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.

*Tips for Trans Teens*: 3 Ways to Build Mental & Emotional Strength

My son was only 6-years-old when I heard the horrifying statistic: Transgender people are currently the population with the highest risk of suicide. I looked at James, my beautiful boy, and I was scared. As a mother, what could I do? What resources could I find to keep my boy safe from self-harm? 

There was no denying James was a boy in a "girl"’s body: he had been telling us since he was 2. It just took us a few more years for us to really believe it. Now he was 6, and nobody used the pronoun “she” anymore; strangers we met had no idea there was anything but a boy under those clothes. I wanted to do everything in my power to make James strong in his heart and happy with his boy self.

As the mother of a trans boy, I knew in my heart that I needed to do something to reduce the risk of self-harm before he hit puberty, when life is extra difficult both mentally and emotionally. I knew I would need to do much more than just the surface stuff, the haircuts and clothes.  Here's some helpful steps I figured out along the way:


1. Search for the right therapist

I figured if he started therapy young, it would help him be comfortable talking about personal issues.  Therapy could give him a vocabulary he might need to express or make a stand for himself. 

We were fortunate to find a transgender FTM therapist and author, Reid Vanderburgh.  We met with him a few times, and for long-term work he recommended we work with the therapists at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). With SMYRC we could use our state health insurance and would have access to more resources. 

In James’s journey with mental healthcare, I always felt it was important he keep a positive attitude towards therapy. I allowed him to self-regulate: if he lost interest, we would stop for a while until he decided he should go back again.


2. Find other trans families for support

Another great thing Reid Vanderburgh did for us back then was to direct us to a small network of families who had transgender children around the same age. So the second thing we did was join a network of families with trans members.

The group was started by one mom who was, like me, concerned for the future mental strength of her 5-year-old FTM (female-to-male) trans child. This mother reached out to every resource and person she could find (including Reid Vanderburgh) and planted the seed. She planted this seed of an idea, put out her email as a contact, and families came from as far as 30 miles away to be a part of this group. 

For about six years, anywhere from four to eight families would join in BBQs and holiday parties hosted by one of the families or summer picnics at various parks.  The children all played together.  We all wanted them to know they were not alone in this world, to know that they were just as “normal” as anybody else.

The added bonus was that the gatherings also gave the parents a chance to compare notes on hormone therapies, doctors, legal documentation for name and gender changes, school documentation issues and more.


3. Look for a trans role models or mentors

The third thing I did was find James a mentor. One thing I couldn’t help thinking about was that when he hit puberty, his mom would be the last person he would want to talk to about personal or sexual issues.

A friend of mine had been a "big brother" with Big Brother, Big Sister and I kept thinking how cool it would be if my boy (who was 8 at the time), could have a transgender FTM big brother. I asked the SMYRC therapist if there was any way to reach out to the community and find a pool of possible FTM applicants. She was very supportive and even contacted Big Brother, Big Sister for us.

They assigned us a Big Brother, Big Sister worker who screened the applicants, ran background checks and did the match. They found the perfect match and for the past six years a strong bond has developed. My son's “Big Brother” has become a significant support person in his life.


Now James is a young teen. He is a solid and joyous individual who works hard in school, has lots of friends, a beautiful girlfriend, and participates in numerous physical and artistic activities.

But the teen years have not all been this wonderful; we had a bad scare last winter. Not long after his 14th birthday James got extremely depressed, became suicidal in his thoughts, and even made attempts to harm himself. What saved him and pulled him through to the other side was a combination of everything we could access.

We immediately got him back into therapy at SMYRC. James’s “Big” made a point to spend more time with him, and I found ways to keep him busy with classes and activities he enjoyed. I know now there is no sure way to completely eliminate the risk of self-harm, but we can soften the fall and create support systems that can help bring us back standing stronger and taller than ever.  

We can do this for ourselves and the ones we love; we just need to know that support is out there. If we look for it we will find it. The mom who started the Trans Family Network showed me that we all have the power to create the support and community we need if we just plant the seed.

Once we figure out what we need, we all have the power to get it, even if what we need is of our own creation. 


Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Looking for LGBTQ Youth Advice? 'THE IMPACT PROGRAM' Might Help.

As a part of the LGBTQ community, it is vital to find support from organizations and individuals, whether it be family, friends or for- and non-profit organizations. There are specific organizations that work with the wider LGBT community, as well as folks who worth specifically with you: LGBT youth. Searching on the web is a great place to start.

THE IMPACT PROGRAM at Northwestern University is just one of many awesome websites (besides Acts of Greatness!) that caters specifically to you as an LGBTQ youth. The Impact Program is a research-based organization that receives funding from major foundations such as the National Institutes of Health to find ways to improve LGBTQ health, as well as increase understanding about LGBTQ people in society.

That might sound a big heavy and boring, but trust me: Sites like this can provide a means of support you need from people who make it their job to understand teens.

On the Impact Program's site, you can learn about their studies on LGBT youth and sexuality, read their youth-centered blog that answers questions many LGBTQ youth have -- maybe even some you've had.  Like:

You can also participate in interactive media such as quizzes and videos, and create videos of your own to reach out to and encourage other LGBTQ youth.


Websites like Acts of Greatness and the Impact Program can help you find your sense of self or help others while doing so. You’re not only learning but you can share your own experiences to serve other youth who are in similar situations and need support. 

So, why don't you take some time to check it out and see what it can do for you? 


Photo courtesy of The Impact Program.

"Gayyyme for Anything": An Open Letter to Kate McKinnon

Note: Kate McKinnon is the first openly lesbian cast member of Saturday Night Live, and was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 2014. 

Dear Kate,

If you are reading this, then please come to brunch with me.  We’ll bond over our shared love of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Vegetti, and Food Network.

Okay, there are two problems with that proposal.  1) I don’t actually watch Food Network.  And 2) you’re not reading this, because Saturday Night Live Season 40 has just begun, and you’re busy getting in frame with Chris Pratt.

I appreciate your work.  By being openly gay, you’re breaking down walls for LGBTQ actors and comedians—and on a smaller scale, you’re breaking down walls for me. I first saw you on the Big Gay Sketch Show two years ago. I was 18, and the good Lord had just blessed me with Netflix. I had never seen anything like BGSS before, because its comedic platform didn’t just tolerate LGBTQ identities, it celebrated them.

"Fitzwilliam the Gender-Confused English Boy" was the first sketch I ever saw that addressed trans* identities in a creative way, rather than the tired “Surprise!  She’s a man!” trope. I entertained a sloppy Jewish crush on Julie Goldman, envied your relationship in “Lesbian Speed Dating,” and felt proud to identify with many of the jokes on the show.  You threw yourself into every character you played, and it showed.

I’ve always been ashamed of being gay.  (Hell, I’m writing this under a pen name in case my grandparents ever discover the Internet.)  But I’ve started to, quite honestly, just get over it. I’m queer.  And proud.  And I write.  Next?

Although I’ve always loved comedy, it wasn’t until I gluttonized on BGSS that I seriously considered writing for the screen.  I’m not naïve—I’m a queer woman of color, and Hollywood isn’t bending over backwards to hand out QWOC producer credits—but seeing you embrace your sexuality on screen helped me realize that I can do the same thing.  Or at least dream about it. 

It’s terrifying to be out in the workplace, especially in the entertainment industry, but  performers such as you, Neil Patrick Harris, and the entire cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race prove that one can be both wildly queer and wildly successful.

This is an open letter for two reasons.  1) Because right now, you’re probably cooking zucchini pasta instead of reading this.  2) Because this letter isn’t actually for you.  It’s for the young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, pansexual, genderqueer, genderbending, agender and fabulous teenagers who are scared to be themselves.  This letter is to remind them that embracing their identities is terrifying, but it’s worth it, and it never hurts to laugh along the way.

I plan to keep writing and I plan to keep being gay.  Both identities are terrifying, are unchangeable, and nearly gave my parents heart attacks.  So thank you for being an inspiration to me.  Thank you for showing LGBTQ youth how to embrace their true identities.  Thank you for doing a flawless Angela Merkel impression.

 If you happen to see this letter, my dear Kate McKinnon, then please send me an email (ümail?).  It would make my year.  But even if you never see this, then thank you for the work that you’ve already done, and I look forward to seeing how you—and other LGBTQ young adults—conquer the world.

Cheers and queers,



Catch McKinnon in other inspirational lesbian roles, including Bethany on Vag Magazine, Justin Bieber on Saturday Night Live, and Just Jamie on Hudson Valley Ballers.

Looking for other comedy shows?  I recommend The Big Gay Sketch Show, Words with Girls, Vag Magazine, Julie Goldman - Lady Gentleman, and Féminin/Féminin.


Photo courtesy of Pedro Simoes / Flickr.

4 Hard Truths about LGBTQ Self-Acceptance

As an adult lesbian, I’ve sometimes found it difficult to find self-acceptance. I don’t know if this is the case for you as adolescents coming into adulthood, but I imagine you have either been through this at some point or may be going through it now.

I wish I had all the answers as an older, wiser person, but the truth is, I don’t. I have, however, learned a few things along my way of coming out and growing into who I am. Here are some of them:

(1) It’s okay to dislike yourself -- as long as you work towards getting over it.

You might think this is counterproductive and kind of dumb. It came naturally for me and possibly you too. I learned that disliking myself for some time and because I didn’t fit in or was unaccepted by others actually caused me to have a better appreciation and greater self-love once I got over the initial self-hatred.


(2)  Feeling alone is normal.

Whether you’re approaching something new or coming out, it’s normal to feel alone at times. It can be very discouraging and sometimes it may even feel impossible to continue on solo. But there is some consolation for you: eventually your aloneness will be met with new friends, supportive family and organizations and other sources you never imagined. It's hard to trust in what you can't see, but take my word.


(3) You can’t change how others think of you. You can only change how you think about yourself.

 Others will form their own opinions about you and your sexuality. That’s okay. They are entitled to those opinions and no matter what you do, you cannot change them. You can, however, change yourself and how you view yourself as a person. Over time, you will learn to love yourself and see yourself as a valuable person.


(4) You may feel like giving up on yourself and others -- but it'll be worth it to stay strong.

At times, you might feel hopeless, worthless or even suicidal. Do not give up on yourself! You are worthy of living, a wonderful human being, and you deserve happiness. Also, don’t give up on others. They may be shocked, in disagreement with your life; however, they have the ability to come around and accept you just as you are. Don’t think because their initial reaction is negative that it will always be that way.


There are no words to describe the relief you will feel once you accept yourself as you are, even if some initial experiences can be momentarily painful. You are loved, valued and important as a future generation. You forge the way to more acceptance for all and to show it’s okay to be who you are and love it.


Photo courtesy of  lint machine / Flickr.