The Bittersweet Privilege Of Straight-Passing In Queer Communities

·7-min read

“I’m a special type of bisexual. I’m the type that’s in a long-term relationship with a straight cis man,” comedian Emily Wilson says as she appears on my TikTok For You page. “You guys know this type? We’re rare. See us! We exist!” she says with an exaggerated exasperation and flailing hands.

“I feel like you can always kinda tell when a girl with a boyfriend is bisexual,” she says. And without a breath she flatly adds, “because she tells you, right away.”

It’s funny. I get it. I am it. As a bisexual woman in a long-term relationship with a straight cis man, the desperate plea to feel seen is something that I’ve grappled with. My decision to come out as queer was marred by internal and external doubt — imposter syndrome and biphobia were the shadows I couldn’t shake.

With a six-year relationship under my belt and without any outwardly stereotypical queer characteristics, I was nervous that my newfound identity wouldn’t be accepted by the LGBTQIA+ community and heterosexual people alike.

This fear is not uncommon, and Minus18 Workshop Presenter Tessa Caramia spoke to Refinery29 Australia over the phone to debunk the complexities of being ‘straight passing’ (i.e. someone who can pass as cisgender or heterosexual).

“The idea of being someone who is a straight-passing is holding that queer identity in a way where no one would assume that you sat outside of the heteronormativity; you’re someone who has a diverse identity but no one would pick it,” she tells me. “But as soon as you speak out loud about [being queer], that kind of protection that it affords you starts to wear away and that can feel really scary in so many different ways.”

Though this was a source of confusion and anxiety for me, it was — and is — something I feel guilty of even worrying about.

The imbalanced privilege of being straight-passing

As trans writer Cosima Bee Concordia says, “If worrying whether or not you’re ‘queer enough’ is one of the biggest things plaguing you in your queerness, that’s a big privilege! That doesn’t make you not queer, but it does gesture to how maybe you should stop centring your insecurity at the cost of other queer people.”

I know she’s right; my ability to cloak parts of my identity by choice is a privilege that’s not afforded to many. Caramia points to safety and wellbeing as the biggest liberties of being straight-passing, to which I nod along because my physical safety is something that’s not impinged because of my often undetectable queerness. But Caramia defines safety and wellbeing in a way that I hadn’t fully considered before.

“Often within queer spaces we speak to safety in the sense of someone’s sense of mental and physical wellbeing, but also their resilience, their sense of belonging, their sense of being able to be their true selves in a really authentic [and] gentle way, [and] knowing that they’re not going to be trivialised or disrespected or boxed in because their whole self is welcome there,” she says.

Because what happens when someone isn’t granted this welcomeness and who repeatedly has these parts of themselves erased, is that their sense of self gradually wears away.

“I think that it can lead into almost a sense of survivor’s guilt… but at the same time, it almost contributes to a sense of self-erasure. It’s a very complicated feeling of protection, and [there’s] maybe a little bit of grief as well.”

TESSA Caramia

But safety and wellbeing can be less abstract than this too. Straight-passing people may not be forced into filling in as educators or advocators which comprise gruelling tasks of continuously coming out, teaching others about LGBTQIA+ identities, and answering to stereotypes. Again, this pales in comparison to the violence experienced by trans, gender diverse, and non-binary communities.

“[Their] sense of safety does come down to a matter of life or death; transphobic violence and transphobia are peeking around the world… For many people who are trans and gender diverse, being able to be their true selves is something really exciting and really important. But that added visibility comes with added risk because if people can see that you’re different, they will often then respond to you in different ways.”

In turn, Caramia talks about how ‘stealthing’ — which is passing for someone who is cisgender — can almost be a requirement. For some, straight passing isn’t a burden to carry, but a necessity for survival.

What if you can’t pass as straight?

There’s an exchange of trust between queer people and the world, especially for those whose LGBTQIA+ label is out in plain sight. Throw in intersections of faith, culture, race, and geographic location, and mitigating risk factors becomes increasingly harder.

“You’re putting yourself in the position of being at the mercy of the people around you, and hoping the people around you are allies,” says Caramia. “You don’t get to control that. And that’s a real sense of trust between yourself in the world around you.”

Physiologically, Caramia adds that that can keep one’s body in a consistent state of fight or flight. “You’re never allowed to [be] truly comfortable or relaxed which is required in order to be able to thrive in any number of ways. And we know that stress impacts on a person’s mental and physical health, especially over the course of their lives,” she says.

What are the negative consequences for those who unwillingly straight-pass?

It feels almost foolish or redundant to then ask, “but what about me?” My sulky problems seem insignificant in comparison. But Caramia gently reminds me not to write off my concerns. Queer gatekeeping doesn’t help anyone, after all.

She agrees that feelings of imposter syndrome can inhabit people finding community, and concurrently, foster survivor’s guilt and self-erasure.

“When you acknowledge that there is a sense of safety that comes with [straight-passing], you [learn that you] can then control the narrative about who does or does not know those parts of yourself,” Caramia explains.

It’s about accepting that the ability to straight pass can provide you with security and protection, and also accepting that there’s a sadness that comes with feeling invalid and invisible.

“I think that it can lead into almost a sense of survivor’s guilt… but at the same time, it almost contributes to a sense of self-erasure. It’s a very complicated feeling of protection, and [there’s] maybe a little bit of grief as well.”

It’s about accepting that the ability to straight pass can provide you with security and protection, and also accepting that there’s a sadness that comes with feeling invalid and invisible. And believe me, those feelings suck. While I am lucky that I don’t have to fear for my physical wellbeing, I do mourn the fact that there’s a heart-breaking part of myself that doesn’t fit where it’s supposed to fit.

After unprofessionally pouring out my heart to Caramia, she envelops me in an over-the-phone hug.

“For us — people who exist within the LGBTQIA+ community — your experience and your sense of self and your authenticity are yours and unique to every aspect of who you are; whether that be your family, your culture, your face, your body, or the different kinds of ways that you are able to think and see the world,” she emphatically scores onto my heart. “The richness and diversity within that is something that has always and will always be upheld within the LGBTQIA+ community.”

“The number one thing that I would recommend is to seek stories, do some research, go to the Internet and find different ways that queerness has been represented in cultures all around the world, because the one thing that you will find is that there is no one way to be queer, and that sense of diversity in itself, is the belonging that you’re looking for. You deserve absolutely nothing less than that; [don’t] expect anything less than that as well. I think that uniqueness of your story is the core of queerness itself. At the end of the day, that’s what we really want to celebrate for, and within, each other.”

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