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.


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. 


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.


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.

Grindr 101: How to Be Safe & Have Fun with Dating Apps

Whatever age you are, and whatever your sexuality, dating can be hard work.

You have to find ways to meet someone that you fancy, you have to check whether they’re into you, you have to work through the logistics of arranging some sort of date, and you have to see whether there’s enough chemistry there to take that next step.

Fortunately, there is an increasing number of apps to help us connect with each other, including several for gay and bi guys. One of the most popular of these is an app called Grindr, but there’s lots of similar apps out there all delivering a fairly similar kind of service.

What Is Grindr?

Using the geo-location capability of smart-phones, Grindr can show you the profiles of other gay and bi guys within your area (who are also using the app), it gives you basic information about them, shows whether or not they are online and available for chat, and it shows you how far away they are from your location. It always reminds me a bit of the Cerebro machine used by Professor X on the X-men, finding the other mutants out there.

There’s lots of great benefits to using an app like Grindr -- for one, it immediately shows you that you’re not alone, turn on the app wherever you are and you’ll quickly see that there are plenty of gay guys out there, even in some of the most surprising and remote places. You’ll also quickly realize that most of the guys on apps like Grind are keen to chat, keen to engage, keen to meet-up -- that’s why they’re using the app, just like you.

It can be exciting, fun, and self-affirming to meet other guys with apps, but the first priority is always to be safe

Proceed with Caution: Tips for Safety & Emotional Well-Being

There are a few areas of caution though with apps like Grindr (that also apply to Internet dating in general), so I want to share some of the things that I’ve learnt (by experience) along the way.


1. Don’t over-share.

You’ll quickly realize that when you start chatting with guys on apps like Grindr, they are likely going to ask you to send some photos. This is one way of making conversation, of seeing if you’re attracted to each other, to see whether you want to take it further.

But, like your profile pic, once you put a photo out there you really don’t have much control over what happens to it -- so be cautious about sending revealing photos or ones that clearly show your face. It’s not ideal if a prospective employer does a Google search on you and what they get is a little more than they bargained for.

While it's fun to chat and get to know someone new -- maybe even meet up for a date -- the reality is, you never know who's on the other end of your convo. Do not give personal information, like your home address, out to anyone you meet online; if you choose to go on a date, do it in a public space and make sure a friend or guardian knows where you are and is able to check in with you. If you can, consider making it a group date.


2. Don’t overthink your profile.

Keep it simple and honest: Be yourself, not someone else. I'd recommend not trying to be too funny or kooky, too cool or sexy -- just write what you’re comfortable in sharing with people you don’t know. Another reason to be yourself when app dating: It reaffirms that being gay or bi is nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you’re not ready to be open about your sexuality with everyone, then you want to be cautious about posting pictures, especially of your face. 


3. Don’t take it personally

There’s lots of reasons why a guy might not respond to your message, or may have responded a couple of times and then you don’t hear from him again. Generally it’s because they’re busy, or they’ve gone to work, or their maybe even that their boyfriend has come home(!).

Don’t get upset or become a bit desperate if the guys that you'd like to meet in your area aren’t being particularly responsive. If you feel yourself slipping into these emotions, that's a sign that Grindr isn't contributing to your emotional health, and you should consider taking a break from using it. Self-worth and self-esteem come from within, not from someone else validating your attractiveness.

Apps like Grindr require you to kiss a lot of frogs before you get to the Prince Charmings. Don’t obsess about Grindr -- check your messages occasionally but if there’s no one on there grabbing your interest or returning your messages, then go to the gym, hang with friends, or whatever else makes you feel part of a social space.


There’s a lot of “Don’ts” on this list, but really the main lesson that I’ve learnt from using Grindr is just to relax, be safe, and have some fun -- that’s what dating is all about.


Photo courtesy of dharmasphere / Flickr.