Passing, or concealing an aspect of ourselves that might be regarded as a “weakness”, is a phenomenon that affects many of us — in real life and in literature.
Despite increasing efforts to fight homophobia in football, as yet no (male) German football professional has come out as gay. One only needs to look at cases where players did out themselves to know why: As the first active player, Justin Fashanu had talked openly about his homosexuality in 1990 but had to face harsh criticism and insults. When later he was accused of sexual assault on a minor, Fashanu committed suicide for fear of not getting a fair trial. Against this background, the decision to keep one’s sexual orientation secret is quite understandable.
Such a tendency to conceal a quality that might be perceived as a blemish or flaw is relatively common, all the more so in competitive contexts (for example, on the job) or where there is a lot of pressure to conform (for instance, within peer groups). Sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of a stigmatised identity when an individual fails to live up to social expectations in some way. Such a stigma can consist in bodily features, in certain traits of character or in other qualities such as age, race or religion. What counts as “stigma” and what as “normal”, Goffman asserts, is nothing that inheres within an attribute itself but is always relative to context: “For example, in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height and a recent record in sports.” In other words, “almost everyone falls short [of social standards] at some stage of his life”.
Thus, most of us will already have made experiences with hiding aspects of ourselves in order to gain acceptance or avoid discrimination, a phenomenon which Goffman and others call passing. For people suffering from depression, for instance, keeping up appearances may be necessary to keep their work and custody of the children. Similarly, people who have lost their jobs may go to great lengths to keep their unemployment secret from the shame of being regarded as “failures” (see the TV documentary “Die Heimlichtuer” by Walter Krieg, aired 12 April 2011).
Given its social relevance, it is little wonder that the topic of passing has been taken up in literature as well. Around the turn to the 20th century, for example, a whole genre of passing narratives emerged (usually about mixed-race characters passing for white); this genre examined the discrimination that led them to cross identity lines and the psychological costs of living a double life. In most of these tales, the passers were presented as ultimately tragic figures who are punished for denying their true identity and forsaking their racial community. As for this corpus of texts, there is already a vast amount of research.
The aim of my particular project is to analyse recent novels on passing and look at a greater variety of its forms, in line with Goffman’s definition of stigmatised identities. Thus, the project can indicate whether the representation of passing has changed over time, especially in the wake of poststructuralist theories that fundamentally challenge the notion of a “true self” and identity politics based on a shared “stigma” (the first results suggest that at least some of the texts refute such radical social-constructivist concepts).
Structurally, the instances of passing that are under review will be arranged on a continuum from fictional to real-life cases. Passing can occur, firstly, as a motif in a novel, that is, when characters present themselves as something they are not to other characters in the fictional world. How is this dissemblance evaluated? When the protagonist of Pamela Satran’s novel undergoes a makeover to appear Younger (the title of the text), is this a cowardly submission to social ideals of youthfulness? Or a legitimate form of self-protection, because she would not get a job if she revealed her true age? Could it even challenge conventional stereotypes, because once she is outed her colleagues are surprised that a person of her age was capable of so many fresh ideas?
Even more common than novels about passing are memoirs or reports in which real persons relate their experiences of “living a lie”. Such writing, paradoxically, counters the effect of secrecy and is akin to outing oneself. What does the popularity of this genre tell us about our attitude towards passing — does it point to an increasing openness about one’s stigmas? And can public disclosures of this sort help to reduce prejudices towards hitherto marginalised groups?
The final instances of passing under review concern literary hoaxes, or the deception of the reading public by an author. JT LeRoy, for instance, rose to fame for his seemingly autobiographical stories about being the victim of sexual and physical abuse as a boy — until it came out that the texts were really written by a woman called Laura Albert. Is such a form of “reverse-passing” still within the realm of artistic freedom, or an unethical appropriation of a stigmatised identity?
Of course, the questions raised in this article can offer only a small glimpse into the project. The examples show, however, that the theoretical discussion about various forms of passing may be furthered as well as qualified by literary representations. The texts address ethical concerns, examining to what extent we have to tell the truth about ourselves, and they shed light on our implicit assumptions about identity and “normality”, as well as on possible ways of effecting social change.
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München