Why I Don’t Use the Term “Straight Passing Privilege”

The consensus on what “straight passing” is varies quite a bit, but it typically makes an effort to explain how certain individuals and couples appear straight in the world and due to this, may gain certain privileges. On the surface, it seems like a useful term. If a bisexual woman and a pansexual man want to adopt children, they might not experience the same obstacle as a lesbian couple due to their genders. However, even in that hypothetical, there are so many details that could affect the outcome. Are either people trans? Are they gender non-conforming?

My issue with the term “straight passing privilege” isn’t so much that there aren’t inherent benefits to appearing straight to the outside world, because of course there are. You’re safer walking down the street, you can travel to any country, and you can freely hold your partner’s hand at the grocery store. However, where there are benefits to not “looking gay,” there are also drawbacks to living in that limbo, since you still aren’t straight. To call the experience of being perceived as straight a blanket privilege disregards the lived experience of lots of multi-sexual* people. It also insinuates that all LGBTQIA2S+ people who aren’t in a same gender relationship are automatically read as straight by the world as individuals or within their couple. To “pass as straight” also has a much deeper intersection with gender non-conformity, which becomes even more complicated when you factor in trans identity.

Gender non-conformity plays a huge role, but we don’t really have the words to talk about that in an inclusive and constructive way. If I get a strange look in a bathroom, it could be because they’re homophobic, or because I’m gender ambiguous. People often register gender non-conformity as automatically gay, which, in a sense, can be true for me as a Butch. It’s complicated.

It feels like there’s a gap in our language to discuss what it means to be visibly LGBTQIA2S+ and how that affects us as individuals or couples. All I know is, the terminology we have seems to alienate certain people solely based on who they’re dating or what they look like, which feels reductive.

I also don’t think more visibility automatically means more privilege. In fact, it can be the opposite. Existing in a way that’s read as straight by other straight people can provide you safety, but also might feel like erasure or repression if you’re in the closet. Just take the example of a femme lesbian at their homophobic workplace. Either they stay in the closet and “pass as straight,” or they out themselves and face the potentiality for violence. This also calls into question the idea of being closeted.

Not really. They’re still being harmed by living in a world where they have to be in the closet. They are still being oppressed by homophobia. That is not a privilege. Maybe there are benefits to being in the closet, like safety, but it is an existential exchange, an earned position in society in order to access those benefits. If you have to earn privilege through self-repression, being in the closet, or having your gender/sexuality erased, then it’s not privilege.

A closeted person is sacrificing visibility and authenticity for the benefit of safety, but that safety is something they have to earn by hiding, and privilege is inherently an unearned thing. It may be a different social experience than being an out Butch lesbian like me, but at the end of the day, we’re both being oppressed by the same power system.

As long as these systems of power are in place, every LGBTQIA2S+ person is affected by them on some level, and it’s important that we don’t disregard the inherent harm of that for anyone. We cannot call the notion of being hidden, or having to hide, a blanket privilege. We can and should talk about the benefits of “passing as straight” without insinuating that those people, especially multi-sexual* identities, have privilege over others in the community on the sole basis of their ability to blend. If reliance on another person’s false perception of you is what directly affects your level of safety, that’s the opposite of privilege.

Example: If you could bring your perceived straight partner to thanksgiving but couldn’t bring your perceived gay partner to Thanksgiving due to a homophobic family, being outed in that environment where you had to be “straight passing” means a higher threat of violence if things go wrong. This is also why bi women experience the highest rate of Interpersonal Violence out of the entire community.

That kind of pressure is not a blanket privilege, even if it affords more short-term, conditional safety. It’s a kind of safety you have to work for and maintain. There are benefits and there are drawbacks, but it will never be the same as having true straight privilege, which is a social protection only afforded to actual straight people.

We need to talk about the increased risk of violence that gender non-conforming individuals and similar gendered couples face. There is a difference, and that matters. My girlfriend and I have to look both ways before we kiss in public like we’re crossing a busy street. I had to walk through the suit section of Macy’s with dozens of eyes burning into my back. A lesbian who dresses in a gender conforming way may not feel that same existential fear, but I ward off homophobic family members with my haircut and their ability to “pass as straight” may put them in the same room as bigotry every family dinner. I cannot imagine that feeling of anxiety.

Maybe they aren’t seen as gay, but they still are, and for anyone else like them, those benefits only go so far.

*Multi-sexual: Orientations which include multiple genders (i.e. bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual, etc.)

Fat, ashkenazi Jewish, non-binary butch lesbian writing about queer history, the Jewish experience, fat liberation, and anything else that crosses my mind.