Masked & Pseudonymous

Academics Look at the Social Phenomenon of 'Passing' and Ask: What Could Be More American?

For Kroeger, finding contemporary passers like Matthews was surprisingly easy: "In every case, I had a close introduction and there was no more than one or two degrees of separation." Her subjects describe their experiences with professional detachment (Matthews refers to passing as "selective editing"), and most see themselves as honest people. Some even pass by their own volition: A closeted gay rabbinical student says that "he never felt forced into secrecy by the seminary" and that "he was fully aware of seminary policy before he ever applied for admission." Another subject, a gender-bending, pseudonymous music critic (who happens to contribute to the Voice), admits that he loves "a sense of game-playing," describing it as an "adventure."

illustration: Rachel Salomon

While celebrities like Eminem engage in what Kroeger calls a "cultural emulation" that is different from passing, they nevertheless contribute to the dismantling of dogmas like cultural authenticity and representation. "But passing is not for everyone," Kroeger cautions. "It's not something you can advance in a way you might civil disobedience." And as empowering as it may seem, passing can inflict a lasting psychological toll. Life is often easier for those with no possibility of passing, Pfeiffer says. "It's precisely the possibility of a choice that makes things so vexing."

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