Life

What Are the Stakes of “Passing” in 2018?

An Outward special issue explores the queer experience of blending in—or not.

A silhouetted person in a crowd.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

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.

During June—a month glittering with LGBTQ Pride celebrations in honor of the movement-galvanizing 1969 Stonewall riots—I wear one of those cheap rubber rainbow bracelets that various groups and corporations toss out during parades. This isn’t because I love being branded by the likes of visitphilly.com or TD Bank; it’s because, during Pride, I don’t want to pass. I want everyone I meet to know that I am queer, regardless of how that knowledge makes them feel. I want to, in a small way, forfeit whatever ease and safety I accrue as a masculine-of-center cis man who might be read as straight, and instead meet the world fully visible as the proud gay person that I am.

My Pride visibility ritual is a small personal gesture, but it speaks to a far larger and richer aspect of queer life. With the LGBTQ umbrella covering more folks than ever, there are very few experiences we can all be said to share in common. But one of them is, without a doubt, the phenomenon we call “passing.” Before we come out, many of us struggle to pass for straight or cisgender. Some of us never could. Some, though internally firm in their queer identities, unintentionally pass for something else. Still others trouble the borders of legibility, sometimes gleefully, sometimes not. Most all of us must code-switch from time to time, strategically passing in certain spaces for safety or convenience or even out of love.

In wake of marriage equality, some worry about our unique relationship models and lifestyles passing for—and perhaps being lost in—what’s “normal.” (Others happily pass into the same.) We argue over what passes these days as “activism,” over what counts as “radical” or “queer” in politics and art.  How should we respond to “religious liberty” legislation predicated on citizen surveillance, on strangers’ interest in discerning whether or not we pass their criteria for public life? When is passing a cop-out, and when might it be a weapon?

These are just a few of the ways the theme of passing shapes and inflects the queer experience. In this Outward special issue—comprising more than 20 pieces from writers across the LGBTQ spectrum—we’ll explore many more, ranging in subject matter from family and personal life to the arts, history, technology, work, and beyond. However you react to the word passing—understanding or mistrust, curiosity or dismissal—we hope you’ll join us in surveying an issue that won’t pass out of queer life anytime soon.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.