The Powers and Problems of Passing as a Boy

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...full-text also available on The Huffington Post

While conducting research for my forthcoming book on passing-- the fact of being accepted, or representing oneself successfully as, a member of a different group--I came across the amazing story of Ellen and William Craft. The Crafts were an enslaved couple who escaped when Ellen passed as Mr. Johnson--a wealthy, white, disabled master--who was attended by William, his slave in 1848. After a series of harrowing encounters aboard, trains, boats and carriage rides over the course of four days, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia and ultimately escaped to London. The Crafts became what we might now call “reality stars” as they gained media attention from antislavery and mainstream press. They told their story in the book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, and donated the proceeds to further the abolitionist cause.

The Craft’s story led me to search for contemporary instances of passing that would bring an updated social currency to the issue. I was about to write about Brandon Teena when my search yielded surprising and powerful results in the form of a New York Times story by Jenny Nordberg entitled "Afghan Boys Are Prized So Girls Live the Part". The story details how, for generations, girls pass as boys in Afghanistan in order to bring honor to their families, escape social criticism, and often to bring much needed economic support. According to the article, "there are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari… In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision."

These less traditional acts of passing are about much more than mere disguise. They are about reopening a space to understand how identities are constructed within specific situations. From this perspective the similarities of “bacha posh” passers and Ellen Craft are astounding. They both:

1. Involve females passing as males. Ellen Craft and Bacha Posh passers identify as and express a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. So in a way they can both be considered cases of transgendered passing.

2. Occur in segregated settings. In Ellen’s case there is racial segregation and enslavement. In Bacha Posh cases there is gendered segregation.

3. Are practiced temporarily and purposefully. Forays into boyhood and manhood have end points, from a few days to a few years. Ellen Craft passed for four days to escape enslavement and work toward abolition for all enslaved persons in the United States. Bacha Posh girls pass for months or years to avoid social stigma of all-girl families and to bring much needed income into the home from the work they do as boys.

4. Are anxiety-ridden. For instance, Ellen developed disabilities whenever there was a possibility for outing. She pretended to be deaf to avoid an acquaintance of her slave master’s, she feigned rheumatism when white people became too friendly, and she fainted when two white ladies began to flirt with Mr. Johnson. And in 2010 Miina, a bacha posh passer, “is also nervous that she will be found out if one of her classmates recognizes her at the store. ‘Every day she complains,’ said her mother. ‘ I’m not comfortable around the boys in the store,’ she says. ‘I am a girl.’”

5. Involve boundary crossing. Despite the obvious crossing of physical and geographic boundaries in these cases, there are other types of boundary crossing performed rather than stated—class, political freedom, (dis)ability, race and ethnicity.

These similarities ultimately reveal a transnational history of gender transgression in Afghanistan and the United States. However, this history is an ironic one. On one hand, these kinds of passing subvert the legal and cultural prohibitions placed on female behavior and identity. Enslaved and daughter-only families are unable to survive under their existing social hierarchies. So passing also allows us to see possibilities for different life outcomes for women if they were regarded as men’s equals. On the other hand, these kinds of passing represent a form of careful adaptation to legal and cultural prohibitions. This means that passing ultimately requires the recurrence of boundaries in spite of all the suffering and misery they impose. This also means that passing prevents large-scaled political and structural challenges to gender discrimination. For instance, in the cases I’ve mentioned females are not encouraged to make passing a permanent way of life or to continue to pursue the interests and hone the skills they may have developed while living as males.

And, what fails to be discussed in any analysis of these transgendered instances of passing is how racial/ethnic and gender identities are reinterpreted after these passing women return to their pre-passing identities. What happens when the time for passing is over? How easy or difficult is the transition into society as females? Do these passers change masculinity in any way when they experience the world as males? How do these passers navigate sex, sexuality, and gender? Do these passers lose their voices? How do men interpret and regard passers’ experiences? What, if anything, is the Taliban’s response to bacha posh passing?

Perhaps no one will be able to answer these questions but the passers themselves. One thing is certain. Passing, as experienced Ellen Craft’s and Bacha Poshers’ experiences, reminds us that we all have secret selves. I think that these secrets need telling. For it is in their telling, these things said in passing, that we provide a more thorough understanding of how lived experience intersects with identity to define who we have been, who we now are and, most importantly, to discover and mobilize who we might become for the purpose of positive change.