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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity [7 March, 2007]

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For a brief moment in the ’90s, the phenomenon of passing—the adoption of one identity to hide another—fascinated literary and cultural critics.  Discussions about authenticity and belonging with regard to race, gender, and sexuality abounded.  Today, the idea of rejecting any part of your identity seems woefully unfashionable.  We are all hybrid mutts now, straining to assert our multilayered selves—you are no longer just gay, but a gay cowboy from Montana, a Green Party member, of Indian descent, and a drag queen on weekends.  If we are constantly encouraged to display our various origins, are we no longer compelled to pass?  In a world where entire months are devoted to every identity under the sun, is passing, well, passé?

The anthology, Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, asserts that the pressure to pass still exists.  The essays are written in a range of genres and include memoirs, interviews, and fiction.  Here, people pass in diverse contexts like AIDS, the domestic violence prevention movement, homohop, migrant farm work, Okie migration, and transgender politics.  All these topics concern political struggle and identity, but there’s no sense of an overarching solidarity between the writers who often seem disconnected from their own communities.  Most of them don’t care whether the reader likes them or not, and some even admit to inventing details in their non-fiction accounts.  The result is an extraordinarily bracing and important set of essays about contemporary politics.

Nobody Passes exposes the problems that arise when we assume that a left/progressive agenda depends on commonalities between varying causes of social justice.  It also exposes the continuing inequalities faced by those who don’t pass, refuting the notion that a world where sexual and gender identities are celebrated is necessarily a better one.  As Rocko Bulldagger wryly asks in “the End of Genderqueer,” “…when exactly does this smug queer future begin?” The book challenges our cherished but worn notions of community, authenticity, home, identity, and solidarity—all of which underpin a traditional progressive movement, and none of which live up to the challenges of a world where the distinctions between left and right have blurred.

One popular fallacy of the left is that identity is the pivot upon which social justice must rest; the force of identity, in turn, depends upon specious concepts of authenticity.  Origin myths about identity, stories which perpetuate fantasies about where our ethnic and sexual selves come from, are especially targeted in the book.  In an essay about growing up Arab American, Stephanie Abraham fondly recounts a childhood of hours spent by the sides of her Syrian and Lebanese great-grandmothers in their kitchens, “inhaling the scents of garlic and thyme.”

In reality, the fourth-generation Abraham has no memories of meeting her grandparents.  Abraham clung to this affective fiction for years, worried that she would only be validated by such an archetypal story about “the immigrant experience.”  For her, such fictions belie the reality of growing up Arab American in a world where “looking Arab” makes you a potential terrorist.

The sex worker Kirk Read writes about inventing a story about his first client assuring him that Read’s work provides “healing.”  The story reassures friends and family that Read’s life and work are socially conscious and fulfilling.  He finds that even the most politically correct and sex positive people have no interest in discussing his profession of choice, unless he first offers them this fictional and romanticizing story about sex work.

Origin myths are deployed by many of the book’s writers, who find that their concerns about social justice will not be heard if their lives don’t fit predetermined templates of authenticity and enlightenment.  Nobody Passes questions the affective and emotional grounds of what passes for social justice these days.  It dares to ask: Can we fight for the rights of those whose lives and experiences don’t fit our exoticizing paradigms, whose professions are not morally redeeming? Do we care less about people’s rights because we don’t like what they do?

Similar questions face the immigration rights movement, and are addressed in “Who’s That Wavin‘ That Flag?” A popular banner at rallies has the words, “We are not the real criminals,” which implies that “…the people that we currently lock up—almost 2.2 million people in U.S.  prisons and jails—are real criminals.”  The banner obscures the fact that the prison industrial complex disproportionately punishes the economically disenfranchised among immigrant communities and people of color.  The piece addresses the issues facing non-citizens who must constantly negotiate the conflicting ideologies of the immigration movement in relation to normative ideas about “good” citizenship.  While the right discusses immigration in simplistic “us vs.  them” rhetoric, the left draws upon equally simplistic narratives about good immigrants who should be rewarded for their exemplary behavior.  Both sides evade tougher critiques of a system that depends upon cheap labor.

Meanwhile, the gay marriage movement has hijacked immigration as a cause, insisting that the right of heterosexuals to marry into citizenship should be bestowed equally upon queers.  As Terre Thaemlitz puts it in ‘Trans-Portation,” an essay about transgendered bodies and immigration, “Unable to buy our way into a country, we find ourselves fucking our way in.”  The argument that people should gain entry because of their relationships with citizens undermines any analysis of the systemic economic inequality that structures the immigration system.

Nobody Passes is a set of complex analyses and an essential book for anyone seeking new frameworks for progressive politics.  The writers eschew tired and familiar concepts of identity and belonging.  These essays provide an important corrective to the pallid and politically correct narratives that pass, as it were, for social justice.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 7 March, 2007

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