Tag Archives: passing

Invisible Man

NYC Gay Pride 1994, Stonewall 25

I’m waiting in Starbucks for my drink to come up. Two women in their twenties are standing close enough to each another to be read as a couple. They’re dressed in complete agreement, entirely in black with toothpick jeans and wool sock hats, broadcasting androgyny. My inner taxonomist labels them butch lesbians; versions of my younger self, were I as free to be out then as they are now.

I think to myself: I laid the groundwork for their visibility.

In 1994, the Gay Games were held in New York City. The competition, which drew tens of thousands of people from all over the world, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Between the two events, there were literally hundreds of thousands of people in attendance at the NYC Gay Pride March that year. Volunteers carried a mile-long rainbow flag down 1st Avenue past the United Nations building. Uncharacteristically hilly for NYC, 1st Avenue crested at one point, offering me an expansive view of the crowd of which I was part. Behind me and in front of me, stretched to the ends of the visible horizon, lay a jam-packed sea of people. I’ve never seen so many people, not before or since.

We weren’t marching for gay marriage back then; we were marching for our lives. My twenties happened during the age of AIDS, back when HIV was a death sentence so harsh that people committed suicide upon being diagnosed. So many men were dying horrible, ugly, drawn-out deaths. The women among us had lost fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, and lovers. Prior to AIDS, there was no bond between the gay and lesbian communities; the HIV/AIDS crisis drew everyone together, all of the sexual outsiders, into one giant LGBTQ movement. We were compelled by necessity to unite in order to bring the strength of numbers to bear on the fight for our civil rights.

When I came out as a lesbian in 1989, I accepted the facts as they were at the time: I would never be married and I would never have children. If I wanted to work for the government or the military or become a teacher, then I would have to stay in the closet. Any employer could decide to fire me or not hire me in the first place, and any landlord could decide not to rent to me. Moreover, when I dared to be identifiable as a lesbian in public, I was subject to verbal and physical abuse. There were times when I feared for my safety. There were states where it was literally illegal for me to make love to my partner. I had no right to visit her, let alone make any decisions on her behalf, if anything tragic happened to her. All of this paled in comparison, of course, to the friends I was losing to AIDS; that fight took precedence.

If AIDS were still a plague in America, then the movement would never have graduated to demanding marriage equality. Marriage by its very nature assumes that a couple has a future together; back then, too many people were dying too young for any of us to be thinking about a future. We marched, we protested, and we took care of each other. We wore rainbows and freedom rings and we outed ourselves at every opportunity just to show the country that everyone knew and loved at least one of us. Famous people came out – Congressman Barney Frank in 1987, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Elton John in 1988, k.d. lang in 1992, Melissa Etheridge in 1993, Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Ellen’s show was cancelled shortly after she came out but within a year, the insanely popular Will and Grace began its eight year love affair with America and we got used to seeing gay men on a weekly basis. None of this would have happened if we had never come out in the first place. If we didn’t rise up and demand our rights then, we wouldn’t be enjoying them now.

Those two young women in the Starbucks may be blissfully unaware of this history. If that’s my generation’s gift to them, and the gift of the generation of activists who came before me, then so be it. It was enough once in a while to get a nod of acknowledgement, just to be seen.

There was no nod this time. There was no eye contact at all.

These days I’m just another white guy.

Rachel Dolezal DOES NOT EQUAL Caitlyn Jenner


Rachel Dolezal DOES NOT EQUAL Caitlyn Jenner.

Here’s why:

The discussion around Rachel Dolezal takes as its starting point the fact that she occupied a job at the NAACP that should have been filled by an African American person. Her appropriation of “blackness” is consequential only in that regard; who cares who she thinks she is? It doesn’t matter until she steps on someone else — in this case, by taking a particular job and making herself the representative of a population of which she may not be part. The question of whether or not she was qualified for the job based upon the sole requirement of her being African American is the legitimate point of concern.

What, then, is the definition of “being African American”? Most people think it’s based on skin color, an incredibly variable and superficial trait. If so, then how dark do you have to be to qualify? At precisely which point in his life did Michael Jackson stop making the cut? He got lighter; Dolezal got darker. If Jackson didn’t make himself into a Caucasian and Dolezal never actually became an African American, then skin color is clearly not the right definition.

I’m an  anthropologist, so let’s talk science: From a biological point of view, “race” is a thoroughly ridiculous idea (see Podcast #13). Don’t let me confuse you; racism is as real as a fist in your face, but “race” has no genetic validity. Despite what you may have seen on Bones, there is no magic combination of genes or skeletal features that instantly reveal an individual as “black” or “white,” in part because these color categories are culturally defined: The line between them moves depending on where you live. Folks who are “black” in America are “white” in Brazil. In America, in fact, there has been so much intermixing between people that many “black” folks have “white” ancestors and there are plenty of “white” folks with “black” great-grandparents.

Being African American is probably best defined as being subjected to racism based on the assumption that you are African American. Think about it. How many “high yellow” celebrities are out there passing as “white” and experiencing no racism at all? The black community is itself conflicted about whether or not these folks are even “black.” That’s because being “black” or “African American” is about your experience, not your genes.

This being the case, the important question becomes: Did Rachel Dolezal have an African American experience of life? Did she grow up black? Does that experience inform her perspective? The obvious answer to this is no; as a light-skinned child, she was not socialized as African American. She was never a black teenager. She never faced any of the challenges that people of color face growing up in America. On these grounds alone then, she was not qualified to hold the job that she occupied.

Okay, that’s fine. There ends the criticism. Because Dolezal’s experience of herself is another matter entirely. I accept that she identifies as African American because her identity is none of my business. Her experience of herself is something I can never understand, me not being her and all.

Perhaps she began passing as African American at a point in her life significant enough to have acculturated and become, for all intents and purposes, “black.” Forgive me a terrible metaphor: Like a young American who moves to France, learns the language, and lives there for the rest of his life; he’s pretty much French. Does anybody care that he was actually born in America? Only if he runs for office.

It’s okay with me if Rachel Dolezal identifies as African American. That’s her life and her experience. What’s not okay is that the she didn’t meet the unspecified, unspoken requirement of the job: she didn’t grow up black.

Lots of people think Dolezal is a faker. A pretender. I think her identity is her own business. I also think we could spend some time questioning the job’s base requirement of her blackness to begin with, but that’s for another time.

The point I’d like to make right now is that THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING TRANSGENDER. Rachel Dolezal has nothing to do with Caitlyn Jenner. I call BULLSHIT! on comparing them.

Being transgender is about recognizing that your gender identity crosses the boundary between the sexes; trans literally means “across.” Trans* people see themselves as some combination of male and female because their physical bodies don’t precisely correspond to their idea of themselves. They struggle to reconcile the incongruities. It’s true that trans* people may pass as the sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth, but this is usually recognized as a matter of survival rather than choice. Trans* people almost always grow up trans*.

Rachel Dolezal didn’t grow up transracial. She was a white child who claimed, as an adult, that she had always been black. That’s called lying.

Can a person even be transracial? I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps we should ask Eminem or Marcus Samuelsson? I bet their answers would be interesting. But the idea that Rachel Donezal’s lies can call transgender identity into question is offensive and ignorant.

Caitlyn Jenner told us who she is with courageous honesty. Rachel Dolezal lied her way into a job. How dare you use her to undermine trans* identity!