Say so long to ‘straight-passing’

CW: bullying, homophobia, homophobic slurs/tropes, violence

Straight passing.

I’m conflicted.

After reading a post by the other week, I’ve been chewing this over again. It isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time. It certainly isn’t a fun thing to have to contemplate, but ultimately, I’m not on board with it.

I remember reading the blog and having a flashback, a flashback to one particular conversation which still runs rings in my head whenever straight passing is mentioned (which arguably isn’t often, it generally materialises in different ways).

So, basically, I had a semi-conflict-ridden exchange which would rear it’s ugly head up from time to time, a few months ago, with my new house mate and their friend. Both queer, one in a queer sense, the other in a queer gay-man-type-sense.

We weren’t, for lack of a better word, constructive, in most of our endeavours discussing topics such as queerness or sexuality in the singular – but we all had strong feelings, for sure. I was on a tirade about the violence of men and of our complicity in it, we swiftly moved onto their idea that to be truly queer you had to aesthetically fit into some archetypal mould.

This is where we got unstuck.

Now, I reject any notion of presentation as acceptance – although I understand the need to align yourself as a form of expression of your identity via your clothes, hair, make-up et cetera. And I fully take on board that visibly aligning yourself – or delineating yourself, depending on your perspective – with a certain social group opens you up to violence, abuse, attack on the streets and ostracization from family and friends. Even put barriers up to jobs. Or at the very least certain industries.

Yet, still, that doesn’t define whether you pass the queer test or not.

Where did straight passing come into this? Well, shortly after my attack on all men and my objection of entry into queerness as a costume, I got:

“Yeah, but you gotta admit – you pass as straight though, you are passing with privilege – just like white-passing, for example!”

Firstly, let’s ignore the idea that race and sexuality can be put into the same category – especially the idea that sexuality is something which can be quantified or identified visibly such as skin colour, because, let’s just not.

Secondly, I only ever hear these statements from gay/lesbian men and womxn (I’m not leaving straights out, but I don’t tend to talk to them about sexuality or gender anyway and, honestly, they usually get super awkward not talking about straight stuff).

My issue is that in trying to explain perhaps the particulars that I wouldn’t have experienced in their shoes, they erase A.) my identity B.) my queerness and C.) my oppression.

It’s always “you don’t have the same experiences as me” or “you don’t know what I’ve been through” rather than “what happened to you to get you where you are?”.

In defining their trauma, their experience, they invalidate mine. Which is no bueno.

How I’ve learnt to articulate it is that some people cannot, under any circumstances, hide who they are. Those are the people who are sniffed out at a young age, called gay before they know the word, beaten up and bullied for not fitting the heterosexual norm and are, generally, vilified for whatever they subsequently do. And I wish all the power to them, I’ve watched those kids grow up and blossom – despite the war waged against their being on the playground and the streets – and it always takes me back to when I was 12 years old.

My best friend at the time was gay. I knew it. He knew it. All the straight boys (and girls, they’re nasty too) certainly knew it. But we adamantly never spoke about it, it was never acknowledged. I’m sure we even puffed up our chests and tried to convince ourselves otherwise, spoke about girls and boobs and sex as the missionaries wanted it.

But, for me, I was simultaneously cautious to not be outed as ‘other’ based on what I had experienced and what I was witnessing happen to him.

I remember we were walking somewhere after school. Either to the shops or to his house, but we were still relatively close to my house at the time. It wasn’t unusual to be harassed on the streets around SE, especially in-between Plumstead and Woolwich – if you were wearing your school uniform, you were a target.

We were used to people spitting out of their cars, throwing McDonalds wrappers at us or shouting “FAGGGS” or “GAAAAAAAYS”. It was the norm, it happened to everyone – but I guess it didn’t mean the same thing to all the people receiving it.

This particular time was different.

Someone from school was around with their local mates, rather than school mates. They didn’t know me, but they knew him. They had the vocab, knew the words used as stones every day.

But it wasn’t enough just to call him gay, or me gay by association. They started to beat him up. I did all I could do being the only one of similar stature to them and put myself in front of him to stop the punches. Luckily an older bystander cleared them off and we made a quick retreat back to mine where my mum gave us some ice-packs, called him a taxi and gave him the most delicate hug I could.

That walk home was the hardest, coldest, most heart-breaking silence I had ever felt.

I had witnessed my friend beaten up for something completely out of his control, something he didn’t have much of a grasp of and something that would stick with him as he tried to figure it all out. What had I personally witnessed? A part of me being beaten up too.

The attack on him wasn’t because he was gay. They had no proof of that. They beat him up because they perceived him as other, as weaker, as non-masculine or as a threat on their straight male ego.

They beat him up to make a point that there was a right way to be and wrong way to be.

They beat him up to make sure that the message was clear: be like us or be against us.

It worked on me.

We slowly drifted apart, and I’d like to say that it wasn’t because of that day, but it was, and I’m ashamed of that. But at that point in my life I had no strength, no understanding of what was going on in me – but all I did know was that I wanted no more violence in my life, especially considering the feelings I had for him.

We often forget that when an act of violence is committed it is less about the action and more the reaction that shows their motives. People forget that when something is passed around and shared on social media, pertaining to a particular issue within a social group, racial group or community, everyone feels the effects of the act.

Now don’t get me muddled. I’m in no way saying being beaten up and bearing witness to that attack is the same for both participants.

What I’m saying is that for me the message was clear, based on what I had already experienced, based on my own internal conflict and what I had witnessed that day – that I was not valid, that was not a valid option. Push it away. Hide it.

At 12 I thought I was gay and that would stick with me well into my 20s.

When I was a child I was the hyper-sensitive one. I was the one given a slap for crying. Told not to cry, be a boy, don’t be a girl. Heard the words “if you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to really cry for!” a very English affair.

When I was a child I was separated from my all girl friendship group and told to socialise with boys because it was normal. The boys hated me for it and attempted to beat me up outside school every day. I became a bully to combat it, I lied a lot to combat it, I faked asthma attacks and head aches a lot to avoid it.

Watching the first gay kiss on Eastenders in 90s I remember my mum turning the telly off and shouting out “well that’s put me off my fucking dinner!”.

After my Dad had made me cry aged 10 – for whatever reason, it was a frequent trick of his – he told me I better not be gay because I wouldn’t be his son anymore.

Sitting around at my Nan’s house on a Saturday afternoon and I crossed my legs in a ‘feminine’ way, my aunts called me a poof and laughed at me (I was also sitting on a poof, I could have missed the joke).

Always wanting to wear make-up and ‘girl’s’ clothes as a kid, aged 8, I took the plunge and asked my cousin to give me a makeover. I came downstairs to show my mum the miraculous change in my appearance and she grabbed me by the arm and threw me in the bath. After she tried to scrub my whole actual face off, she asked me why the hell I would want to do that – why would I want to do something so gay, I was a boy!

By age 12 I hadn’t just miraculously stopped doing “feminine” things (whatever the fuck that means), I had had it squeezed out of me – or pushed further into the depths of my stomach’s bile. By age 12 I knew very clearly that being gay wasn’t an option, not because it wasn’t what I thought I felt but because I had been shown at every single turn that if I were to move close to it I’d be hurt, burned, broken.

That didn’t get in the way of my sexual development – I lost my virginity across the gender spectrum at roughly the same time. However, only one wasn’t in secret. The other was.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, although I don’t get misogynistic or homophobic slurs thrown at me for the way I walk or talk or carry myself or because I present myself in a certain way with my appearance, doesn’t mean I am in some way protected by straightness.

I’m not straight.

Straight passing erases my identity, an identity that isn’t visible to anyone. In using that wording, it only aims to validate one person’s identity and experience whilst feeding into the narrative that in some way bi+ people switch between being queer and straight.

I know gay men who are well into their 30s and have never had a relationship with a man, never held the hands of a man or shown affection to another man on the streets. They aren’t particularly ‘effeminate’ or ‘camp’ but they sure as hell don’t have straight-passing. Why? Because they aren’t straight.

Let’s not conflate misogyny and homophobia with the faux-privilege of ‘straight-passing’.

We all have our capacities in which we can take pain, some break earlier and others grow into it but it doesn’t -and shouldn’t – take away from who we are.


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