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(This post is part of a series. You can read the second post, in which I discuss queer impostor syndrome, here.)

UPDATE 02/18/2014
In this post I reference Janet Mock to illustrate certain points (along with other people and myself) and recently, in promotion for her book tour, she released a short video expressing her own complicated relationship with the concept of “passing”. Her words and experiences are important to this conversation and I’d like to share them here:

Thank you for watching; now back to the original post.

Passing privilege is an interesting and complex thing and, for those who have it, it can be both helpful and confusing and sometimes both and more at the same time. There are many different specific types of passing privilege but I’d like to talk about a couple of broad interpretations and then a little about my experience with it.

Notes on “Passing”

“Passing” is essentially the ability of a person to be automatically regarded by others as a member of a certain larger group. Passing privilege comes in when a person is generally regarded by others as a member of a “societally normative” group or a specifically privileged group (cisgendered, heterosexual, able bodied, educated, white, etc). This can take on a lot of different forms depending on the identity and presentation of the individual and it can be incredibly confusing (because: life, amirite?) so let’s start with some generalized examples and then dig deeper.

  1. The privilege of being identified as part of a group to which a person personally identifies
  2. The privilege of being identified as part of a group to which a person doesn’t identify but which carries societal privilege

Any individual aspect of a person’s identity can fall into one or both of these categories (See? Complicated.) Furthermore, as you might pick up, “passing” has more to do with other’s perceptions of a person’s identity rather than that person’s actual identity, so the way a person “passes” can be in sync or in conflict (or both) with their actual identity.

Has your brain started to hum yet? Let’s get deeper with some more illustrative examples since sometimes it’s just too hard to words. Writer and trans* advocate Janet Mock is an example of the first general type because she is most likely easily identified by strangers as female and also identifies as female.

Her new book comes out in less than a month; get ready! (Photo by Aaron Tredwell)

Similar can be said of most of the men on this list, for example:*

Katastrophe, you obnoxiously handsome devil.

Katastrophe, you obnoxiously handsome devil.

So to reiterate, this type of passing is characterized by a person having their identity immediately and [in some way] affirmatively recognized. (If you’re interested in the opposite experience check out this piece by Logan.)

And what about the second general type? Koa Beck recently published a piece over on Salon that illustrates it well (and in some ways inspired this post; thanks, Koa). It’s about her experiences navigating through life being perceived as straight and white, neither of which she identifies as.

Seriously, read her story.

Some other examples here are bi-identified people in monogamous opposite sex relationships and non-monogamous couples who present as “socially monogamous”. If uncorrected, most strangers will identify these people as hetero and monogamous because society loves its norms.

But it’s so safe and warm and simple in here!

Ready for one more noodle-twist? An individual part of a person’s identity can sometimes overlap both general type categories. Let’s go back to Janet Mock as an example: it’s likely that, to a stranger in a neutral context, she would be identified as cis-female. I said above that her passing as female while also identifying as female is an example of type 1 but she also proudly and vocally identifies as trans so being seen as cis-female is potentially an example of type 2!

There’s even a continuum for how people relate to their own passing privilege. One person who is bi-identified can be frustrated by being misidentified as straight because advocacy around bi-visibility is a big part of their life while another could rely on it to protect their career or because they’re not yet ready to be fully out. And even THAT can be evolving over time for a given person. I currently pass as cis-male but identify as genderqueer. I find some comfort (and some anxiety) in my passing because I’m not ready to be fully out, however a year or two from now I could have a totally different perspective on my passing privilege!…

Let’s stop this now because we could be here forever.

Now, lest anyone get the impression that I’m placing a value judgement on the experiences above it’s important to note that, like other forms of privilege, passing privilege is neither good nor bad. However, also like other types of privilege, it can affect how we relate to others and to ourselves so it’s important to understand and be aware of it.

Now that you have a taste of all this complexity, stay tuned for Part 2 where I put all these things and more inside a person [me] and talk about the concept of “queer impostor syndrome”. Also FEELINGS.

* There are lots of problematic things about the way this link’s content is presented but it illustrates my point fairly well. I can talk about those issues specifically if people want but they are more of a tangent from the actual topic of this post.