I have never felt more comfortable in my body. The light bounce in my step, the joy and strength that I have acquired, the resilience I’ve had to build, and the beaming smiles during 2am dance parties in my living room with a glass of rosé. This body has grown on me, through turbulent times, finding my style, becoming embodied and at home in it. And this home may change and will be redecorated as time goes by, but for the first time I am able to call it a home, not just a bag of bones that I drag through emptied streets. So, in this edition of Navigating Masculinities, let’s talk aesthetics, recognition, and passing. Because as much as this body is mine – and yours is yours – we all have to admit that our bodies, our embodiedness is not just dependent on our self-perception. On the daily, we pass through a variety of social realities that shape and reconstruct our bodily experiences – especially for genderqueer and trans folks; this is a truth that affects us in queer ways, that can be disorienting at times. As is the theme, I will link this back to masculinities and the forms they take, especially as a nonbinary person that gets read as masculine by default almost, whether I agree to it or not. But my experience is a queer experience, a queer Black experience, and so very often we are not meant to feel at home or safe in our bodies – even the thought of that calls back too many a time that this was robbed from me (and from many others). What does it mean to be a contested body? To be constrained by physicality, but also, to find joy in it, despite dysphoria and limitations? To be a “death-bound subject”, yet to live? All on board, hoist the sails, and on we go on our explorations of the seven seas of masculinity.
Note: My experience is not The Trans ExperienceTM. As a queer nonbinary person that oftentimes still gets perceived as “a man” and at time of recording has little interest in medically transitioning, there are hurdles that I have not had to pass or even encounter at times – hurdles which I know would significantly alter the course of my experience. That being said, the gender expression of Black and other nonbinary bodies of colour are often policed in very different ways than I know our white counterparts are, with a certain privilege of affirmative ambiguity being denied to us. As quoted in my last article, there is no foolproof way to present nonbinary – and I think that in particular will allow us to dissect passing in an interesting way.
Putting On A Show
To be a “death-bound subject” is to be a queer subject, always in danger of being destroyed. Physically. Spiritually. Representationally. (McCune, Jr, 2015, p. 174)
As I have bothered so extensively with it in the prequel to this, let me ask: What is gender? In all seriousness. We have gone and dissected what gender does, its mechanisms, how it becomes inscribed upon the body, and all that analytical nonsense. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is lacking, in some way. It is just…so arbitrary to me. What does it mean to be a man? Not as a list of signifiers or an illustration of behaviours, I have no interest in that. What does it feel like? Does it bring you joy? And we could sit here and discuss the psychological and philosophical intricacies of gender identity and the experience of it, although in my experience, this seldomly leads anywhere. That being said, my experience is also one wholly devoid of any particular anchoring of gender as identity. I am nonbinary, but only insofar as it makes me understood by others; I am nonbinary as a relation to cishet society and anything in its orbit, not because I feel especially represented by it. This is not to discount any attachments to binary gender identities – after all, we still live in a world where your assumed, ascribed, and expressed gender very much plays a role with regards to the bestowal of humanity, and any misstep can quickly escalate towards threats and danger. But we are only death-bound subjects in the complexities and interplays of power erected around us, edifices that lose their influence once we escape their walls and find ourselves in spaces of community, found and made. Once we get there, a recognition can set in that these forces we navigate are arbitrary and superimposed upon the tendencies of our “natural” expressions and dispositions. As Bre Starr (@fairy.pusss) pointed out on TikTok:
I didn’t ask to be transgender, you told me I was. You told me I was different. You told me I don’t belong. […] You told me I act like a girl. I told you: I don’t act like anything; I am like me. Now you got the nerve to tell me that I’m crazy, because I’m tryna live my life by your rules.
So, before you write off anything that is “too queer”: turn around and pose the question of what is threatened by this refusal to live life by your rules, and more importantly, why these rules should be preserved in any shape or form in the first place? On that note, let us pivot to gender expression, an element that in light of this becomes of interest. For that, let’s first discuss the notion of passing and everything associated with it.
Passing is generally understood as being perceived by others, particularly cis people, as the gender you identify with and are presenting as, of a congruency between gender identity and social recognition of that identity. Passing itself is multi-faceted and does not necessarily mean being virtually indistinguishable from a cis person on every level – you don’t need to be stealth to pass. ‘To be stealth’ means to pass under any or most circumstances, to blend into the sea of normative bodies and to go unrecognised and unbothered, for your presentation not be questioned, and to only be relationally recognised as trans upon disclosure. I don’t think I have to stress how more often than not this is a safety measure, even if a gender affirming one.
To be stealth might then be best comparable (or at the very least show parallels) to the original meaning of the term white passing as used in the United States. Black people in the South during the antebellum period between the mid-18th to mid-20th century that could pass as white – as in that their features and skin colour allowed them to seamlessly blend into white society – used passing as an opportunity to escape enslavement, often at the explicit and deeply felt loss of their heritage, culture, and community, as any association with it would position them as non-white. While this afforded them many privileges and opportunities, one cannot disregard the experience of grief, loneliness, and loss that accompanied this exile. Being stealth and white passing in either sense then do not constitute a desired existence, rather one adopted as a measure of protection and self-preservation.
The trans notion of passing differs from that in significant ways. Passing does not require your gender-nonconformity to go fully unnoticed at all times – and I include binary trans people in this, as transgressing the rigid boundaries of the gender binary automatically puts you in a position of nonconformity; it only requires it to go unnoticed just enough to fool the perception of the cis people you may encounter. Many gender-nonconforming trans people have enthusiastically talked about COVID masks as a tool that has helped them pass in public spaces, as gender presentation can be strongly underscored by a certain anonymity. To just perceive designated social markers of gender identity, without making the body legible, can be a powerful thing in trying to pass. I myself have benefited from this a few times. I was grocery shopping at the Albert Heijn near campus, unsuspecting, when a stock clerk came along from behind me, moving a heavy cart. “Sorry mevrouw!”. I, the lady in question, moved to the side and gave a smile behind my mask. A pleasant interaction – I’d much rather be called lady than sir in such a social setting. Passing as the opposite gender, while on the regular not fully satisfactory, is still pleasant to me. A recognition of genderqueerness, of non-conformity, a successful rebuttal against the alleged biological truth of my existence.
What this trinity of blending in has in common though is that passing in whichever shape or form is done for an audience, a relationally defined entity, even if it is just the audience in your head. This internal auditorium is of course a quality of the performativity of gender (see Navigating Masculinities),not just as an external process, but also an internal one as the incessant activity that it is. This is not to say that one must do gender all the time – Goffman’s concept of gender schedules comes to mind, where gender is performed at certain times with certain audiences in mind – but it is still done for an audience. Yet this audience, in a queer and Black understanding, is not necessarily the group you belong to. The ranks are filled with the dominant societal group, for which you are trying, aching even, to put on a performance so heart-wrenching and moving that your condition goes unnoticed, and suspicions are quelled. Passing is not acceptance nor inclusion, it is the illusion of inclusion through skilful artifice.
What then, could it mean to pass as nonbinary? While confusion or illegibility – that is, your gender presentation going so beyond the recognisable, refusing to be bound by the referentiality of gendered markers – is certainly worthwhile, I want to contest that as the peak of nonbinary excellence. Don’t let me be misunderstood – the amount of skilful artifice that must go into convincingly and vivaciously becoming unknowable, eschewing and transcending the social confines of gender, is an incredible act, but being illegible takes an effort that at least I am not willing to do on a daily basis (unless you’re into that sort of thing). It also is not something necessarily afforded to me, inhabiting a Black body upon which gendered forces strain in much different and determined ways. Blackness and gender pose such a curious intertwinement that I’d be doing myself a disservice in pretending my social body is even given external capability to become illegible. See for example the inherent attribution of masculinity to Blackness, stripping Black women of their femininity. To be feminine as a Black femme is often to have to overperform femininity to an incomparable degree. Apply Black as masculine to Black men, and we inherit the stereotypes of Black men as hypermasculine, as incapable of softness, sweetness, tenderness, being almost animalistic. A dynamic that I want to point out then is that despite Black men being constructed as hypermasculine, their masculinity still stands in contrast to white masculinity as the ideal form of The Masculine. So Black men inhabit a liminal space of being hypermasculine yet simultaneously effeminate. Even with this basic outline of the intersections of race and gender, we can see how being Black and nonbinary complicates this in manifold ways. As your masculinity and femininity are made to be inherently contested yet rigid categories, transcending those becomes a Sisyphean task. I am already perceived as too masculine by virtue of my sex and race; to perform femininity in a convincing way, in a passing way, I enter contested waters. Performing masculinity, I risk being fully divorced from any sense of gender nonconformity. Mind you, I am lightskin and have loose textured hair, giving me an amount of privilege with regards to perceptions of softness and palatability which is immense – and still these dynamics apply to me. Dynamics that play out very differently for each racial group, with whiteness being afforded the consideration of illegibility by its quality as a blank slate. So you see how I must come to reject this.
Instead, I want to propose a different dimension of passing, one that fills the ranks of your eternal theatre not with cishet critics, but with queer comradery, laughing and jeering with you at your display of grandeur.
Note: Before I continue, I want to point to a particularity of the trans umbrella and its inclusion of binary and non-binary trans people, with varying dispositions towards social and medical transitioning. I do not and cannot claim to grasp the struggles and realities of binary trans people and am well aware of the relative privilege that comes with inhabiting a body that will not immediately incite the possibility of violence encumbering my physical safety. I will go on to propose a breaking away from gender and gender identity and want to make it clear that the argument I am making is not one of superiority or inherent radicality. “Abolish gender”, as much as I agree with it, is often leveraged against binary trans people, cis people rarely face the brunt of this criticism. Proceed with this in mind.
The kind of passing I want to propose, that I aspire to, is one where our physicality and presentation stop being indicative of a hierarchical relationality of gender laden with power and aspects of domination, and starts revealing itself as artifice. Here is my break with Butler. Gender may be performative, but to me? Gender is performance. Gender is the layers I put on every day to strut into the world; a spectacle. Treating gender as a spectacle is not new, of course. The Marxist art critic John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing (1972):
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (p.47)
As we can see, there is already an aspect of theatricality embedded in the social relations that govern gender and its expressions. The feminine is a spectacle by default, a sight to be looked at and consumed, an endless performer. To be masculine is to be the viewer, the voyeur, to look and express desire, a desire bound up in heterosexual relations. Yet queering this, we already recognised how a change in sexual orientation purports a departure from the masculine, not necessarily into the feminine, but adjacent to it. Likewise, to be a gay woman, with so much of feminine existence being centred around men, a break in identity can occur, as these definitions seem to exclude you by the sheer construction of their relationality. To queer gender to me then becomes a question of the subversion of this dynamic of voyeurism. To see gender for what it is, an arbitrary set of rules, and subvert them, through parody and artifice. Fully commit to the alleged seriousness of gendered performance because, once you are committed to the act, it becomes too much, it collapses in on itself. What I am talking about is, in its very essence, the meaning of Camp. Of pure, naïve Camp, not one of purposeful artifice, not one of trying too hard, because if you are trying too hard you already failed yourself – you have already admitted that your vision is ridiculous and should not be taken seriously. I think this is why we have seen a recent rise and hype of the bimbo aesthetics, of high femme individuals embracing in their fullness the meaning, the caricature of femininity. This is Camp. Girlboss feminism usually undermines itself in its attempts of subversion. But to be outrageous, with such hyperbolic seriousness? I cannot fathom a better betrayal, a better parody of gender roles. Of course, parody – especially in its reference to the pre-existing – always runs the risk of failing and becoming incorporated into the common understanding of what it is trying to subvert. Yet camp, I feel, has the potential to resist that. Susan Sontag lays this out beautifully in her Notes On Camp (1964). She writes:
41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. […]
43.[…] Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
I will leave you with this: to me, passing as nonbinary means an unapologetic embrace of gender as Camp, gender as a theatrical performance. This is my relation to the masculine, the feminine, and the beyond in terms of gender expression. Of course, you are not always on stage, so you will not always be Camp, nor should you. But if we can introduce the relationality that Camp allows for, a relationality of artifice, frivolity, and failed seriousness into the spaces we navigate. I can pass as nonbinary. With ease.
This piece could not have existed without the continuous discussions and challenges brought before me by my partner in crime Lita, with their persistent attention to detail, phrasing, and style. I must apologise for holding them hostage in our living room in the midst of creative doldrums and having them conduct a semi-structured interview on my understandings of passing; understandings which have become incorporated into this final piece. Thank you for everything and more.
Ahmed, S. (2006). Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 12(4), 543–574. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-2006-002
Berger, J. (1972/2008). Ways of seeing. Penguin Classics.
McCune, J. Q. (2015). The Queerness of Blackness. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2(2), 173–176. https://doi.org/10.14321/qed.2.2.0173
Susan, S. (2009). Notes on Camp. In Against Interpretation and Other Essays (pp. 275–292). PENGUIN UK.