Monday, July 2, 2018

In Solidarity with Myself: A Reflection on Passing as a Catholic Teacher.

I am a teacher. I currently travel an hour down country roads to work as a casual relief teacher at a public school in a small town. I would like to work closer to home so as to be more present for my family. Many people ask me if I have looked for work at the local Catholic high schools. I did once a long time ago but I haven’t since my last period of employment.

I would, for the most part, enjoy working at a Catholic school. I often mention how Catholic schools are ahead of public schools in terms of incorporating Australian Aboriginal perspectives in their curriculum. I believe education is a part of our fulfillment of our duty to the needs of others, not just a ticket to our own increased personal income and broadly speaking that is the Catholic ethos too. Lastly I like teaching kids in any environment. I could focus on them and not on all the policies of the church running the show.

But if I went for a job at a Catholic school I would have to accept a certain level of discrimination in my hiring and my retention of the job, discrimination that would be illegal in the public school system. This means that effectively in regards to employment at a Catholic school I will get preferential treatment for my heterosexual marriage compared to anyone who is gay or in a defacto relationship. Due to my Catholic upbringing I could also pretend to be Catholic. I look like a married Catholic man with kids – just the sort of person that would appropriately reflect the values and tone of the school.

This picture isn’t telling you my truth. I am married, now. We had our two children first, “in sin” and married when it felt right for both of us. So you know that I had sex outside of marriage. Some of that sex was also with other blokes. I’ve also comfortably been an ex- Catholic for a long time. I can still recall most of the prayers but I parted company with the church when it struck me that I wouldn’t even join a stamp collecting club if it only allowed men in its government let alone a world religion. About the only time I rediscover my Catholic identity is if someone generalizes unfairly about Catholics and I feel a need to rebut them. “We don’t actually eat babies”, I say, arms momentarily linked with my Catholic kin.

To take and hold a job at a Catholic school would necessarily involve “passing” as someone I am not. I want to discuss this concept of “passing” in depth. For some of you it’s a familiar concept and this essay probably isn’t for you. For others it may name clearly something that pervades your life that you’ve lacked a word for. For others still you may have only a limited experience of passing and little idea that it can be harmful. I first heard the word passing when it was used to describe when transgender people successfully convince society that they are a cisgender member of the gender they are transitioning to. In my early twenties I myself could cross dress to pass, meaning I could convince people that I was a biological woman by simply changing my appearance. Passing is also used when older people try to look younger. Passing could be used in the context of prosthetics to describe a limb that looks like one of flesh and blood. People with mental illnesses often find sophisticated ways of passing as well in order to avoid medical interventions or social stigma.

Passing generally operates inside social hierarchies as a way to gain social benefits. An older woman may try to pass as younger to avoid age discrimination in a job interview. A young person may mask their disability to avoid social stigma and pity. Gay men might pass as straight to avoid homophobia. Failing to pass means failing to obtain the rights and privileges of passing. At the pointy end this means safety from violence – to pass as cisgender is decidedly safer in our world than to be noticeably transgender. Passing is often not that hard because passing is fitting in with the expectations of a society that doesn’t want to notice your complexity, or difficulty or sadness or uniqueness or “wrongness” in their eyes. Passing is the culturally smoother outcome for everyone.

We all pass, or try to. We do it strategically and yet as easily as paying someone a basic courtesy. We smile when we are down. Doing so allows us to breeze through an interaction at the checkout counter. We don’t have to deal with other people’s concern for our welfare and they don’t have to deal with their concern either. It’s handy. We gain the benefits of everyone thinking we’re ok. Passing doesn’t necessarily make us a victim of oppression or bound by the shackles of society. It can just be a way to navigate social environments simply and to choose when to be open and with whom.

We are also however obliged to pass and that is much more toxic to tolerate. Women in particular can be told to smile as they walk along by complete strangers. Is the male issuer of this decree asking the woman to pass as the pretty young thing he would like to see rather than her actual self? I doubt its been reflected on that deeply, but the effect is the same. Thank goodness for all the women who don’t try to “fight ageing”, fake a smile and laugh off harassment or for that matter eliminate body and facial hair. By refusing to pass as someone else’s ideal they open up space for every other woman not to.

I want to stress that when we make efforts to pass, even in capitulation to others threats or demands, it is not fair to say that we are closing off space for others. The people who oblige passing do that with their commands and their criticisms. The people who threaten violence or discrimination to those who don’t pass or try to pass do that. People attempting to pass are simply living their lives as strategically as they can, perhaps even with safety in mind. Still, if we are successful the consequences of not passing will pass over us and hit others who are less successful. This is why in oppressed communities people who can pass as not belonging to that community are not always trusted as allies. They possess a privilege that isn’t healthy to use and might only work partially but is still real.

I could easily pass as someone who holds Catholic values about the expression of sexuality and the meaning of marriage (although curious minds might wonder how we stopped at two kids). I could mention my family to my students without concern. In fact, for me, it takes extraordinary effort to not pass. I have to pretty much “come out” as not who I look like if I want people to know. But I think its important to do this. Boringly, I have probably “come out” as having a queer past on this blog more times than I remember. That is me trying not to pass as what I look like. That is me trying to hold open the spaces for others and myself to be different. It’s healthy for me to do this but I’ll concede it becomes a tad repetitive.

There’s also a complex space I inhabit where my queer past isn’t really my true self either. I would feel wrong if I placed myself on a panel as a queer speaker. I don’t feel I can claim to speak from that position. I am married, in a marriage that doesn’t have to argue with anyone for recognition. Holding hands with my partner doesn’t put me at extra risk of violence. This is not because I am passing as straight but because my current expression of my sexuality is straight. In all this talk of passing in order to work at a Catholic school I don’t want to understate my heterosexual priveleges (or desire) or deny the oppressions of others. Sometimes it can be hard to divide what priveleges we obtain by virtue of who we are, and what privileges we obtain by passing as something we are not. Men after all gain privileges for being men but often only if they can pass as what society values men as (masculine, brave, tough) which is never really their whole truth.

There are many critical responses to “passing”. For example, there are transgender theorists who argue “passing” only reinforces gender based oppression. To pass as a woman one needs to embrace the icky politics of narrow definitions of visually being a woman. When I passed as a woman the easiest way to do this was to remove any facial, leg and underarm hair. These cues, plus socks in a bra, was enough for a young man with longish hair in dim light to pass as female. What does this say however about women’s body hair? Why couldn’t I have been read as a woman with unshaved underarms? To do so would have risked not passing. I made a choice to pass first. And then later I didn’t by embracing they style of “Gender-fuck”.

Within transgender politics one expression of gender identity has deliberately tried to challenge the value of passing. “Gender-fuck” is the colloquial term for transgressing gendered appearance rules in order to show them up as arbitrary and even to highlight their absurdity. The goal of gender-fuck is to create confusion in the reading of the person as male or female rather than to be successfully read as either one. There have always been spaces in culture for people playing this role – The bearded lady in the circus or the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. If punk is a movement fueled by positive rebellion  Gender-fuck is when Punk meets drag. I remember my days at uni in an a-frame frock with ripped up sleeves and facial hair as more freeing than dressing in any other way. I’ve yet to find a place of employment where this exact outfit would feel appropriate though. What I really enjoyed was abandoning the goal of passing as anything.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying every dress choice we make is either an attempt to pass or a rebellion against passing. A lot of our self representation choices have no relationship to passing as anything. Nowadays I wear a tie to work almost every day. This is my way of reminding myself that the students I work with in an underprivileged state school deserve as much professionalism as those at the local hoity-toity private school which would require a tie of me. I don’t think this choice can be understood through the lens of passing. I’m not trying to pass as a guy with my tie. I have a moustache that genders me perfectly well on its own and my reason for keeping that has its own story. I hope I haven’t held up passing as the way to understand all choices about appearance.

When we do attempt to pass the effect can be toxic. This is because when we aspire to present an image for others we can internalize the message that our truth is something to be ashamed of. I don’t want to generalize too much here. I think I personally have a very low tolerance for passing. I am inclined to interrogate myself as to why I might be keeping anything private from my friends and I don’t enjoy the suspicion that I am doing so in order to avoid their judgment. Other people I know seem to have a higher tolerance for passing. They like their privacy. They don’t mind wearing a mask to maintain it. I found being a waiter the hardest job because even when you are having a lousy day you are supposed to convince customers you are totally loving your job. As a teacher or as a drug and alcohol worker or as a school cleaner I have never felt the same pressure to pass as happy. This doesn’t make me better than people who can cope being a waiter. Frankly I think they have wisdom I lack.

My intolerance of passing is a key reason why I don’t want to work at a Catholic school. In the public system I don’t burden my current co-workers or employer with my life story but I don’t have any fear of them finding out. I don’t feel like mentioning my wife in the staff room is part of a ploy to fit in. I believe in public secular education for a lot of reasons but I don’t think the Catholic education system is bad by comparison. At a state school I don’t need to pass to work there though. At a Catholic school I would feel like I need to out myself constantly or be taken for someone I’m not.