A+ for Identity: A Review of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 19, 2007


Growing up, my mother repeatedly told me that it was as easy to fall in love rich as it was to fall in love poor. In college, I tested the theory, dating a cash-soaked business major who came from a long line of entrepreneurs. Mom was thrilled. But not me. After a visit to my beau’s family home on Long Island – where uniformed staff greeted us – I bolted. I couldn’t imagine being on the receiving end of someone else’s servility. Since then I’ve tried to stay true to my working-class roots. Yet it is not as easy as it sounds. After all, I am a highly educated white woman who holds a job in academia. People who don’t know differently assume I’m of middle- or upper-middle-class origin.

The issue of disclosure rears its head. An excellent new anthology, Nobody Passes, brings the contradictions of our complex identities to the fore in 27 essays that explore class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and national origin.

According to editor Mattilda/Matt Bernstein Sycamore, the content “tears binary gender norms to shreds, and proceeds to embrace, challenge, and transform not only the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but the categories of femme, transgender, butch, genderqueer, and ‘none of the above, thank you.’”

While not every entry will resonate for every reader, I found several particularly moving. Helen Boyd’s Persephone, for one, describes the trajectory she’s traveled, moving from being married to a man to being married to a male-to-female transsexual who was once her husband. The outside world is often confounded by the duo. “I’m always surprised when people see Betty as a femmey gay man and disappear us, since for me – and for us – we are plainly visible,” she writes. Seeing the couple, most assume Helen to be companion, lesbian friend or fag hag, but never wife. “A person can have electrolysis, gain breasts, grow their hair, their nails, and their wardrobes, and the people who knew her when she was he will still see him even when her breasts get in the way of hugs hello,” she reports.

For Tucker Lieberman, a female-to-male transsexual, the process involves integrating gender with spirituality. An observant Jew who wears a yarmulke, he recounts a visit to Israel and a trek to a men’s ritual bath. “By some miracle, I wasn’t stoned,” he writes. “It actually felt unthreatening once I was there and I consider that maybe no one noticed that my body was different.”

Upon returning to the States he opts to cover his head as a reminder of religious obligations. At the same time, he has no problem tossing aside those traditions – like a prohibition on driving on Shabbos or eating shellfish – that he deems obsolete.

Still, a quick look at Lieberman would lead most to conclude that he is an Orthodox Jewish man. Closer inspection, of course, would reveal something different. Editor Sycamore says s/he compiled Nobody Passes to challenge the “tyranny of assimilation.” Surely, the idea of conformity, as if people can be shaped into one way of being, is absurd. We bristle when told what we must do or how we must behave, but at the same time we long to belong. And herein lies the conundrum. We attempt to pass because we want friends. We pass because we want our families and colleagues to respect us. We pass because we crave love, attention and affection. As a result, we lie, cheat, and pretend to be who we are not. Kirk Read, in an essay called Origins, writes of concocting a tale about escort work to make his vocation palatable to non-sex workers. Instead of focusing on the sordid, he describes being called a healer by a client. It’s a sweet yarn that makes Read and his audience feel good. Still, a nagging voice questions its veracity. Is it a true representation or a delectable fib?

Contributors to Nobody Passes ask other provocative questions. Some wonder if they can call themselves queer if they are in heterosexual relationships, while others wonder about claiming a single racial identity when they are mixed.

Nobody Passes pokes at the core of personal identity, reminding us that personal authenticity is integral to human liberation. It further attempts to envision a world – however utopian – in which there is no need for passing. The message is simple: If nobody passes everyone fails and that is unacceptable.

Mattilda/Matt Bernstein Sycamore and several contributors will be read from the collection on Wednesday, March 21 at 7:00 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen Street in Manhattan.

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