Austen Crowder

Nella Larsen, Passing, and transgender issues

Filed By Austen Crowder | May 25, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex

Justin Allendale didn't know Angie Zapata's past when they first met - he only saw a woman. This was intentional; Angie made a conscious effort to appear female, to the point that nobody would know that she was ever male. She maintains this persona until it is discovered that she is a transgender woman. In response, Justin brutally murders her, claiming that the news made him mentally unstable. Is this a new narrative for a newly recognized class of people? Hardly. We've existed for a long, long time, and this nightmare scenario has always been at the forefront of our struggle for acceptance by mainstream society. The concept of passing is a well-known one within the trans community, and is closely related to the GLB idea of "acting straight."

Yet to fully understand the concept of passing we must look at its American English etymological roots. Back in Jim Crow days, passing referred to a person's attempt to pass as a white person, such that they could enjoy the benefits of white privilege. This historical anomaly is mostly ignored in high school curriculums in lieu of the important gains from the civil rights movement, but for the LGBT community at large the concept serves as a sort of historical case study of our present predicament.

Here's a summary of Nella Larsen's canonical work Passing from Wikipedia:

Clare and Irene were two childhood friends. They lost touch when Clare's father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, they allowed her to 'pass' as a white woman and marry a white racist. Irene lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other's daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene becomes paranoid that her husband is having an affair with Clare (the reader is never told whether her fears are justified or not, and numerous cues point in both directions). Clare's race is revealed to John Bellew. The novel ends with Clare's sudden death by "falling" out of a window.

The end of the novel is famous for its ambiguity, which leaves open the possibility that Irene has pushed Clare out the window, or the possibility that Clare has killed herself.

I won't go into too much literary critique, as others have already covered the topic better than my limited exposure to Larsen's work could ever achieve. Long story short: while race, gender, and sexuality are three completely different realms of identity, each with their own nuances and issues, the complications faced by confusing (or worse, crossing) accepted classifications share a lot in common.

However, I wanted to draw attention to a few major complications found within the tenets of history, especially the murky waters that arise whenever binary opposition is used to issue discriminatory law. Two big thoughts come to mind:

  • What is black and what is white? A number of major court cases eventually led to the establishment of the "one-drop rule," yes, but the point of the matter is that any restriction based on a binary runs into significant grey area. What happens when a transgender man remains married to his husband? What gender is an intersexed person?
  • Is passing an act of social acceptance, or an act of hiding one's true identity from the rest of the world? Claire acts as a white person to gain privilege. Are we, as transgender people, playing pretend to gain acceptance, or aligning ourselves with what we truly are?

Again, I'm just throwing out ideas to chew. Ideas?

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