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social sciences

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Passing by Bisexuals and by Transgender People

Passing has special complexities for bisexual people, whose sexual identity often places them in uncharted territory between traditional heterosexual society and radical gay culture. Viewed with mistrust by both conservative straights and some gay men and lesbians, bisexuals often feel invisible and may find themselves unintentionally passing as both straight and queer at different times, depending on the assumptions of those around them and the kind of relationship they may be involved in at the moment.

Passing has frequently been viewed as a negative act, involving shame and dishonesty. However, this definition of passing is beginning to change somewhat as transgender people have begun using the word in a more positive, life-affirming sense.

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For many transgender people, passing means being able to live and work in the world in the gender with which they identify. Rather than a refuge of necessity, transgender passing becomes an aspiration, and experienced trans people sometimes offer advice in journals and websites on how to pass successfully. Trans people who live so that very few people know their trans identity are said to be "in stealth."

However, even though trans passing has a more positive definition than black/white or gay/straight passing, the trans person who hides his or her trans identity can suffer the same isolation and alienation as others who attempt to pass. The fear of being found out and the separation of the self from one's own kind take a great emotional toll.

In the trans classic Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg's hero Jess Goldberg mourns the outsider status she has among women when she successfully passes as a man among them.

Female-to-Male comic Ian Harvie echoes the same sentiment, "One thing I miss is being recognized in public by my butch sisters."


Heterosexuals often attempt to distinguish the struggle for equal rights by racial minorities from that by sexual minorities by saying that dark-skinned black people were unable to pass to avoid discrimination and that their struggle was therefore more difficult. This argument casts the ability to pass as a viable means of coping with intolerance, in effect placing the onus of discrimination on its victims rather than its perpetrators.

General Colin Powell, for example, when inveighing against allowing gay people to serve openly in the U. S. military, during the 1993 debate that resulted in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, referred to race as a "benign" characteristic and minimized the significance of affirming a minority sexual identity since it was possible to avoid discrimination simply by passing.

Such arguments betray both an ignorance of history and a misunderstanding of the psychological costs of passing.

One evidence of increased understanding of the psychological costs of passing, of the inauthenticity that such a practice inculcates is that in the 2010 debate on repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the same position held by General Powell in 1993--saw the issue in terms of honesty and integrity.

He testified to a Congressional Committee, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said. "For me, personally, it comes down to integrity--theirs as individuals, ours as an institution."

What Admiral Mullen concluded of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, most glbtq individuals conclude of the practice of passing itself.

Tina Gianoulis

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social sciences >> Overview:  African Americans

Glbtq African Americans frequently experience racism in predominantly white glbtq communities and homophobia in heterosexual black society, but the multiple oppressions faced by black glbtq people are now being recognized.

social sciences >> Overview:  Bisexuality

Although until recently rejected by most sexologists as a distinct sexual identity, bisexuality is gradually becoming recognized and studied as such.

social sciences >> Overview:  The Closet

If the closet has served to institutionalize homosexuality as shameful and inferior vis-à-vis the legitimate heterosexual culture, it has also provided a space of possibility for subversive sexual and political acts.

social sciences >> Overview:  Coming Out

"Coming out" is the revelation or acknowledgment that one is a member of a sexual minority, a process that is at once personal and social and often political.

social sciences >> Overview:  Mixed-Orientation Marriages

Mixed-orientation marriages--those in which one partner is straight and the other is gay or lesbian--often end in divorce, but such an ending is not inevitable.

social sciences >> Overview:  Outing

First used by homophobes and then by glbtq activists, outing is the public revelation of a person's sexuality without the consent of that person.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sissies

Although sometimes reviled by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, the sissy has historically helped define gay culture, and has questioned the dominant constructions of sex and gender.

social sciences >> Overview:  Stigma

Stigmas--physical or personal attributes and behaviors that discredit the individuals and groups who possess them--affect all glbtq people.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

social sciences >> Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, in effect from 1993 until 2011, was a compromise intended to end discrimination against gay men and lesbians in the U. S. military, but it failed to halt discharges based solely on sexual orientation.

literature >> Feinberg, Leslie

Political organizer, grassroots historian, and accomplished writer, Leslie Feinberg is a pioneer of transgender activism and culture.


Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Firebrand Books, 1993.

Friedle, Lynne. "'Passing Women': A Study of Gender Boundaries in the Eighteenth Century." Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1987. 324-60.

Gaudin, Wendy Ann. "Passing For White in Jim Crow America." The History of Jim Crow (2003):

Kroeger, Brooke. Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are. Jackson, Tenn.: Public Affairs Books, 2003.

Lingel, Jessa. "Adjusting the Borders: Bisexual Passing and Queer Theory." Journal of Bisexuality 9.3-4 (2009): 381-405.

Miller, Andrea. "Anything But Straight: Bisexual Voices on 'Passing.'" All Academic Research (2006):

Proxmire, Crystal A. "Ian Harvie: Standing Out as a FTM Standup." Meefers: Connecting Gay-Friendly Communities (March 23, 2009):

Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2000.


    Citation Information
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: Passing  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2011  
    Date Last Updated January 25, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2010 glbtq, Inc.  


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