Passing and Privilege

In her last post on the cabaret duo The Wet Spots, Aviva wrote:

The Wet Spots play up their queerness in a way that’s engaging and hilarious, and don’t seem at all self-conscious or apologetic about doing so while being in a different-sex marriage. It’s refreshing to see them appearing to avoid the trap even I sometimes fall into, of preferring to be seen with someone of a similar gender and assumed gay than seen with someone of a different gender and assumed straight.

I want to use this as a jumping-off point for my post on different-gender relationships and straight privilege, because I often wonder why you don’t see that many couples like Cass and John in the public eye, and why different-gender relationships seem to lead so many bisexuals to feel their queerness has been rendered invisible.

I definitely fell into that trap of invisibility for a while, and I think a huge part of it came from my obliviousness to the privilege I reaped from being assumed to be straight. I could have been more visibly queer then, but being seen as straight was so easy, I barely even noticed it was happening at first, and being out seemed impossible and scary. Why? Because I would have lost some of my privilege, and I think the prospect of losing privilege that you don’t even understand is much scarier for a lot of people than understanding your privilege and voluntarily giving some of it up. Sometimes I wonder if this is what is going on when some bisexuals pass as straight. But I ultimately can’t speak for anyone else, so here’s how it was for me.

For two years, I was closeted at work. It’s odd now to remember how little I had actually considered how I was going to negotiate my sexual identity as an adult in the working world. I closeted myself on my very first day, though it took me quite a bit longer to realize what I had done. I was eager to impress my boss and my new coworkers; they all seemed (and turned out to be) incredibly kind, caring people, and I wanted them to like me. I was young and inexperienced, I was desperately grateful for the job after almost a year of post-college temping, and I was afraid that my oddness and social awkwardness would hurt me now that I was working in an office and had to be a team player, as it were. So I wanted to prove I could interact with “normal” people, that I could fit in with them and not freak anyone out too much. I had never really been required to do that before, and I had no idea if I could.

That’s what was in the back of my mind when I went out to lunch with my boss and someone else in my department. Over the course of the conversation, I brought up my roommate twice. And then I panicked, thinking that they must have assumed I was a closeted lesbian whose “roommate” was her girlfriend, and so I made sure to mention my boyfriend at some point, to “even things out.” And you know, once I mentioned him, everything did seem more relaxed. I may have been perceiving the conversation differently because I was relieved at how easily I had passed as “normal,” but I swear they seemed more at ease, more gregarious, like they had me figured out and were back on familiar ground, where they knew what questions to ask and what predictable answers they would receive.

Looking back on it, that is some fucked-up shit. It’s hilarious how badly I judged the situation. My references to my roommate? They probably didn’t even notice. Passing as straight to look more “normal?” I should have been appalled at myself. But I didn’t think in these terms, not consciously. That’s exactly how privilege works: the first gift it gives you is its very invisibility. You slip into it. You don’t see it until you look for it, or someone else points it out to you, or you brush up against its margins.

My current partner is the first boyfriend I’ve had since high school, and those high school relationships were short-lived and generally meaningless. So when we first started dating, I was giddy with the privilege our relationship gave me. Yes, I was ambivalent about it, too, and I hated when people assumed I was straight, and I thought the system that granted me privilege was fucked up and unfair, but I have to admit now that in those early days of our relationship, part of me loved holding hands in the street without thinking twice about it, mentioning my relationship to whoever I wanted to without considering the consequences, and this strange overall feeling of fitting in, of being in the club.

I’m a geek. I don’t have a long history of fitting in. It was intoxicating.

And I was still in this phase when I mentioned him on that first day at work. For a few months, I kind of liked being seen as straight for eight hours a day. I was struggling to socialize with my coworkers because I hadn’t yet found the ones who shared some of my interests and I was still insecure about my social awkwardness. So I had to rely on general small talk, which I am terrible at, but my coworkers could always ask me about my relationship, and we could talk about what we had done for my birthday, where he lived, what he did for a living, and I could answer their questions and ask polite ones of my own, and presto! Respectable socializing! I felt like I was in drag, wearing modest, drab, button-down shirts with black slacks every day, talking about respectable things with respectable people, being responsible and orderly and extremely polite on the phone. It was kind of thrilling, acting like a completely different person and getting away with it. Until it got really old.

And so I started to wonder if there was anything I could do about it. I couldn’t think of a way to bring up my ex-girlfriend. I certainly wasn’t going to say I was bisexual; my office was fairly conservative and I wasn’t about to say “sexual” in front of my boss.

(Side note: I think it’s interesting that some kinds of sexual behaviors and identities are desexualized enough to be seen as “appropriate” for public or professional conversation. Opposite-sex marriage is certainly at the top of this list, but nonmarried opposite-sex relationships are also up there, and in plenty of circles, the words “gay” and “lesbian” no longer immediately provoke the response of “Why are you telling me about your SEX LIFE?” I think “bisexual” is still pretty sexualized in the popular imagination, considering how many stereotypes of bisexuals revolve around our supposed sluttiness or (for women) exhibitionism.
I don’t really think it would be progress to cut off bisexual identity from sexuality or to defend ourselves by claiming we’re actually quite normal and non-slutty, because plenty of us ARE slutty or non-normative in our gender presentation or sexual practices, and we have every right to be. It’s far more productive to challenge the notion that any adult’s consensual sexual practices should lead to discrimination against them and push the limits of what sexuality is considered “acceptable” to discuss and what is not. Ok, that’s clearly another post. End digression.)

So anyway, there I was, passing as straight, wondering how the hell I was supposed to make my queerness known, and once I finally thought about it, I decided to stay closeted. To this day, I have no idea if coming out would have hurt me at work. I don’t think it would have cost me my job, necessarily, but I do think it would have made my days awkward and unpleasant for a long time.

Once I decided to hold on to my privilege, I started to see how much privilege passing had given me all along. I could wear butch clothes to work and cut off my hair if I wanted to, and nobody would bat an eye, because to them I was still reassuringly straight. I could talk about my relationship whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to plan what I would answer if someone asked me what I had done that weekend or where I had gone on vacation. I could be confident that nobody looked at me and saw a representation of a deviant, immoral, or just plain weird kind of sexuality. I never had to fear that judgments of my job performance would be biased. This privilege, combined with the privilege I already had from being white and middle-class, made my daily life much, much easier.

But the straight privilege also had a price. I had come to really like many of my coworkers, but I felt like they didn’t actually know me. For all the freedom passing gave me, it took a lot of freedom away; I couldn’t talk about much of my politics, I couldn’t talk about large chunks of my past, and I couldn’t let anyone I worked with really become close friends with me. Hell, I couldn’t even friend them on Facebook!

And ultimately, I just got so tired of keeping up the “normal” act. I felt resentful and alienated and really guilty for all this lying, and I started to dread going to work. I ended up quitting for an unrelated reason, but this was a big part of why I was so relieved to go–and why I vowed to never, ever be closeted at work again.

I don’t want this to go into a long rant about how terrible and alienating it was to pass as straight. It did cause me a whole lot of angst, but it was still helping me the whole time. I was benefitting from a fucked-up system, and my angst didn’t change that. I am still benefitting from this same fucked-up system when I hold hands with my partner and don’t get harassed or beat up for it. And of course, this very same system will sometimes protect me and sometimes leave me vulnerable, depending on the genders and gender expressions of my future partners, or simply depending on my own gender presentation as I walk alone.

It’s not terribly ground-breaking to say that bisexuals have a complicated relationship with straight privilege. But still, I think it’s interesting that I was so clueless about its role in my life until I had to really face it head-on. Now I’m much more aware of what assumptions people are going to make about my identity in the absence of confirmation, and I try to out myself as early as possible with new acquaintances (and now I usually do it by mentioning this blog! Thanks, blogging!) And I’m trying to think of ways I can use my part-time privilege for good, rather than for evil (though I suppose using it for awesome would also be acceptable…)

I’m not a fan of denying or rejecting privilege unilaterally, because that sometimes isn’t even possible, and too often it’s used as an attempt to avoid coming to terms with or admitting that you are in fact privileged. So I am not going to try to rid myself of all straight privilege. However, I do want to think about when my privilege really is unavoidable and when I can choose to forgo it in exchange for more honesty (for me) and more visibility (for bisexuals/queers in general.) I want to remember the ease and safety I feel when navigating the world with a male partner and demand the same when with a female partner. But there’s got to be more I can do.

I think that one of the biggest lessons this whole experience taught me is that when you’ve been granted a privilege under some circumstances and denied it under others, you get to know its workings really well. So what can we do with this knowledge? And what should we do with our privilege?

13 Responses to “Passing and Privilege”

  1. 7 August 2008 at 8:01 pm

    OK, I officially love your blog. Suddenly all the conversations I’ve been wishing people would be having about bi/queer identity are happening here online. Thank you.

    I read this as someone on the other side, as it were, of a similar story — I am almost always read as queer-as-in-dyke, or maybe queer-as-in-when-I-refer-to-my-partner-as-“he”-new-friends-quickly-ask, “Is your partner trans?”

    How much of that is about my gender presentation? The fact that I move mostly in queer/genderqueer/feminist circles? The fact that I ID as queer but generally not “bi,” so people just assume … ? The fact of persistent bi/multi-gender-desiring invisibility in a lot of queer spaces? I’m always wondering how to maintain queer visibility in ways that make forms of queerness that are often *not* seen more visible … but I’m digressing …

    In terms of privilege, for me it feels important to remember that even when I am not choosing to pass or trying to pass as straight (which I never am choosing or trying to do), even when I am consciously choosing to be visible as queer, still I often benefit from straight privilege by being in a relationship that many people perceive as straight. So I like your comment about remembering when privilege is “unavoidable.” It feels like an important call to accountability. Thanks.

  2. 7 August 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Thanks! I’m so glad you like the blog! This is exactly what we wanted this blog to be: conversations we wished we were seeing out there, but never were.
    The whole “Is your partner trans?” thing is something I have heard of, and it really bugs me, because it seems to be based on the assumption that if a queer woman dates a trans man it’s somehow more queer because he’s not “really” a man, which is of course totally insulting to him. Intentionally or not, comments like that manage to subtly undermine trans people’s gender identities while also undermining bisexuals’ queerness. No good for anyone!
    And I really like what you say about making less-visible forms of queerness more visible. I sometimes wonder- when I make my queerness more visible by adopting some aspects of masculine gender presentation, am I inadvertently making femme queerness even more invisible than it already is? Worth pondering.

  3. 3 Megan H.
    7 August 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Staying closeted at work is really insidious. I do friend coworkers on Facebook, but it’s people’s assumptions that are harder to correct. Someone who works above me today (half)jokingly advised me to “marry a rich man.” I suppose I could have said “or lady,” or perhaps, “what a creepy concept” (I settled for “I don’t that’s my style”), but then there’s that part where they’re embarrassed they got it wrong, and you feel responsible for that embarrassment, even though it’s their fault for making bad assumptions. SIGH.

    Your above comment on queer visibility/making femme queerness invisible is something I think about a lot. Request to put it on your queue of forthcoming awesome posts?

  4. 7 August 2008 at 10:45 pm

    Yes, we can definitely add that to the list! I think Aviva has lots of really interesting thoughts on femme queerness and visibility, so that will be really fun to talk and post about here in Bifuriousland.
    Also, “marry a rich man?” EW.

  5. 5 Grace
    8 August 2008 at 10:51 am

    I’ve always identified as bisexual and found myself doing similar things, simply to make sure “nobody knew”. I agree about what you said, that privilege is more frightening to give up when you don’t understand it.

    I’m still trying to understand cis privilege, because it’s definately going bye-bye slowly for me. 🙂

  6. 8 August 2008 at 11:54 am

    I just discovered your blog from a nice mention on The Bilerico Project by Jessica (http://www.bilerico.com/2008/08/quickly_my_favorite_new_thing_bifurious.php), who I see is already commenting here. I look forward to reading more and plan to add you to my blogroll. Keep up the good work. I love your humor and your insight into things that too many of us take for granted. As a trans woman who is mostly lesbian but not averse to thought of a relationship with a guy (cis or trans), I have much to learn about being bi. However, I am well aware of the difference in my own comfort level when in public holding my girlfriend’s hand now post-transition versus what it was like holding my then girlfriend’s hand (not the same girlfriend, unfortunately) prior to my transition.

  7. 8 August 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Mad Props on this piece, your blog, and your url fo sho! Most awesome, thank you for posting this, people just dont understand what its like to be bi, all the trials and trestles we jump and swing over daily; because we were graced with this orientation at birth. Viva La Bifurious! (found your blog via biwriters on yahoogroups)

  8. 8 s
    9 August 2008 at 7:39 am

    Amen sister. There is no point in denying or avoiding privledge, and way more fun to use it to it’s awesomest power. No, I am not exclusively thinking about playing my favorite game, Dumb White Girl, with cops.

    We can learn to use peoples expectations to mix up and disempower our cultural presumptions. As freaky, kinky, or slutty as I may be, I can find some kind of common ground with your mom, or even your conservative christian neighbor. I will talk about my boyfriends then my girlfriends, some lovers, some not. I do not feel the need to explain the relationships or define those terms. Your mom will see me one way, your neighbor another, and you will have your own perception. The assumptions that people will come up with to preserve their existing beleif structures is just half the fun!

    Call me a closet bisexual passive active-aggressivist.

    I self identify as pansexual, but I will let you get comfortable with bisexual and wait to drop that new vocabulary word at your next tupperware/ weekenders/ candle/ spa party. Usually I just drop things in the conversation as if its are completely everyday small talk and move on. I do not pretend to be someone I am not, nor do I advertise what Im all about. I don’t talk much about my sex life at work because its not appropriate. If someone asks a honest question I will answer it pretty openly, but most people don’t ask. They may hear stories and gossip, some of which is quite outrageous, but they don’t ask. The ones who do are usually the ones who become my friends, and then its safe to tell them things, sometimes brings out a little hidden freak in them too.

    I think sometimes even very ignorant people have the absolute best intentions, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. If we can connect as people we can affect how eachother views the world, its a 2 way street. I have

  9. 9 shira
    10 August 2008 at 10:27 pm

    re: the first couple of comments, as a bisexual woman who has a great deal of difficulty getting a handle on how people perceive my sexuality at first glance, I was very surprised to have the is-he-trans experience. I had come into work with a shaved head one day, and one of my coworkers who I was very comfortable with asked me why the sudden change. I told him that my boyfriend had dumped me and I wanted to look like a different person, and his response was, “Oh- I thought you were queer.” When I responded that I am, he asked if my new ex was trans- which in retrospect is all the more surprising and, I think, upsetting, in light of the fact that this coworker is himself a trans boy.

  10. 10 Daomadan
    11 August 2008 at 10:13 am

    I found your blog through Bilerico and this bi/queer-indentified woman is so excited! I’m glad to see these types of conversations going on. Keep up the great work.

  11. 11 La
    11 August 2008 at 3:58 pm

    What irks me most is the lesbian population assuming that because I’m with a man currently that my gayness is in doubt. They keep telling me I don’t “get” it, when in fact, I get it double… lesbians distrust, dislike me too. In my sphere, being bisexual wasn’t my choice, but they’re acting toward me as they accuse most of the straight world of acting toward them. That just burns me up. I’ve been gay-bashed more by gays than I have by straights who I’ve come out to.

    My straight friends to whom I have come out don’t walk in the other direction when they see me coming at a party. I can count on one hand the number of lesbians in my community who don’t walk away when I walk up to them. So what’s up with that shit?

  12. 13 August 2008 at 11:34 am

    La, I definitely want to devote a whole future post to biphobia in queer communities, but just to respond in brief- I really like this post by Peppermint at Freaksexual, who makes the very astute point that biphobia in queer communities can “function as a stand-in for concerns around straight privilege.” As he points out, excluding bisexuals still totally sucks, and it’s not even accurate to exclude us all on the assumption that we are more privileged because individual bisexuals vary in their access to straight privilege (and, I would add, straight privilege is not the only kind of privilege that some queers have access to and others don’t.)

  13. 13 Max the Communist
    29 October 2008 at 3:11 am

    I’ve been out as bi for twenty-four years. I have intentionally sought out workplaces that would accept me being out at work, which limits me less now than it did in the late 80s.

    I found that the most accepting workplace for me was not a lesbian or gay-owned establishment or mainstream (straight dominated) workplace but a rather bohemian joint run by a couple of old 60s hippie radicals. That surprised me.

    I think the best advice for dealing with heteroprivilege has come from Dan Savage. A straight-identified couple wrote to his advice column asking what more they could do avoid heteroprivilege besides not get married. He told them to stop thinking of ways to avoid heteroprivilege–which is virtually impossible–and start directly and actively opposing queer oppression, like fighting proposition 8 in California. I think he’s right, for us bis as well as straights. Being pro-active will produce more results faster than just passively skirting privilege.

    By the way, a good pair of bi friends of mine, a man and a woman, got married and I, along with a few other bis in our small community, pounded them on getting married and the heteroprivilege that they would enjoy. I wish I hadn’t done that now. Turns out, my married bi-guy friend came out at his workplace, he was teaching sixth grade at a private school, and he got fired from his job. Not even being married protected him from discrimination. Just when you think heteroprivilege might save you from most kinds of grief, it doesn’t.

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