National Coming Out Day: A Circle on Passing

October 2, 2014

In this activity, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day, students learn about what it means to "pass" (as straight, as white, as Christian...) and consider what the pressure to "pass" costs individuals and society. The activity is structured as a circle, but can be adapted for use in a conventional classroom. 

To the Teacher:  

In this activity, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11, students learn about what it means to "pass" (as white, as straight, as Christian...) and consider what the pressure to "pass" costs individuals and society. The activity is structured as a circle, but can be adapted for use in a conventional classroom. Click here for an introduction to circles.     
 
SEL skills:

  • Active listening
  • Recognizing and expressing feelings
  • Building empathy and understanding
  • Appreciating diversity
  • Small and larger group work

Opening Ceremony

Read the following poem by Shel Silverstein out loud.
 

She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.

 
Go Round: Send the talking piece around, inviting students for their thoughts and feelings on this poem.  What kind of behavior do you think this poem is talking about?
 
Ask students if they've ever heard of the term "passing" or "racial passing."  Elicit and explain that passing refers to people of one identity group who present themselves, either actively or passively, as belonging to another identity group to avoid bias, discrimination, or harassment or to gain privilege.
 
According to author Koa Beck, the term "passing" began appearing prominently in literature  in the 19th century. "Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt were among the early American novelists to explore this phenomenon, but Nella Larson's 1929 novel Passing was the first English language book to explicitly brand itself with the term," she writes. "Many years and an entire civil rights movement later, passing still carries a largely racially charged definition ..."  
 



Small Group Work: Profiles of Passing

In small groups of three or four, ask students to read one of the profiles on the handout at the end of this lesson, then discuss in their small group the questions that follow the profile.  (The questions are essentially the same for each profile.)
 


 

Whole group sharing

Go Round: Send the talking piece around, inviting students to share what resonated with them about these profiles and how the people in them chose to present themselves.
 
Go Round(s):  What are some of the identities that people in these profiles have tried to hide when passing?  What are other examples of people who (throughout history) have tried to "pass"?  Under what circumstances?   (Make sure to touch on, among other groups in the U.S.: light skinned African-Americans passing as white; Jews or Muslims passing as Christian; Catholics passing as Protestant; atheists passing as religious; different ethnicities changing their surname to pass as more "American" or "Anglo"; gays or lesbians passing as straight.)
 
Go Round: For what reasons might people feel they have to "pass"?
 
Go Round: Send the talking piece around once more,  inviting students to talk about a time in their lives when they themselves passed or when someone else passed as something or someone they were not to gain certain privileges and/or to avoid bias, harassment or discrimination.  
 


 

Pair share on the Cost of Passing

Invite students to count off by twos, then have the ones turn to their right, the twos turn to their left.  Each students should have a partner.  If you have an odd number of students in the circle, partner up with the remaining "one."  
 
In their pairs ask students first to think about the stories discussed so far today. Then discuss these questions:  

  • What price do you think people might pay when they pass?

  • What price do you think society pays when we expect or force people to "pass"?

Go Round: Send the talking piece around, inviting students to talk about the cost of passing both to the individual and to society at large.
 


 

Closing Ceremony

Going back to the Guardian article by Koa Beck, read the following quote:
 

"It's rather telling that even with hard-won civil rights victories, the definition of passing has not narrowed but grown."

 
Ask students to clarify what they think Beck is trying to say. 

Tell students that this issue of "passing" is especially relevant at the moment, since October 11 is National Coming Out Day.  People around the world observe  National Coming Out Day as a way of celebrating individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  
 
Go Round: Send talking piece around, asking students to share their responses to one of more of the following questions:  How do you feel about National Coming Out Day?  Why do you think it is important to many people?
 


Handout:

FIVE PROFILES OF PASSING


1. Isabelle Mussard is 41 and lives in Oakland, California. She is sometimes mistaken for Latino or Iranian but is actually of Métis [mixed] descent, by way of France and Senegal, and of unknown mixed origins on her mother's side, as she was adopted. She takes no pride in passing as white, but sees many parallels in the experience that spans the varying identities of her family. "I think a lot about the analogies between coming out as a black woman of mixed heritage and my lesbian mother's coming out." Mussard remarks on another tension, a "triple consciousness" for passing as white, being black, but resisting America's definition of blackness given her European ancestry. Not having a black identity that is linked with the American history of slavery renders her identification even more complex. She is wary of appropriating a culture that is not her own and says that she wants to stay cognizant [aware] of and responsible for her privilege in passing. (Excerpted from Koa Beck's article in the Guardian)
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Isabelle Mussard shares about her and her mother's identity?
  • What identities have been hidden in Isabelle's family history? How has her family passed?  How has she passed?
  • What other parts of her identity does she talk about?  How?
  • How do you think Isabelle feels about this?  Why do you think that?

 


2. Hanif Kiriakos, 26, of Lawrence, Kansas, ... actively passes as white, Christian and straight, a trinity of identities that evades his gay Greek-American and Muslim identification. Since coming out as gay two years ago, he finds the perpetual explaining of his sexual orientation to be more fraught [loaded] than being an out Muslim. Passing has made Kiriakos's life easier, in that he is accepted into normative social groups and not immediately questioned about his faith or sexuality. But ... he finds that passing has also made his life more difficult in that he constantly navigates simultaneous experiences of it. He maintains that not fitting the stereotypical effeminacy of gay men has revealed to him how stereotypes aide communities in distancing, and therefore effectively othering, gay people.  ((Excerpted from Koa Beck's article in the Guardian)
  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Hanif Kiriakos shares about his identity?
  • What identities has Hanif hidden in his life?  How has Hanif passed?
  • What other identities does the paragraph refer to?
  • How do you think Hanif might feel about passing?  Why do you think that?

 


 
3. Jeremy Allen, 25, of New York City ... has been out as gay since adolescence and says that he comes across as gay. But his name on resumés and email addresses successfully conceals another part of his identity to which he is very dedicated: his faith. Allen is Jewish but he finds that given his name, he doesn't necessarily come across as Jewish to new acquaintances or employers. While successfully, if problematically, side-stepping stigmas and preconceptions about Judaism, his passing as gentile [non Jewish] has also greatly informed his inability to pass - and frankly lack of interest in passing - as straight. (Excerpted from Koa Beck's article in the Guardian)
  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Jeremy Allen shares about his identity?
  • What identity has Jeremy hidden in his life?  How has Jeremy passed?
  • What other identities does the paragraph refer to?
  • How do you think Jeremy might feel about passing?  Why do you think that?

 


 
4. Alex Shams writes:  "Passing as white meant I looked like ‘the norm' and was never made to feel out of place, saw people who looked like me whenever I turned on the television, and never had to fear or suspect that negative experiences I had were a result of racism (among many other privileges I enjoyed). I knew for certain that my father's ability to pass as a well-tanned white man had ensured his own ability to succeed professionally at a time when his Iranian name had closed many doors. I was sure of this because his ability to pass, as well as my own, meant that we were both ‘privileged' to hear the secret racist and Islamophobic comments directed towards others that happened in the lily-white boardrooms and classrooms that we each navigated.  And yet the more I spoke with white folks about race, the more I began to understand that many of my experiences of bullying throughout childhood were directly tied to my ethnicity in ways I hadn't previously realized. As obvious as it now sounds, it had never occurred to me before that being harassed for supposedly being a terrorist or being called "Saddam" or "Osama" in middle school hallways was not a universal experience for American children, and that these experiences were not merely unpleasant but were in fact definitively racist.  (http://ajammc.com/2013/12/03/are-iranians-people-of-color/)
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Jeremy Allen shares about his identity?
  • What identity has Jeremy hidden in his life?  How has Jeremy passed?
  • What other identities does the paragraph refer to?
  • How do you think Jeremy might feel about passing?  Why do you think that?

 


 
5. For Allyson Hobbs, "the study of racial passing in America has ... been ... [in part] an investigation rooted in family lore.  Hobbs had a distant relative, whom she had never met, who grew up in a light-skinned black family on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s.  When her relative graduated from high school, ... her ...mother said to her, 'you're going to graduate, you're going to leave Chicago, you're going to go to California, and you're going to become a white woman. And this is the best thing for you.' The young girl protested, she didn't want to leave her friends, her family, the only life she'd ever known. And her grandmother said, 'no, this is the best thing for you. You'll have the best life chances if you do this.' The [young girl] ... moved to Los Angeles, married, had children, and lived as a white woman, with no one knowing her true roots. Years passed, and eventually her mother contacted her with the news that her father was dying and asked her to come back to Chicago immediately. And she says to her mother 'I can't go back. I'm a white woman now,' ... 'This what you forced me to do. What you wanted for me. These are the consequences of what you chose for me.' And she never went back." (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/december/passing-as-white-121713.html)
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the story of Hobbs' family?
  • Why did the grandmother want Hobbs' relative to leave for California?
  • How do you think the young relative felt about the move?
  • What were the consequences of the move?  Positive? Negative? 

 


 

 Additional materials to consider:
 

Allyson Hobbs' Ted Talk:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIulfoJPnq0
 

Lisa Lusero writes and recites (in this youtube clip):
 
"Okay I'll admit I cut my hair because I wanted people to know I'm a dike...
Passing for straight makes me feel invisible.
I hate that.
I want to be seen clearly and explicitly for who I am.
...
Don't expect that I speak the same language as you
Don't expect that we have the same story to tell
...
Don't assume that your world is mine
Then again, don't assume it isn't." 
 
From the book Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie