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social sciences

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Passing is generally defined as seeking or allowing oneself to be identified with a race, class, or other social group to which one does not genuinely belong. The reasons for passing can be as complex as the social structure, but passing has most often occurred for reasons of economic security, such as increased access to employment or housing; or physical safety, when exposing one's true identity might attract violence; or for the avoidance of stigma.

Passing can be intentional or inadvertent, a momentary event, or even a lifetime's endeavor. The practice may offer advantages for those who can pass convincingly, and sometimes passing is necessary for self-preservation, but the dishonesty of a life lived in masquerade takes a heavy toll. It becomes a barrier to connection with others; and as a denial of the self, it can lead to depression and self-loathing.

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In culture, passing is a complex and layered issue, involving the oppression of the closet, the complexities of desire, and the need to define oneself. Among those for whom passing is an urgent issue are closeted gay men and lesbians who pass for straight, bisexuals who are often perceived as passing alternately as either straight or gay, and people, who have recently re-defined the usually pejorative word into a positive expression of the ability to be accepted in the larger society in the gender they believe is truly theirs.

Racial, Gender, Religious Passing

For light-skinned African Americans during the times of slavery and the intense periods of racial segregation that followed, passing for white was a survival tool that allowed them to gain education and employment that would have been denied them had they been recognized as "colored" people.

However, this economic advantage exacted a high price. Passing blacks could no longer associate with friends and family, and fear of discovery might also prevent too close an association with white people as well, causing isolation and loneliness. Moreover, at a time and place when racial classification regulated areas as personal as marriage and freedom of association, being exposed as passing could have severe legal as well as social repercussions.

The same was true for the women of earlier centuries who passed for men in order to lead more independent lives, or simply to survive in a world where single women were vulnerable targets. At times of rabid anti-Semitism in Europe and the Americas, many Jewish families also either converted to Christianity or passed as Christian for similar reasons.

Passing by Gay Men and Lesbians

The presumption of heterosexuality in most modern cultures often makes passing as straight the easiest option for gay men and lesbians, at least in casual or public situations. Since all but the most effeminate homosexual or the most "mannish" lesbian can pass, and since heterosexuality is usually assumed, most gay men and lesbians in fact spend a great deal of their lives passing as straight even when they do not do so intentionally.

In a society so eager to assume straightness that "don't ask, don't tell" becomes public policy, it takes courage and resolve to challenge the presumption of heterosexuality.

Indeed, in many areas of the world, including parts of the United States, heterosexuality is practically compulsory. In particular, the pressure to marry and procreate is often so strong that many gay men and lesbians pass as straight for all their lives, with expressions of homosexuality either rare and shameful episodes or sublimated altogether.

More typically, however, gay men and lesbians who are pressured to pass as straight and to marry heterosexually eventually find it impossible to remain closeted and come out, often leaving behind a spouse who feels betrayed and misled.

"Coming out" in effect forces on society a knowledge it does not want, and punishment can be severe, from personal rejection to gay bashing and, in some societies, even imprisonment. Avoiding this type of pain and violence is a major reason that queer people pass for straight.

However, the secrecy of a closeted, passing life creates another kind of vulnerability—the risk of being "outed." While some closeted queers, such as celebrities, are outed by mainstream media in order to sell sensational stories, many are also exposed by members of the glbtq community, angry at the heterosexual privilege claimed by those who pass or, in the case of politicians or religious figures, angry at the hypocrisy of people who indulge in homosexual activities yet work against equal rights for sexual minorities.

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