The politics of passing (for straight) in China
Updated: Feb 19
For a while, I've wanted to write about 'passing' a.k.a. being read by the wider population as heterosexual or heteronormative. In the LGBTQ+ community, there is a big debate around whether people who are not visually read as queer benefit from this 'invisibility'. Various queer people have written about this before, for example this article by a Sikh gay man on intersectionality. He talks about passing and privilege in terms of a 'social currency'. I would agree: similarly to the hierarchies that exist in the rest of the world, not all queer sexualities and identities have the same privileges.
How one is read by others is especially relevant for minorities within the LGBTQ+ community. As RuPaul's Drag Race Season 11 winner Yvie Oddly revealed on an episode Untucked, presenting as queer is a safer option for some than being read simply as 'black'. She goes on to say how she made a conscious decision to visually broadcast: "I'm a homosexual".
For many queer people, visual aesthetic is important because our identity is grounded in being 'other'. But what happens when our aesthetic ends up having more value than sexuality itself? When a community finds its togetherness in a shared experience of ostracisation, a failure to reject heteronormativity can be seen as a betrayal, and even a sign that one does not deserve queer spaces.
I first thought of writing this post when a gay friend of mine said "you're the queerest person I know". I felt like crying with joy. As a feminine-presenting bisexual woman, a lot of people around me naturally assume I'm straight. As a teenager, I never felt queer enough. Since I came out at the age of 14, I have always felt like a fraud. I've never really been one of the straights, but I'm not a 'full gay' either.
An interesting article I read recently discusses some of the issues faced by bisexuals. We are often thought to be confused, at a mid-way point of coming out. This of course creates a lot of anxiety for us, especially given that these accusations come from both LGBTQ+ and straight people.
But it would be deeply naive to complain about 'passing' when people around the world are killed and tortured because they don't. Of course, in an ideal world, the LGBTQ+ community would welcome all queer identities equally, but the truth remains: the ability to exist in public and not fear attacks is a privilege.
In China, passing is an entirely different dynamic. In the Far East, concepts of masculinity and femininity are very different for one. Queer language and terminology are also much less commonly used. The practice of asking someone's pronouns - perfectly normal in LGBTQ+ spaces in the West - is received with odd looks at least in Shanghai.
This dynamic exists at least partly because in China, so few queer people are out to their family and friends. A great documentary to illustrate this is All In My Family on Netflix. Assumptions about sexuality and gender are different furthermore because people are much more private about their personal lives. Sex and relationships rarely come up in normal everyday conversation.
I wanted to find out more about the implications of passing in China. So, I spoke to a few of my queer friends living in China: Lin Qin, Aiden, Tremaine, and Patrick.
1. Is there such a thing as 'looking queer' and if so, what does it look like?
Lin Qin: "I think the stereotypes of looking queer exist [...] like looking butch, sissy or androgynous. For men, adopting a glamorous and flamboyant style can be labelled queer [...] however, for women, it depends. Wearing pants and having a short hair cut are not necessarily to be seen as signalling a queer lifestyle [...] I don’t think there is the only way of looking queer."
Tremaine: "When I think about ‘looking queer’ I can almost immediately identify in my mind the idea that is being projected. For men, this look might be ‘overly’ feminine, (make-up, tighter clothes, accessories, more manicured) and for women, this might be looking ‘butch’/ masculine (flannels, menswear, very athletic, doesn’t like skirts/dresses) to the point some people would dare to mislabel gender due to a reading that expresses lack of regard for common gender performance and conformity. [...] As a tall, stockish black male, my entrance into the queer community is very different from many others. I have muscles, a beard, I dress quite masculinely, and I have very few queer friends. This [...] causes some people to deem me unrecognizable as queer. To many other people, I poke out without question."
Patrick: "I think any clothing, accessory, or make-up use that is a challenge to gender norms is often perceived as “gay” by some people. But while some queer people rightfully choose to embrace these stereotypes, there are also a lot of queer people who choose not to."
2. Do people who pass as straight have more privilege than those who are more
Patrick: "Unfortunately, I think people who 'pass' do see a lot more privilege in society than any person – not just queer – who challenges social and cultural norms. While there has been progress made, you still see a lot of pressure put on LGBTQI youth, especially in schools or family units, to act straight."
Aiden: "I think those who pass as straight tend to have more privilege than those who are more visually queer [...] I think people are superficial and it’s pretty easy to see whatever you want to see without inquiring further. People who tend to pass as straight can use that to their advantage knowingly or unknowingly."
Lin Qin: "I don’t think there is an absolute answer. In some “old-fashioned” industries, like banking, then a conservative dressing style may lead to quicker promotion. However, in PR and advertising, looking queer is encouraged. However, how do we know that 'passing' is the critical factor? [...] Being pretty or not, being rich or not, these two things are much more crucial."
3. Does passing affect genders differently?
Aiden: "I think across various genders there are particular notions on what that gender should look like. This tends to be what people find attractive or normal in that gender, those who don’t ‘pass’ tend to have stepped outside of that normality and adopted some other idea of what they should look like and this tends to be in alignment with whatever their queer culture sees as popular at that time."
Lin Qin: "It affects trans people in a very profound way. But for cisgender people, I guess, societies are not as anxious."
Tremaine: "Though gay men and lesbians do have to worry about their performances, they are typically more well received due to their ‘respect’ for common ideas of gender norms. Gay men still operate on some levels to that of hetero men and can sometimes be easily confused for straight (trade). As for lesbians, unless their aesthetic is much more masculine of center, they can be seen as straight. Because trans people have different levels of access to resources that will help them complete their transition, they often find passing privilege to be a harder concept to handle. If they are passing visually, a slight break in voice or question about where they use the bathroom can lead to walls of protection crumbling and a lack of safety. [...] For black trans women, not having the protection of passing well enough to protect them often costs their lives."
Patrick: "Society generally puts so much stock in being male or female that gender seems to be tangled up in everything – even in the lives of straight people.
If you’re looking at queer people themselves, gay men and lesbians are definitely held to different standards. [...] If you look at people outside of the community, heteronormative men and women also show different attitudes toward queer people. Women tend to engage in a more positive way while men are arguably expected to be in direct opposition."
4. Is there internal pressure in the LGBTQ+ community to present a queer aesthetic?
Tremaine: "Depending on the area you live in, the pressure you might feel to abide by ‘fashion law’ and present as queer will be regulated. [...] In the queer community, there can be a sense of duality. Some people just want to blend in, others just want to step out. Ultimately your placement on that scale is dependent on how comfortable you are with making other people politicize your body and look. "
Patrick: "Personally, I don’t feel any pressure to present a “queer aesthetic.” I don’t think the LGBTQI community is a club that requires a uniform or an official membership card – and rightfully so."
Aiden: "I think it very much depends what part of the community you come from. For example, there is a lot of pressure on trans people to remove any queer aesthetic and look as ‘normal’ or het as possible in order to ‘pass’ as whatever gender they identify as. I think certain types of queer people favour various aesthetics sometimes to the point of homophobia against fem people for example jocks or muscle masc types and the whole no fat / no fem / no Asians issue. There are those on the other side of course [...] where people deem those who don’t visually show a queer aesthetic somehow traitors."
5. What are the social implications of passing in China as opposed to in the West?
Aiden: "It’s a lot easier to pass in China than it is in the West. I think the West is a lot more knowledgable about the queer society. The things we identify in the West as making someone 'look' queer are commonplace here in China amongst the whole population."
Patrick: "I don’t talk too much about my personal life at work, mostly because I don’t see the relevance, but I have heard that there could be some implications professionally."
Tremaine: "In China, specifically Shanghai, theres a call to conform in general. [...] Their interest in who is desirable is based off arbitrary standards of beauty. They are also shifting ideas of passing with their leads in fashion. Though they are not yet completely gender bending when it comes to clothes or certain other factors (hair, makeup, body types) they are producing fashion waves that make identifying members of the queer community simply by dress, a bit harder. [...] The Chinese are major leaders in inspiring who and what people wear, as well as how they wear it. The prospect of a Chinese fashion culture abiding by no gender rules can really shape global culture as it pertains to queer identity. The real question behind this soon coming trend is not merely a when but more of how will the world react and will this benefit the queer community?"