, especially when someone’s identity journey has been a challenging one. A lot of cishet folks assume that gay people want to pass as straight – but straight is not better than gay; it’s just different.
(This is why in GSRM-Affirmative Therapy, we ask every client, “do you have a significant other?” not “do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”. And even then, we assume nothing about the way they identify their sexual orientation, which could be gay/straight, bisexual, pansexual, or even asexual.)
Passing when you’re bisexual or pansexual
The invisibility of bisexuality is something that is pervasive. Even in 2018, a lot of people define a person by their significant other. It’s not uncommon for a well-meaning friend, straight or gay, to say to a person, “well, Susie, you were dating a man but now you’re dating women – so you’re a lesbian, right?”
If Susie is bisexual or pansexual, her identity doesn’t change based on who her partner is. However, if she’s out with her girlfriend, she’ll likely be read as a lesbian. If she’s out with her boyfriend, she will probably “pass” as straight.
Passing when you’re transgender
Erin, named Aaron at birth, is a transgender woman. When she first came out and started to transition, her physical appearance was very male, but as her body and physical appearance have changed, an outside observer would read her as female. And Erin? She would say she’s female too.
This is the biggest difference between passing as straight when you’re gay, lesbian, or bisexual and passing as a woman or man when you’re transgender. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks pass and are read as something they aren’t; trans people pass and are read as something they are.
If you’re a trans woman who is perceived as a woman, that may feel validating, because passing as cis can improve the chances that you’re read as who you are. But on the other hand, you have probably been through a lot, physically and emotionally, to become your authentic self, so passing can come at the expense of being able to express the part of your identity that is rooted in your trans experience.
Plus, being read as cisgender (and especially being read as a cisgender man) can be loaded with privilege. Being trans in public is still a thing that can be very unsafe, or at very least uncomfortable. There’s a luxury in being able to go to the grocery store without turning heads.
And also, sexuality and gender are fluid.
In the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alyson Hannigan plays Willow Rosenberg, a bookish girl who, in early seasons, develops a relationship with a male character. But in later seasons (is there a statute of limitations on spoiler alerts?), she falls in love with a woman. She does not describe herself as bisexual – though that may be a symptom of the social dialogue in the 90’s as much as it is a trait of the particular character – but rather as someone who had reevaluated her identity and determined that she was, in fact, gay.
And this is a real thing that happens. Sexuality is fluid, and people find themselves surprised by who they fall in love with all the time. And when that happens, people reevaluate their identity – and part of that has to do with the question of passing.
A historically straight woman might fall in love with another woman, reexamine her identity and wonder… “am I a straight woman who just happened to meet someone special? Am I bisexual? How do I define myself?” And maybe that woman decides that she’s always been bisexual, but she’s been passing as straight, to absolutely everyone, including herself. Or, just as likely, she may decide that she now self-identifies as bisexual, pansexual, or even gay.
A historically gay man might fall in love with a woman and ask the same questions. Then, after a lifelong journey to come to terms with his identity as gay, he may have a lot of emotions about suddenly passing as straight when he and his new girlfriend are in public.
Kate Bornstein, a writer, speaker, and activist, did a lot of soul searching to find her identity as a transgender woman (by way of Scientology, but that’s another story). But then, over time, she realized that she lives outside the gender binary and now identifies as gender nonconforming. But through the process of her transition, she passes as a woman – and when she wants to be seen as her authentic self, it requires some explaining.
Cishet is different, not better.
I said this earlier, but it bears repeating: being cisgender and heterosexual are different from being a member of a gender, sexual, or relationship minority… but that doesn’t make them better. All identities are valuable. As I’m fond of saying, if you’re not harming anyone, and you feel good on the inside, you’re probably doing okay.
So when we’re talking about passing, it’s important to recognize that that isn’t everyone’s goal. A lot of people want to be read as queer, because it’s an important piece of their identity. They don’t want to “blend in,” because conforming isn’t what they value.
And even among those who pass, there may be deep feelings of conflict and discomfort in knowing that they present as cishet in a world where their LGBTQQIAPK+ siblings, figuratively speaking, don’t share their privilege and the ease and safety it affords them.
We all want to feel seen.
And, ultimately, it’s not passing that allows people to experience emotional intimacy. Only when someone understands who you are and what you’ve been through can you be truly seen.
After all, intimacy = “into me, see”. And two things allow us to experience that: being loved and being seen.
No matter who you are, being loved without being seen feels false. In this context, a person might think, “Sure, you love me… but what would you say if you knew that I’m actually gay or transgender?” But this sentiment is echoed across demographics: “What would you say if you knew that I…
…struggle with depression?”
…listen to Country music?”
…used to watch The Apprentice?”
…like most dogs more than I like most people?”
…am into really nerdy stuff?”
And being seen without being loved? That’s the core of disconnection, and the birthplace of shame. The fear of this kind of rejection is what drives a lot of people to hide parts of themselves, or – put another way – to try to “pass”.
Anyone can be accepted and “fit in” by passing… but to truly belong, you have to feel seen. And that’s what makes the concept of passing as cishet such a complicated thing.