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The Perils of 'Passing' as a Goal

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This is the second of a three-part series on the consequences of invisibility and the power of visibility. Read part one here.

A safe haven of invisibility rarely if ever exists for LGBT people. Prizing invisibility causes damage in and of itself, and subsequent incomplete or "failed" invisibility becomes a frank invitation for oppression.

An illustrative example: In 1996, Lambda Legal won the first case in the nation holding that the U.S. Constitution requires school officials to give gay students protection equal to what they give heterosexual students. Our client in that case, Jamie Nabozny, had been mock-raped in the classroom, urinated upon by his peers, and had made multiple suicide attempts. Rather than intervene, school officials told him he brought it on himself because others could tell he was gay. He didn't "pass." He failed the invisibility test, and was blamed for failing.

When I spoke of school harassment and teen suicides at a Lambda Legal event a few weeks ago, an older gentleman came to speak to me afterward. He thanked me for our work, and told me how he had survived as a youth in school. He said, "I just made myself invisible." He was quiet, withdrawn, wallpaper. Was he to be considered our success story?

I found myself thinking about my goals for my young children, the leadership opportunities I want them to have, the relationships I hope they will build, and their ability to develop and express their full potential. And I looked at this man who survived by trying to turn himself invisible, who had focused his energies on erasing himself -- that was his strategy for sheer self-protection and survival. And so I asked him (as I would ask anyone who suggests our young people should suppress their identities), "At what cost?"

Lambda Legal represented asylum-seeker, Jorge Soto Vega, who was fleeing antigay police brutality in his home country of Mexico. Although the immigration judge found credible evidence that Soto Vega was persecuted because of his sexual orientation, he denied asylum because he thought Soto Vega didn't "appear gay" and could keep his sexual orientation hidden if he chose. We succeeded in reversing the original result. The analysis of risk of persecution cannot turn on the assumption that gay people have the choice to obliterate their identities.

In many of our cases, we fight a so-called heckler's veto, authorities who don't address harassers, and instead punish the LGBT person who became visible or who failed to "pass" and became a target of bigotry at school or at work. Lambda Legal fights resulting misapplications of justice, such as discharging targeted students from school rather than addressing bullies, or firing transgender people from work because a coworker complains about who uses which bathroom.

Passing is unsustainable for an individual, and it is unsustainable for either a civil rights movement or for the health of society. Constitutional equality law scholar, Kenneth L. Karst has written about paying the price for attempting invisibility: "Much of your demoralization owes to your sense of isolation. You lack the support of others who share your feelings -- not because those people do not exist, but because they, too, have been unwilling to bear the costs of open identification of their true selves." When society values the closet and prizes passing, we throttle the awareness and understanding that will ultimately quell bigotry and win equality.

The author delivered these remarks at a forum hosted by the University College London Jurisprudence Review.