This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
My husband and I finally decided to start the adoption process after years of careful planning. As part of our prep to become new parents, we took a series of online courses, one in particular named “conspicuous families.”
Conspicuous families is a fancy term used in adoption circles for a family that does not pass in society as biologically related because the adopted child is of a different race as the adoptive parents. Picture a black child placed with a white middle-class heterosexual religious couple living in a majority white suburb. This family would take this course and learn that society may start to treat them differently because they stick out, their child could be bullied at school, or they may need to field rude and invasive questions from strangers.
Does that sound familiar? As we took the course, I turned to my husband and said, “This sounds like they’re telling us how to come out of the closet. We got this.”
As a mixed-race gay couple from working-class backgrounds, the course “straightsplained” to us how families could help their children cope with being outsiders. It was a surreal hour spent learning about a topic we were already familiar with. The thing that stuck with me was the gentle prodding from our online educator that society can be meaner when you start to stick out, which was something I had assumed was obvious to just about everyone.
As a kid, I was able to pass as heterosexual because you had to in my hometown of Inglewood, California. My majority poor Latino community had no problem violently threatening sissy boys or anyone who didn’t conform to the image of a strong man who didn’t back down from gangbangers. Ironically, after high school, I found that I couldn’t pass as gay in gay communities. A childhood spent hiding who I was meant I didn’t know the first thing about how to behave or act in the majority-white West Hollywood gay clubs. I was out of my element. Being brown also meant inviting a lot of opinions as to how brown I am exactly, where I am from-from, and whether I am Latino enough to be Latino. Not a day goes by that my mother doesn’t express how bad my Spanish is, and while it’s true, it’s also a reminder that I don’t speak my mother’s Spanish, and that I cannot pass for chapín (local slang for Guatemalan).
When I moved to New York and I was out and dating, I made friends with superhip hetero liberals at work. I found myself casually coming out to them, and I would always get: “Oh, I couldn’t tell you were gay.” This was, of course, completely by design, and they had no clue. These exchanges made me realize that people who didn’t have to worry about passing lived vastly different lives than us, where they rarely have to worry about calling undue attention to themselves, their sexual acts, or the color of their skin. When we never think about the ways that we pass, we can’t perceive the subtle magic by which society works to benefit us. That said, people who never think about passing may be privileged with confidence and a peace of mind, but they tend to struggle when their circumstances change.
I asked Lyta Gold, the amusements editor for Current Affairs magazine and a jokingly self-described “non-practicing Jew and non-practicing bisexual,” to share her thoughts with me on how she passes:
In some ways I feel like I “pass.” I’m monogamously married to a man, I’m not “legibly” Jewish, so people don’t usually guess at my real identities unless I tell them. Growing up Jewish in a religious (but not Orthodox) family meant that I came from a different culture, but I could keep it a secret if I liked, and be perceived as “normal.” … It can be an odd and uncomfortable way to live. I would rather be totally open about these aspects of my identity, but you never know when someone’s going to be an asshole. Bigots pass as nice people all the time.
As a young person, I worried about whether I passed in any given situation or in any of my different identities. As I’ve gotten older, I find it more and more exhausting to consider who passes and who doesn’t as a measurement of authenticity, or to spend one iota of brain power worrying whether I pass or do not pass in any given situation. There is such a push and pull between all of our identities and anxieties that I’d like for us to wrestle something positive from all this strain.
If I could tell my younger self something, it would be that all that worry about passing would teach me awareness of my surroundings, that I can develop a keen instinct into who exactly means me harm, and that I would learn the gift of gab to swat away annoying and invasive questions about race and sexuality. If we think of it this way, then this highly specific queer pain point can be of some use to us.
I read adoption blogs like it’s my job now because I want to prepare myself to become a parent, and I take note how hetero parents struggle with the idea that they won’t be able to pass if their adopted child is of a different color. We all learn as kids that honesty is the best policy, but it’s a tough lesson to realize that being open and honest can lead to backlash and emotional turmoil from people you might have considered a safe part of your community.
Fortunately, our collective future is a steady and sure shift of the status quo. Families, biological and chosen, will no longer look and function as they used to. People who never had to worry about passing will have to start learning how to navigate this new world, a world that can be more hostile than it seems—but that can also offer opportunities for new ways of achieving happiness independent from the anxieties of just fitting in. Queer people have had to learn this twinned lesson of passing over the years, so we have some wisdom for the newbies. As for my family, I look forward to the day I can teach my child how to not pass with grace and dignity.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.