Before my husband, Jacob, and I left for South Africa at the end of 2012, we pondered whether there would be any moments and, if so, how many moments there would be when we would have to pass -- not as individuals of one race, as Alice and Leonard did -- but instead as friends, rather than the married couple we are. Friends had relayed stories of difficulties traveling to this country so recently freed of apartheid, and we wanted to be cautious.
What I ultimately discovered during our time in South Africa is that I still had much to learn about the damages that stem from passing. Peggy McIntosh in 1988 wrote a groundbreaking piece about white privilege. I was, in many ways, oblivious to the full extent of the heterosexual privilege that I possessed in the United States, even as a member of an interracial marriage. Although Jacob and I had experienced the fears of physically being pulled apart by strangers on the street, we, unlike the famous interracial Lovings, who took their case to the Supreme Court in 1967, had never been arrested, jailed, and threatened with a lengthy prison sentence.
As I was recently re-reading an excerpt from my journal from South Africa, I was reminded of just how little, then, I understood about the psychological harms of long-term passing. I had underestimated the severe emotional toll of hiding an important part of my authentic self, my life partner. I had miscalculated the exhaustion that would come from having to think carefully about every look and touch that he and I might venture to share. I had taken too lightly how passing sends implicit internal messages that one's relationship is wrong. I had undervalued the freedom I had, to some extent, come to take for granted. Describing the fears that I experienced about being part of an interracial couple just during my husband's and my travels down to South Africa, I wrote in relevant part:
I am more wary here than in most places in the United States about stealing a touch, a glance, a kiss with my love. ... In my head, I imagined that Jacob and I would simply refrain from public displays of affection to avoid any harms ... I had imagined passing only in snapshots rather than marathon hours. Until I had to weigh each and every moment of potential intimacy with deliberate thought, and at all times, with fear of what any small action could bring upon us, I did not realize how often I--one who likes to think of herself as self-conscious about public displays of affection--stole a glance with Jacob, gave him a knowing smile, engaged in a short snuggle, or received quick sweet pecks on the lips. . . .
Re-reading my own journal brought chills to my soul, particularly when I reached a section recalling Jacob's and my awkward indecision in an airport over our custom of having him hold both our passports. "No, keep it," I had said. "Be safe. If anyone tries to attack you, tell them you have to make sure your wife gets her passport back. . . ."It is impossible to appreciate, until it is thrown into question, the simple importance of just getting back safely to be with the one you love.
Jacob and I both laughed out loud at our silliness, our paranoia, and our "exaggerated fears." After our jokes, our natural instincts were to hug each other as we laughed, moving just as naturally towards a kiss, a kiss that I pulled away from or that I told myself we both pulled away from because we were so out in the open. . . .
I have a close friend -- I'll call her Stephanie. She is in a relationship with a woman who cannot come out for fear of losing her job. I have had many conversations with Stephanie about her and her girlfriend's fears of being exposed, their close calls, and the uncertainty of not knowing when they can ever end their silence about and suppression of their love -- their "passing." As the experience of Carla Hale, a well-regarded, veteran school teacher who was recently fired after she simply named her long-term partner in her mother's obituary has shown us, their fears are real.