Trigger warning and important message to friends in the trans-femme and trans-masc community: I love you and you are beautiful! In this piece, when I refer to passing, I am expressly NOT referring to it as it applies to expressing one’s true gender identity, but rather, in the sense that passing can be used to avoid expressing a nonbinary gender identity or sexuality.
In 2017, for my 40th birthday, I came out publicly as gender nonbinary and bisexual. I also announced my retirement from music performance and announced my new name: Alex Vale…
It was a statement. It was a rebrand. It was a party. I called it Alexit.
That said, I felt a little old to be coming out (despite age being a state of mind yada yada yada). And I heavily debated whether to come out at all.
It was just after a tumultuous election year, and tensions were high. I was inspired that, possibly in response, more people were coming out in new ways that never seemed possible growing up. I secretly feared for anyone in the LGBTQ community, especially younger people and those going through the tender process of self-discovery. What would happen to us?
The political climate seemed angry and it felt like a dark cloud of hate was about to rain down on anyone brown, or different, or non-Christian (Appologies, MAGA enthusiasts, but supporting people who support hate is not a good look on you. #speakingthetruth). All this turmoil seemed to warrant bypassing my usual “IRL privacy policies” (which are typically summed up by “leave me alone, go away”), and standing up to represent myself accurately as a professional and relatively sane person who could show up as some sort of example of a bi/nonbinary. I might not be famous or influential, but the more stories, the better, I suppose, right?
In honesty, though, it was the name change and retirement that really kicked me into gear about allowing public access to this very personal business of how I identify. I knew that there would be a lot of explaining to do, and as a musician, I had a pretty public profile. I was no Lady Gaga, but I had enough of a following and online presence to make “sunsetting” the old identity a bit of a project.
I wish we lived in a world where it was already a non-issue… neigh, commonplace for people to discover, express and share their identity. It’s not yet. Despite the pressure by Gen X and older folks to write off Millennials in the name of privilege, youth, and inexperience, I feel grateful to the generation born in the 80s and later for going deep with understanding, inclusiveness, and social sensitivity. The nuances of this progress can be hard to keep up with, but it is making us a better society, and I can get down with that, even when it’s complicated to unpack socially learned habits of my generation, which I’d say is just the tail-end of Gen X.
So, I came out. Had to.
To be clear, I didn’t “suddenly decide” to be queer. I had always been queer (a term I’ve grown to love, despite growing up with its worst form of usage in the 70s and 80s). I will say it again, for emphasis:
I had always been queer.
I have truly amazing friends, and that became evident with coming out. I’ve been unconditionally supported, and people use my correct name, and respect me. They’ve even gotten used to seeing me in a suit and tie instead of dresses, and can barely remember my femme days, with long hair and the works. My longest standing friendships have been the most heartwarming and interesting in the process, because they reinforce that, whether I believed in coming out or not, I had always been queer.
These close friends cited short hairstyles, unconventional views, clothing, relationships and all the evidence I’d sort of forgotten about myself. Evidence of my identity that made my announcement not only perfectly fine, but the next logical conclusion. So, with both Millennials and my oldest friends, the reaction to my identity was borderline anticlimactic! Newer friends were mostly pleasantly surprised, and absolutely onboard.
Facing the rest of the world, I have felt less sure how to behave. For acquaintances, I decided I’d let them find out as needed. For my parents, I actually want to maintain my birth name with them, for courtesy and ease of use, and to establish a bit of privacy between their lives an my own. For people meeting me for the first time, they don’t know the old identity, but I knew it would come up… because of the big blabbermouth that I am, and the fact that you can just Google someone today, and ten pages of their existence will pop up. Case and point: For almost 15 years a sassy forum comment I made during my research for a thesis paper on biothermal depolymerization showed on, like, page 2 of results! (I think I was reacting to a troll. They were criticizing the fact that a this amazing device which turns carbon-based matter into salable raw elements wasn’t 100% carbon neutral… I said I thought they were missing the point and I felt that anything that could turn shit into fuel while reducing waste in landfills was alright by me.) Page 2, people, PAGE 2!
I digress. Wasn’t I was talking about how to act as “out”? My solution was to, at the suggestion 1of an awesome advisor, look into some peer groups. Normally “group anything” isn’t my jam, but I found some sessions at The LGBTQ Center in Manhattan. The people I’ve met are all vibrant, diverse, and much like me. The shared stories in sessions have been instrumental in building my confidence and helping me to reinforce my truth – that I’m fluid (nonbinary/ gender neutral/androgynous), and that I’m not lesbian, but most decidedly bi. Without getting into any stories or specifics, a common theme of bi and nonbinary groups is invisibility.
This brings me to the essence of my Passing Is Not My Freedom stance. I’ve done a lot of thinking about invisibility. It has been, by far, the hardest thing about living privately before – and publicly now – as bisexual and nonbinary. I could pass. I can still pass if I want. Pass as straight. Pass as female. It’s easy. Just play the part, and no one will ask questions. I have 40+ years of practice, after all. Solid “college tries”. They didn’t take.
As a bi/nonbinary, skirts, dating men, and having long hair are hardly accurate indicators of my identity. I’d be most likely mislabeled for straight and female. But bi/nonbinary extends across the spectra of both gender and sexuality. Dressing masculine and dating women would equally misrepresent me, and I’d be mislabeled as butch, passing male, or lesbian.
Ugh. Invisible again.
It is miserable to feel invisible. The worst. Especially if you don’t like confrontation, publicity, or policing others about how to refer to you. It is easy to give in to it. Blending into norms is enticing, until you’re upholding whole ways of being that feel about as comfortable as an ill- fitting pair of hand-me-down pants. Being invisibly other than what people think you are can be powerful if you like the Clark Kent double life thing, but it can also feel like a lie… told to yourself and the world. I mean, we’ve seen what the double life does to superheroes… It’s not just a bummer, it’s crushing.
I don’t want to feel crushed. I want to reserve my crushes for Tilda Swinton, and the late Alan Rickman.
My take-away philosophy is that for me, passing is not freedom. I was always queer, and though my ability to pass as not queer could be marked as a privilege, to me it smacks of just another cage. Sinister.
In my particular shade of queer, glamorizing passing for the norm is a sign that we still hold the group we’re trying to pass for as the standard we want to rise to or uphold. It damages the integrity of claiming a more accurate identity. And, what’s worst of all, in my estimation, it suggests that there is a danger to being who you are. It suggests that you might need to hide if shit goes bad, which conjures up awful examples of Nazi Germany, or places around the world now where identity is dictated by governments and non-conformity is non-negotiable by law.
Coming out made me realize that I was undeniably me no matter what I dressed like or who I dated. That people who knew me could see that me, and that they liked me as a person, not as an identity. Living out only a part of who I was by passing for the norm was not enough for me, and being out is allowing true freedom of self-expression.
Being me is not optional, it is hard coded.
I am lucky to have had a loving and supportive experience coming out. I stand on the shoulders of all the people who’ve fought for my right to get this far. Suicide and depression are chronic among people, especially youth, in the LGBTQ community with staggering statistics. I stand as an example that there can be love and emergence at any age, for anything.
For the above reasons, I give passing a pass in favor of being me.