The Art of Passing

By Olivia Comstock

A comic about the notion of passing
Another comic about passing

Passing is about performance. Passing is about presentation. Passing is about appearance and external markers of identity. Because most of the world only knows each of us through how we look, and we never get to explain our inner nuances to them, then they only see us for what we are the outside. They make assumptions for what our outward selves signify for our inner selves. Our identity and beliefs are assumed from a quick glance. Usually people think of gender or race with the topic of passing, but passing can involve a huge range of personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, disability or ability, job occupation, level of education, intelligence, economic class, and social status. Passing can signify any personal characteristic of identity.

There are two different ways to pass, each with its own connotations, privileges, and motivations. Passing-in is being seen as what one wants to be perceived as. It is a lesbian woman being recognized as a lesbian woman by other people. However, it is also to be seen as the most “real” version of what someone identifies as. It is a trans man passing as a cis-gendered man. In some cases, this is the ultimate goal, the ultimate fulfillment of their identity. In other cases, as with the trans man example, this can undermine their unique identity and experience as a trans man because they are being seen as a cis male, which is something they do not see themselves as – a community they do not belong to. Passing-out is being perceived as an identity contrary to what one identifies as. It is a black woman being read as a white woman because she has very light skin. It is passing out of one’s identified community. This kind of passing can allow for increased privilege, but also can isolate and confuse the identity of the person who is passing. Passing is complicated, confusing, but unavoidable in a world that thinks they know who you are just by looking at you.

The motivation for wanting or not wanting to pass can be complicated. The book Nobody Passes, a collection of essays edited by Matilda, explores the nuances of passing and not passing. Often times, it can be more convenient to pass. When going through airport security, it is easier to be seen as one’s identity on their passport and identification because TSA officers will treat them less harshly. Maybe in their everyday life, they want to pass as their chosen gender, but in the airport, they have to pass as something they are not in order to avoid pain and hassle. Oftentimes, being true to who you are is much harder than being something you are not. Another reason why someone might want to pass is with race, if one passes as white, even when they are not white, they will receive the privileges that our country gives to white people. It can be beneficial for them when it comes to colleges, interviews, and jobs, but it is also complicated because it can lead them to be rejected by their own racial or ethnic community because they do not look enough like their race – they do not look black enough or Hispanic enough. People also want to pass in order to be seen as part of a community. If they are read as certain sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion, then they are accepted into that respective community. It allows for a certain form of safety, a mutual nod at the bar where you both recognize you belong to the same group. It helps lesbian women avoid being hit on by straight guys. People want to pass as what they are or what they are not to be included in a community, to be allowed certain privileges, to avoid prejudice, and to be seen as who they are.

The question is – how does one go about passing? How have specific external markers become significant to certain identities? How does one signify all of their identities at once? The answer to these is that passing and the idea of passing is complicated and hard. There is no way to signify all of our identities because there are too many parts that make us up and these parts are continually changing. Trying to pass is a lot like fitting into a stereotype, where you choose precise ways of dressing and being in the world to show that you are part of a larger group. The specific external markers of specific identities, like the haircut, or the shoes, or the type of clothes, or the activities we do, are at once historically based and constantly shifting. Passing is also exclusionary because there are always people who do not present in a way that would be read as belonging to that specific identity group. For example, signifiers that mark lesbians are usually more masculine – think butch and dyke, excluding femme-identified lesbians who are more likely to be read as straight and those in between.

Each of us is made up of many different identities, we belong to many different communities, and we are complicated individuals. Within each identity category (sex, race, etc.), there are so many different options and combinations of choices. Following that, there are infinite iterations of the categories and the choices within each category. No one shares all of the boxes you see yourself in – each individual identity is unique. There may be people who share aspects of your identity, which is how communities are created, but no one shares all of it. Passing simplifies identities. It uncomplicates the beautiful mess of a person, reducing someone down to only one element of their identity, erasing the complicated interactions between the different parts of themselves. It only sees the visible element of their identity, simplifying the categories of identity, and ignoring the muddled areas, removing mixed-race, overlooking genderqueer, disregarding the in-betweens. But, the in-betweens are so important because it represents the acceptance of a wholeness of self.

As we go throughout our lives we cannot avoid having other people read us for signifiers, but we can change how we look at and judge other people. Do not assume someone’s identity because of what you see and associate with certain groups. You are probably reading them wrong and you are reducing them to a simplified version of their amazing complex changing selves. Have an open conversation instead.


One thought on “The Art of Passing

  1. I wrote a post about judging others a couple of months back and it was all about social status. There are always presumptions about what someone else’s life is like…that some were raised perfectly and that money cures everything. We do judge from the outside so very much. If I put on a good face for the day someone might thing that I have no issues at all. If I listen to all of your issues it doesn’t mean I don’t have much worse going on. We do need to have two-way conversations. Are you a talker? An assummer? We need to listen first then talk. I’m practicing.


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