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    Student Voices: The Privilege of Passing as Straight

    By Lyndsey Schlax

    (Editor’s Note: Teacher Lyndsey Schlax of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts launched the nation’s first on-site high school LGBT course in 2015. She has resumed teaching that groundbreaking class. In this column, her students share their thoughts about LGBT-related matters, including their concerns, what they have learned in class and more. The below three stories were shared by students in Grade 11.)

    The Privilege of Passing as Straight

    This week, my class had the honor to have Kate Kendell, Esq., the current Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, speak to us. Among the many things she addressed in her amazing talk, she brought up a topic that I found to be very interesting. Kate began speaking of the privilege that many members of the LGBTQ community have in that a lot of them “pass,” meaning that, in simply seeing them on the street, one would assume that they fit into heteronormativity or gender normativity.

    This means that, if needed, many of these “passing” people could fly under the radar if they chose to, for whatever reasons they have. Kate then compared this to the experience that people of color have. People of color can generally not pass. There is no way of hiding your ethnicity, for example, to get a job, while someone who was lesbian could potentially pass as straight in order to avoid any potential disadvantage.

    Kate discussed how people who can “pass” have a certain responsibility to advocate for those who can’t, by using their “passing” platform. This resonated with me tremendously.

    I am half white and half Mexican. I grew up in a household rich with my Mexican culture. Even my (white) father celebrated Latino culture far more than most. I am biracial, and this means that I have physical traits of both my ethnicities. Therefore, I pass. Sure, many people tend to see some Latino influence in my features, but ultimately, if I said I was white, I would be 100% believed. I am among the few who can “pass” ethnically.

    Because of this, I believe that I have a certain responsibility to use my privilege to speak about racial inequality, especially in a time when immigrants face more hate than I have ever seen before. I encourage everyone around me to evaluate the “passing” privileges they have, as well as any other privilege(s), and to use these to advocate for those who can’t, especially in a time when it is crucial to communicate the voices of those at the bottom.

    Transgender Timeline

    When does a transgender person decide their gender? The answer is never. Huh? What? Then are they transgender? Yes, they are, and they always have been. It’s not a decision; it’s not a lifestyle choice. Whether they’ve always known it, they’ve been transgender.

    When I came out to my parents as transgender, my father said to my mother, “I’m losing a son.” My mom responded, “You never had one.” That was the biggest part of helping my father to come to terms with my identity. 

    In my LGBTQ and Ethnic Studies class, we listened to a podcast called “How to be a Girl,” about a mother raising her transgender daughter. In the podcast, the mother talked about how she missed her son, and wondered where he was. Her daughter responds, saying that she never had a son, she had a daughter all along. In the mother’s eyes, her son was being replaced by a daughter, which was absolutely not the case. Whether she wants to believe it or not, her child has been the same person since the day she was born.

    Being transgender is an extremely complicated concept that a lot of people struggle to understand. What’s funny about that is a transgender three-year-old can fully understand it, despite what they’ve been told by their parents or anyone else. The world is slowly, but surely moving towards understanding what’s going on.

    My Sister

    Learning about how gender is fluid has not been that much of a surprise to me. I’ve always just accepted that gender is determined by the individual, and that pronouns can change. I’ve always thought that I was so accepting of everyone, as I have been with all of my friends who came out as transgender or nonbinary. Even with all of this knowledge, about what it means to be non-binary, I still have trouble sometimes coming to terms with it when it comes to my sister.

    She told me she was bisexual a few years ago. Then, she told me she was lesbian. Last year, she said she was pansexual. None of these changes really surprised me. But when she told me that she did not know if she was a girl, I did not know how to feel. Even though she had never struck me as feminine, I had never imagined that she was not a girl. She was my sister. We had played with dolls when were kids. We had watched all of the Disney princess movies hundreds of times over, and dressed up in costumes from the Disney store for fun.

    Then I remembered that it had been me who went to school in the Disney princess dresses. She had gone to school in a Spiderman onesie. When we played with our dolls, she would always play the male characters. She had liked watching the TV shows like Ben 10. She always hated wearing dresses, wearing makeup, going shopping and all of the stereotypical things “girls” do. 

    When she told me, I said nothing for a few moments, then replied with, “Okay.” I told her I didn’t care, because I still loved her. I asked her if I should use different pronouns, and if she still wanted me to call her by her birth name. She said yes, using she/her pronouns was fine. We left it at that, but in the deepest part of my mind, I secretly did not believe that she was not a “girl.” I felt like it was just a phase and that, because she had changed her mind about her sexuality so many times, this would just blow over. Then, it crept into my mind that she might want to be called a “boy” name and go by he/him pronouns. It made me uncomfortable. She was my sister. 

    Six months later, she still uses she/her pronouns. She still goes by her birth name. She still hates going shopping. She still hates watching romantic comedies with my mom and me, and nothing has really changed. I am trying to come to terms with who she is, and who she may decide to be. I know it is not my place to decide her gender, and I would love her if she decides to use different pronouns.

    If she were to be a boy, then she would still be the same annoying sibling who lives in the room across the hall. I would still think that all of her friends are irritating and invasive of my privacy, and I would still love who she is as a person. Because of her, I am learning to stop assigning gender based on appearance. I am unlearning what it means to be a “boy and a girl.” I am learning to accept who she is, because she will always be my sister.

    For more information about the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, please visit http://www.sfsota.org/