On passing and privilege

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a post for a few weeks now, some grand statement on coming out on the Internet, and what that means. As I’ve not gotten around to writing it (n.b. I choose to describe this not as procrastination, but as the deep, meditative period that is an essential part of the writing process), what I wanted to write about has shifted. On some level, I think, I wanted to write this post but was already bored by it. I have come out so many times, to so many people, and have read about so many other people coming out, that I feel like it’s a moot point.*

But it isn’t. Because I have come to discover another level, the one that is still holding on to fear, closets, shame, internalized homophobia, and privilege. I’m fairly certain that most people I’ve met post-college, those who are at least familiar enough to be considered acquaintances, assume or know I’m queer. I cut my hair last year, after I stopped working in middle schools, because I was tired of passing. As straight. The unexpected consequence, one that I’m still getting used to, is that now I don’t always pass (or, more precisely “read”) as female.

A few weekends ago, I was in line for the women’s restroom at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and informed me, “The men’s restroom is on the other side.” In that split second, I experienced not anger and frustration, but confusion and violation. (Don’t worry, anger and frustration came into play later.)

A few days later, as I was still figuring out my reaction(s), I brought up the incident with a queer friend who has a different relationship with gender and passing. I was trying to explain why I was upset, and our conversation centered on the moment of misunderstanding. My friend suggested that the incident was upsetting because the woman in the bathroom made assumptions about how I identify and tried to determine and impose where I belong, and not upsetting because of the gender policing, per se. I disagreed, but couldn’t articulate why I found both problematic.

The next day, my friend brought the conversation up again and said that one thing I’d repeated stuck out: “I identify as female.” His experiences with gender, sexuality, passing — and danger — are different than mine, and, he said, he was interpreting my experience through his own.**

Having that second conversation helped crystallize what I was feeling. In the moment, I felt violated — to have been touched, labeled different, confronted by someone else’s assumptions. And I also felt violated because I know where every bathroom in that building is; I stage manage in the courtyard outside of the Union Center for the Arts, and I drink a lot of water.

But I also felt that powerful mix of shame and fear that too many people in too many communities know far too well, in the moments when a dominant group, in the most subtle (or not at all subtle) of ways, leverages its reminders about who is in power, what is considered normal, acceptable, morally correct. I am almost certain that the woman who tapped me on the shoulder thought she was doing me a favor. In spite of the fact that I was in the middle of a very crowded line of very femininely-dressed women. In spite of the fact that the men’s restroom is closer to the theater exit, so we had both walked by it to get to the women’s restroom. And in spite of the fact that I was wearing heels and holding my clutch, oops, JK, that’s not my Saturday night outfit of choice. I felt fear. And I felt powerless. In that moment, the best I could come up with was stammering “I’m female,” in something that was far closer to an apology than I care to admit. Because it wasn’t just about that moment. It brought back the first time I experienced transphobia in a very real, very public way and felt, to my bones, physically unsafe. It brought back the smirk of the man on the bus who took the aisle seat and kept edging closer to me as I shrank against the window, until I finally got up to stand by the driver, and the anger I felt when I took off running for my friend’s place, knowing that he had gotten off at the same stop and was nonchalantly, smirkingly, sauntering in my direction. It brought back the time I was in Grenoble with my friend Liz and we were surrounded by a group of teenage boys who wanted to know what kind of Asian we were, where we were from, where we were going, as they kept circling closer and taunting us, with just enough edge of threat in their voices to make me start trying to figure out which one looked weakest, how to edge closer to the wall to close off the circle and keep them all in front of us. It brought back the painful memory that the first time a girlfriend held my hand in public, my first thought was not about us, but about our safety.

People who don’t fit in to dominant culture learn how to make these calculations, learn how to identify escape routes and the quickest way to safety, learn to look for recognition and disapproval in the eyes of strangers. It is a violation when someone exerts their power over you, whether as a threat or as a reminder. 

I’m putting in a subhead here to transition back to talking about being out
Originally, I wanted to write a version of this post because I needed to submit an artist bio for Common Ground OC, for their July 5 show. As the deadline approached, I realized that I had yet to announce on the Internet, “Hey Internet, I identify as queer!” And I hesitated. Not, like, got-back-in-the-closet-considered-dating-men-exclusively-grew-my-hair-back-out hesitated, but there was a definite pause. A moment of reflection, I suppose.

I was downloading Paintbrush for Mac, but then I got bored of waiting. Imagine that I drew boxes around my name and “queer” and added an arrow and something snarky. Also, sorry that all of my blog images are actually just screen caps.

My mind came back to the idea of “rational outness,” something one of my queer professors had brought up in class as a way of explaining that awkward moment when the practice of being out in some spheres (where it’s safe) and not being out in others (where it’s not). Funny thing is, those spheres kind of overlap a lot. At the time I learned the phrase “rational outness,” it was a blessing. It gave me a way to view coming out as a step-by-step process, one that I had control over and could share with people as I chose to.*** But now, here, four or so years later, I’ve realized that “rational outness,” for me, emphasis on “me,” and this being about my experience, is a copout. It’s a way for me to stay partly in the closet, because I’m afraid of losing something — safety, yes, but also privilege, authority, power, relationships.

One of my former co-workers, who identified as queer, sort of, but really chose not to identify, explained that she didn’t want to identify as queer, publicly, because she was able to make a stronger case for equal rights when people considered her a straight ally, just like she was able to do anti-racist work as a white person. Something about this, also, feels like a copout. And I recognize that I am viewing her personal decisions through the lens of my own experience, and my own decisions about when to be out. But for me, here, now, rational outness isn’t enough. I can’t help but think of the shared root in “rational” and “rationalize,” as in “attempt to explain or justify with reasons, even if those reasons are not true.” As in, find excuses to stay in the closet and benefit from heteronormative privilege.

To put it simply, and I am quoting from a wise, wise friend here: Fuck that. Fuck THAT.

I am done with hiding, with being 97.03% out of the closet, done with glossing over gender pronouns out of respect for elders, out of fear of upsetting people, out of wanting to protect family members from uncomfortable conversations. I am done with wondering whether I should keep my hair so I can find a respectable job. (Turns out, not a big deal. I have been dissuaded, however, from getting a fade with my nonprofit’s logo in the back of my head.) One of my mentors (“gay den mom,” really) asked, more than once, “Why would you want to work for a place where you couldn’t be yourself?” I don’t know, why would I? I wouldn’t. I don’t. Done with that.

I want to make this clear: I get to write this from a place of privilege. I am lucky to be able to work at a place that fully embraces women, people of color, queer people, people who stand in different places on the gender spectrum, people who have experienced mental health issues, violence, homelessness, and a system that has tried to break them. I am lucky to work for an organization that believes, to its core, in empowerment, at the level of every individual human who comes through our doors. I don’t have to choose between being able to be fully myself and being able to support myself. We should all be so lucky.

As important as it is to have straight allies, to have male feminists, to have white, anti-racist activists be part of our conversations and struggles for social justice …

It is absolutely critical that people speak for themselves. To stand up for their identities, whether as a quote-unquote marginalized voice, or as a member of a historically underrepresented group, or as an out, proud, queer, female-identified, Taiwanese-American (but ethnically Chinese), second generation poet/nerd/blogger.

Having a voice matters. Using your voice makes a difference. Embracing who you are and how you choose to express yourself is a way to live each day more fully human.

I am a poet. I write from multiple perspectives. Being queer, being Asian, being second-generation, being an English major, being really into puns, being human — and, sometimes, being deeply afraid — all of these perspectives influence my work.

They also inspire it.

* Although, of course, it’s apparently possible to be too blasé about coming out; once, I kind of just slipped it into a conversation with a friend while we were in line for the bathroom at a bar. She almost fainted. She claims it was the heat and her low alcohol tolerance. I think she got the vapors.

** For anyone taking notes on this kind of thing, I believe this is a pretty damn good example of what “decent human being” means. Like, for real, how many people that you know seek you out after having reflected on a conversation you had in passing to apologize for an assumption they later realized they made, and to make sure that you’re OK? Also, hey, now that you’re flipping through your mental Rolodex identifying those friends, how ’bout you give them a call and tell them they’re awesome?

*** Except, I guess, for the time when the news editor yelled across the newsroom of the Daily Bruin, “Audrey, are you a lesbian?” I am calling you out, Anthony J. Pesce, not cool. His justification: It led to dates (mine).

9 responses

  1. Paintbrush for Mac? Don’t you have the entire Adobe Suite?

    You know I have a lot of feelings about this (particularly bathroom situations), but I figured that should be mentioned before I run of to school. Stop awkwardly mentioning/excusing/apologizing for procrastination/writing slowly. <3

    • I … might have discovered that I need to relearn everything. Apprenticeship? Also, your comment suggests that you wanted to share your bathroom feelings. (That sentence came out awkward, but I’m letting it stand. No apologies!)

  2. “Stop awkwardly mentioning/excusing/apologizing for procrastination/writing slowly. ” <- Amen, Syd. When it's as thoughtful as this, we can wait.
    PS Your hair is cute
    PPS yay chapbook!

  3. Dear Audrey,
    I love your poem “I want to take you home with me tonight” (via Angry Asian Man), which brought me to this remarkable post. As a female, first-generation Taiwanese-American writer deeply interested in queer issues, I couldn’t have been more excited. It made me want to have a conversation with you.

    You mentioned you cut your hair because you are tired of passing as straight. Do you feel like heteronormative society prevents you from feeling like you can be a queer woman and still exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics (e.g. long hair)? I am genuinely curious.

    I’m also curious as to your take on musician Frank Ocean’s coming out. Some have taken the revelation that he once fell in love with a man to mean that he is bi; some that he is gay. (He has love songs that employ female pronouns; others male). In the weeks since, he has yet to specify how he identifies (e.g. here’s the latest from The Guardian: http://bit.ly/OHgEih). Do you feel that he is shirking his responsibility as a public figure/artist by not specifying what type of queer he is? That he is doing more for queer rights by not forcing one’s identity into clear-cut categories? Or that “rational outness” plays a legitimate role here? I’ve had a number of conversations about this with queer friends, and they all seem to differ in their opinions. (I, myself, am straight.)

    I’m excited to read more of your work and share more thoughts…

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