Moving Past Passing

My whole life people have told me that I “pass for straight”.

It’s supposed to be a compliment, a reminder that I should feel lucky and I used to take it that way. It was synonymous with “good job” or  “mission accomplished” and it felt like my reward at the end of a long day of work. When I was growing up in Texas, passing for straight was high praise for a scared queer kid and when that’s drilled into you as the ultimate goal, it’s hard to shake off. I’ve often joked that when I’m in certain parts of the country I still shift into my “Gas Station Voice,” the voice that I perfected in high school. It’s a slightly deeper, more southern version of my normal voice that makes rural gas stations easier to navigate without anxiety. I grew up knowing that any hint of my true swishyness was dangerous.

When I first came out in high school I made the standard “I’m gay but I’m not like Gay” statement with extra emphasis and eye fluttering on the second “gay.” Over the top gay in my 15-year-old estimation was sort of a bad Blanche Devereaux impression. I had mustered up enough “courage” to come out to my friends and mother but not without placing myself above and away from the parts of queerness that I knew made straight people uncomfortable. Society had trained me well.

I needed so badly to normalize my queerness, to fit myself into the right boxes that kept me “safe.” In order to fit in, I would make myself “the cool gay” who wouldn’t get offended by anybody’s jokes, the kind of gay that would confirm everyone’s bias, the kind of gay who wouldn’t cause any problems for straight people. I felt like I had nothing to be proud of, I just had to make it through each day without rocking the boat.

I was so worried every time I tried wear lipstick in my 20s. It feels dumb to write that when I know that it’s just lipstick, and queer people face bigger obstacles, but honestly it was a huge roadblock for me. I wanted to wear makeup, and dresses, and heels so bad but it was a line that I was terrified to cross. I would stand in the bathroom of my house in Austin, Texas and slowly apply a perfect burgundy lip. I would blot by pressing my lips together gently on a single folded square of toilet paper, and smile with my new feminized mouth and make “fuck me” eyes at my reflection in the mirror, and that’s when I would feel the dull ache of fear build up in the midnight pit of my stomach. My masculinity besmirched, I would quickly wipe the lipstick off. Then when I looked in the mirror again, with my more “appropriate male face”, and I felt a whole new fear. The performance had become method, I resented my queerness and where it could lead me.

This was all such a colossal waste of time and energy.

There is still so much power placed in traditional gender roles and the straight gaze. For some people, to be the “right kind of gay” means someone has to be the “wrong kind”. I still see so many people doing this heteronormative dance routine. And I’m not just talking about newly out queer kids in small towns in middle America. I continue to meet adult men and women so deeply entrenched in heteronormative stereotypes that they can’t sort out where they end and the patriarchal ideal of gender begins.

When I hear people say that they are not “defined by their queerness,” I’m struck by how strange that sounds out loud. It has to be at least part of your definition.

I understand why people would want to live this way. When undefined, you get to exist as the default. The straight gaze is intoxicating with its promises of uninterrupted privilege and access. We’re taught our whole lives to fall in line as best we can, that if we present ourselves within the parameters of what’s socially acceptable and “normal” then we will be left alone to live our lives quietly. (Emphasis on the quietly.)

I needed so badly to
normalize my queerness,
to fit myself into the right
boxes that kept me “safe.”

The arc of progress on this front is slow and slight. I’m reminded that we live in a time where RuPaul’s Drag Race has become mainstream, amazing revolutionary shows like Pose break new ground on television, gay marriage is legal across the country, and some would tell you that we’ve broken through the homophobic haze of the past, but I look around me and I know that isn’t true. Even in our own communities, we police each other’s bodies based on homophobic and transphobic body standards.

Since I’ve ventured into wearing make-up the reaction has been… mixed but almost unanimously negative when it comes from “Masc” gay men. “You’d be cute if you didn’t have that shit on” and “Why’d you have to ruin it?” are both things men have said to me in person, on Instagram, and on queer hookup apps. I guess I’m the “it,” which is a fun bit of dehumanizing language. Or maybe it’s my otherwise masculine face that I’ve ruined with a spring lavender lip and gold sparkling highlighter from Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line. When has Rihanna ever ruined anything? I’m struck by the hubris of men screaming “Yasss” at the top of their lungs while a drag queen sashays down the runway, and then using that same mouth to reinforce gender norms on someone else’s body.

You are defined by your queerness regardless of how much you posture masculinity or perform a specific set of gender roles. We can bend over backward for straight approval, but if you’re queer, you are queer and there’s nothing wrong with that. Your identity is not something you should have to rise above. There is no wrong way to be queer. Queerness is a huge beautiful spectrum and you don’t need to present a specific way or prove anything to anyone, but I worry about my friends that are in a long-term relationship with their shame. If your comfort and stability as a queer person require you to devalue and trash another queer person’s body or how they occupy it then it’s not very stable at all. If your worldview is based in myopic gender essentialism and ignores the fluid nature of identity you are in for some serious disappointment.

We need to divest ourselves from the cult of masculinity and straightness. Right now, I’m doing that with makeup but there are a million different ways to push against fitting into “the norm.” When we as queer people build our identities with the straight gaze firmly in mind, we lose our connection to our own bodies, our potential, and our ancestors. Our bodies and minds are capable of so much flexibility and when we allow each other to truly be free our potential is immense. We all contain thousands of shifting permutations of identity, and cementing yourself into one gendered ideal because of the tyranny of patriarchal society is heartbreakingly short-sighted. It’s a trap.

I haven’t done it yet. I’m not beyond this identity struggle but I’m working on it every day and that feels important. I finally feel like I’m becoming the “cool” queer person that I always wanted to be. I’m becoming the kind of gay that causes problems for straight people by just being my real-ass self. I’m finally more interested in who I am than who they want me to be. That feels like something to be proud of.

Photo by Daniel Solano


Michael Foulk

Micheal Foulk is a writer, comedian, and community organizer based in Oakland, California. They love to signal boost LGBTQ+ artists and write about comic books, makeup, genre fiction, body politics, and fancy lube.

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