Nobody Passes?

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, August 2006

Okay, for quite some time I've been focusing on the issue of assimilation -- in my writing, in my activism and in the world (not to say that my writing and activism don't take place in the world). My last anthology, That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation focuses on challenging the horrors of mainstream gay culture, the ways in which gay people with power are anxious to erase generations of queer struggles that have created new ways of living with, loving, lusting after and taking care of one another... in order to further a vapid, consume or die, only-whites-need-apply version of gay identity. This is how the issues I call the holy trinity -- marriage, military service and adoption -- have become the central focus of gay struggle. I could talk about all this forever (I have... and I will continue), but what I want to write about now is how That's Revolting! paved the way for my next anthology, Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.

This new book came about because I wanted to think about passing as the mechanism by which the violence of assimilation occurs. My goal was to talk about all kinds of passing -- across lines of gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, body type, health status, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, educational background, exercise trend, fashion cult, etc. The question I wanted to ask was, if we eliminate the requirement to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create?

At the time when I thought of this new book idea, I already had two books in mind: one about the intersections of Jewish assimilation, identity and resistance, and the other an intervention I now call Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification and the Desire to Conform. You can see how both of these anthology ideas also relate to assimilation. One of my goals in life is certainly to challenge assimilation in all its forms, whenever possible (or even when impossible).

Just when I had decided to start with the book about Jewish assimilation, something interesting occurred. An editor at Seal Press contacted me after reading an interview with me in Bitch -- the interview was great because it included entire paragraphs that I'd spoken, and a glamorous photo shoot (there was also a delicious interview in MRR around the same time). Anyway, this editor said that she would love to publish one of my books, and what was I working on now?

Well, it's moments like these that you certainly have to take advantage of -- or I do, anyway. Seal Press is a feminist press with the tagline, "BOOKS BY WOMEN. FOR WOMEN." I knew immediately that the book I wanted to do about passing would be the one that would fit best at Seal -- not only that, but the fact that it was on Seal would actually amplify the intentions of the book -- to challenge all hierarchies of belonging, and create new possibilities for defiance. Furthermore, I've wanted my work to be positioned more clearly within feminist discourse, so this felt like a great opportunity. If the editor's name on the cover already isn't passing, what devious jewels could exist inside?

And yes, while this wasn't exactly the book Seal had in mind, they loved the idea. Nevertheless, even though it was they who'd contacted me, the passing questions began. First, "what is your gender identity?" I replied: I would identify as a genderqueer faggot and a queen, meaning that I'm somewhere on the trans continuum, in the genderblur gender-bending section. I use female pronouns and identify as femme, but I'm not necessarily invested in people seeing me as either "male" or "female." Rather, I'd like to create something more delectable and devious.

I continued, by adding that I developed my feminist politics early, in the process of surviving that good old-fashioned laboratory of patriarchal family violence known colloquially as "home." By seventh grade, I witnessed many of my female friends developing crushes on the misogynist, queerbashing boys we used to hate together, and I -- like many young feminists -- decided that all penetrative sex was rape. I grew into a more sexually-liberated feminism around radical dykes dedicated to politicizing every aspect of identity. Though I started having sex with men at an early age, it took me years to hang out with fags and it is still difficult for me to befriend any male-assigned (or male-identified) person not fiercely committed to wreaking feminist gender havoc."

Second question: "how is this book relevant to women?" Oh no -- Feminism 101.

I replied first with a specific angle (publishers love hooks): Passing is an extremely topical issue right now, especially in feminist, queer and trans circles where an increasing number of female-assigned people are choosing to transition from female to male. Unfortunately, there is little public discussion about what happens when one transitions into privilege, and how to ensure that this passing does not further anti-woman, anti-feminine or anti-queer violence. This much-needed discussion will most certainly take place within my new anthology.

Then I tried to summarize the general issues that I was certain Seal was aware of. I start by saying that more broadly speaking, misogynist violence has historically functioned to police women who fail to perform socially-assigned roles properly -- and those who choose consciously to defy the rules. Women who have not passed -- as sufficiently feminine, sexy, motherly, docile, pure, fertile, proper, compliant -- or as good cooks, caregivers, housekeepers, maids or servants -- have suffered derision, ostracism, imprisonment and murder. While this pattern has certainly shifted, it has not abated. In order to rigorously combat misogynist violence, we must do away with the requirement to pass.

Guess what? I passed, so well in fact that the editor then stated that since I was an expert on gender and sexuality, the book should focus on these two types of passing. But that's not what I wanted to do! In my next passing letter, I declared: In terms of focus for the book, my goal is to challenge standards of authenticity, destroy notions of acceptability and create new possibilities for defiance. While I certainly intend to use gender and sexuality as central lenses through which to view and dismantle the mechanisms of passing, I would not like to limit the project to this framework. Rather, I feel strongly that the book as a whole will be more interesting, politically relevant and accessible -- and inspire a deeper level of understanding and innovation -- if it takes on all types of passing. It's the refusal to restrict categories of inclusion that opens up the possibility for the most rigorous work -- work that skewers all hierarchies and builds something new in the ruins.

As far as my own experience with passing (or not passing), though I am certainly an expert in the areas of gender and sexuality, I -- like most people -- have also encountered, confronted and experienced the perilous intersections of race, class, age, ability, body type, health status, ethnicity and other passing categorizations. In fact, much of my activism over the years has focused around developing a radical queer politic that insists on seeing issues of race and class as central to queer struggle - especially around police brutality, gentrification, urban removal, homelessness, racist scapegoating, prison profiteering and US imperialism. You mention that some of your colleagues think it might actually be irresponsible to tackle all aspects of passing in one anthology, but I would maintain just the reverse -- that it would be irresponsible NOT TO tackle issues of race, class, age, ability, body type, health status, ethnicity, etc. within a book confronting the notion that passing equals progress AND that the book will only grow stronger by taking on this challenge. Perhaps this is an area where the book breaks new ground. Furthermore, rest assured that I have full confidence in my ability to eloquently articulate the intersections of all of these issues in any sort of public forum -- in fact, it was this very skill that attracted you to me in the first place (after reading the recent interview in Bitch). In addition, since the book is an anthology, one of its strengths will certainly be a wide range of contributions expressing firsthand accounts and critiques of passing that will go well beyond my personal experience.

I continued by saying that with this anthology, I would like to ask the question: if we eliminate the requirement to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create? I do not think that the project will adequately address this question unless it includes the widest possible range of responses. If, after I put out the call for submissions, I find that the pieces I've received center overwhelmingly around sex and gender, to the exclusion of other types of passing, then I would have no problem shifting the focus of the anthology. As of now, though, I have high hopes of receiving a wide range of contributions that confront every possible aspect of identity, categorization and community in order to challenge the very notion of belonging.

Now, I know I was getting repetitive, but sometimes you have to be a little repetitive in order to get your point across (at least, I find that I do). Anyway, I was going to continue here by telling a whole new passing story -- the ways in which I've passed as able-bodied while editing this anthology, and now that I'm one month away from my final deadline and I'm frantic, yet because of all my chronic pain and exhaustion, I can't sit down and edit for 12 hours in a row or something (or even two hours in a row). But now I feel like I'm running out of room. I will save this story for the future -- until then, wish me luck with the editing process.

Love -