Life

Incomplete Pass

John Donnelly’s character study of a closeted soccer star shows the fragile reality of “straight-acting” guys.

Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene in The Pass.
Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene in The Pass.
Toledo Productions

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.

Told in three acts, John Donnelly’s The Pass tells the story of brash professional soccer player Jason in three hotel room encounters that track his complicated relationship with his sexuality. In 2006, he finds himself seducing a teammate before a big game; in 2011, he’s hired a woman to shoot a sex tape to dispel those “rumors” floating around; and in 2016, now divorced and out of the game, reconnecting with that teammate whose career he destroyed when 10 years prior he chose to shoot to score rather than, well, pass him the ball. Donnelly’s character study stresses how dependent passing is on others; always afraid of being found out (or of already having been seen for the faggot he knows himself to be), Jason constantly blackmails and intimidates those he comes into contact with, those whose laughter and scorn he fears.

The Pass doesn’t just place the gay athlete at the center of its drama, it relishes the gay athlete’s body, offering it up for display. After all, a gay male athlete’s body is the ultimate example of how masculinity and straight passing go hand in hand. For the whole of its first act, Jason and his black teammate Ade wear nothing more than a pair of briefs. Their toned bodies, pumped by the protein milkshakes we see them chugging, are the center of attention for us and them alike. In Ben A. Williams’ filmed adaptation, Jason even enjoys using a video camera to record Ade’s every move, unsettling and flattering him in equal measure.

While 19th-century discourse first aligned inverts and sodomites with weak and effeminate bodies (see: the dandy), the 20th century saw the rise of a new and much more perplexing gay stereotype: the hypermasculine homosexual. In physique pictorials, YMCA workout rooms, Tom of Finland illustrations, and later still in perfectly curated #masc4masc Grindr profiles, the muscled hunk wrenched masculinity away from heterosexuality and placed it squarely at the center of gay life. As homophobic rhetoric continued to claim that faggots could easily be identified (by their fastidious clothing, their fussy mannerisms, their limp wrists), muscle queens that could handily pass complicated such gendered language. Moreover, they borrowed wholesale the straight valorization of the fit male body, reinforcing the idea that there was a sense of respectability in not looking like “those other gays.”

Stripping Jason of all his clothing, leaving him quite literally with nothing to hide behind, is the first clue that it is his body that will eventually betray him. The roughhousing he and Ade engage in, the kind that’s socially sanctioned in homosocial spaces like the locker room, eventually turns Ade on, giving him a hard-on. After unsuccessfully trying to pass it off as a sign of nervousness, Ade’s bodily betrayal is what leads Jason to go one further. In the play, he merely gives his soccer buddy an Eskimo kiss and caresses his cheeks before beckoning him into the shower. In the film, the sexual chemistry is more palpable as they passionately kiss before retreating to the hotel bathroom.

The vulnerability Jason displays becomes the moment where his performance of alpha-male masculinity falters. One that, as the following two acts confirm, he’ll struggle to put back together. For The Pass is a play about what happens in that split-moment after you’ve been found out, when the mask slips, and a pair of unconcerned eyes land on you, forcing you to look at yourself as you dare not see yourself.

If passing (conscious, strategic passing) is a performance, The Pass shows us what it feels like when you find yourself performing for an ungenerous audience that’s not buying what you’re selling. Five years after his sexual tryst with Ade, we find Jason again in a hotel room where he’s secretly paid a stripper to come up and record a sex tape that’ll qualm the whispers that threaten his career as a world-renowned soccer player. Even when confronted by the young woman who’s suddenly skittish about what she signed up for, Jason opts to deny who and what he is:

Jason: No love, I’m not gay, what kind of word is gay?

Lyndsey: So what are you then?

Jason: I’m an athlete. A warrior. I go out and do battle every week in front of a baying mob. I sell millions in merchandise, I embody people’s hopes and dreams, I’m not gay. I don’t know why I’m even bothering, I can’t expect you to get it. You can’t begin to fathom the pressure I’m under. 

It’s the kind of exchange that’s as laughable as it is illuminating. For those who’ve built a life on the privilege their passing bestows them, the prospect of being found out is often followed by rhetorical gymnastics that concede no part of their performance. “No one decides who I am or what I am but me,” Jason tells Lyndsey, but he forgets that his passing depends on others’ gazes. Her pitying mockery is just another reminder of how his abrasive masculinity can only protect him for so long, especially once flickers of recognition pass through another’s eyes. If anything, by the time, five years later, when he meets (now out and proud) Ade again and brags about the successful life he leads, though injury and scandal have clearly taken a toll on the once promising player, it’s clear even he can tell how constricting performative manliness can become for closeted gay men like himself.

It is here where Russell Tovey, who originated the part of Jason at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2014 and later reprised it in the 2016 film, adds his own level of meta-commentary on the role. In a now-infamous interview with the Guardian back in 2015, the British actor got into hot water for making remarks that played exactly into the very issues The Pass examines. Namely, the way masculinity has long become a mask and an armor for gay men. “I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up,” he shared at the time. “If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.” It was the kind of pull quote that unsurprisingly engendered a great deal of criticism about the kind of prideful masc-passing Tovey was espousing.

In the context of the interview, which chronicled Tovey’s physical transformation from “a little scared, skinny rat” who was knifed on a train when he was 18 to the bulked-up actor who was then playing a “gnarly, red-cheeked outdoorsman” in BBC’s Banished, the comments felt like a tone-deaf admission of the perks of passing for straight. Moreover, they inadvertently keyed into what makes that muscled masculinity such a powerful weapon: It encourages you to think that the “unique quality” other people think you have is something other than your ability to pass. “Like queer identity itself,” Linda Schlossberg argues in her introduction to Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, “passing can be experienced as a source of radical pleasure or intense danger; it can function as a badge of shame or a source of pride.” And, as Jason and Tovey himself remind us, it’s often hard to discern between the two.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.