To 'Pass' or Not to 'Pass'?: On Being Openly LGBTQ in a Foreign Country

My Journey Across the Pond

On September 5, I left the United States wearing men’s slacks and a “DYKESVILLE SOFTBALL” t-shirt.  On September 6, I arrived in Scotland in a dress.  I made the transition in the women’s stall at Edinburgh Airport, shoving the t-shirt to the bottom of my backpack and then digging lipstick from my suitcase.

The LGBTQ scene functions differently in the United Kingdom than in my American hometown, especially at the University of St. Andrews, which prides itself on wealth and conservatism.  Prince William and Kate Middleton famously met here, and students dress as if they’re in line for the throne.  I have yet to see a girl sporting flannel and a shaved head, and the most radical activist is a little old lady handing out Scottish referendum pamphlets.

During orientation, I attended an LGBTQ mixer and was, unsurprisingly, the only person of color there (Scotland’s population is a hefty 98.19% white).  However, I didn’t anticipate that the white students would cock their heads at me—Are you lost?—and then turn their backs.  My race negated my sexuality.  I ate my complimentary veggie burger at a table, alone.

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The African-Caribbean Society welcomed me with open arms and jollof rice.  This semester, the society has hosted public forums about West African politics, the evolution of European hip-hop, and literary depictions of Afropolitanism.  Sexuality has never come up, even in my one-on-one conversations outside of the forums.  I don’t hide my sexuality, but no one has asked—so I “pass.”

Passing.  Some strive for it, while others consider it the bane of the LGBTQ rights movement.  Passing is when a non-heterosexual or non-cisgender person is perceived as heterosexual or cisgender (non-transgender). 

Some people pass on purpose; for example, a girl with a “queer” haircut may grow out her hair in order to be read as straight.  Some people, like feminine lesbians and masculine gay men, pass accidentally. In the transgender community, passing may depend not just on clothing choice, but also on hormone supplements, facial hair and altered body-fat distribution.

 I often have “passing privilege” because, as a feminine bisexual, I could theoretically “become straight” by only dating men for the rest of my life.  (Ick.)  So whenever I enter a new space, such as St. Andrews, I get to decide how to present. 

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Passing is Your Decision

If you go abroad, the decision to pass is completely yours.

Pros of Passing:

(1)   Cisgender/heterosexual privilege will allow you to fit in more easily.

(2) If the country is staunchly anti-gay or anti-trans*, you will avoid harassment and discrimination.

Cons of Passing:

(1)      You may feel like you’re being dishonest to your true self, which can lead to depression and anxiety.

(2)      You may feel isolated from the LGBTQ community.

(3) The country you’re visiting may be more gay- or trans*-friendly than you think, but you’ll never have the opportunity to find out if you’re focused on passing.

 

Questions to Ask Yourself about Passing in a Foreign Country:

(1) What is the current political/religious situation of the country I’m going to visit?  Are you popping off to Paris, France or Marrakech, Morocco? Always research the country; don’t assume.

(2)  Is it illegal to be openly LGBTQ in this country?  If the answer is yes, still be careful.  You could face jail time for being too open.

(3) How long will I be there?  It could be anywhere from a two-week vacation to a permanent move.  For example, because I’ll be in Scotland for four months, I don’t want to hide my identity for that long.  I probably couldn’t even if I wanted to.

(4) Who am I?  Ultimately, passing is based on stereotypes.  No one really knows what a lesbian or a gay man looks like (contrary to popular belief, sexual orientation is not directly linked to flannel or sequins), but you can “pass” by defying stereotypes.  

However, the road goes both ways.  If you’re a gay man and you’ve always acted flamboyantly, is it because you truly want to, or because you feel you should?  If you’re a lesbian and you’ve always shaved your head, is it because you like that haircut, or because that’s what lesbians “do”?  Going abroad is a chance to start over.  Don’t be afraid to question the things you’ve always done.

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Wherever you decide to travel, I wish you the best: I hope that you can stay true to yourself while having an amazing time.

As for me, I’ve been in Scotland for two weeks, and although I haven’t come out, I’ve hung a rainbow flag in my flat.  Baby steps.  Time will tell how I learn to navigate my sexuality abroad. 

 
Photo courtesy of Rube M Jr. / Flickr.