Covering and Passing: Reflections on Mentoring LGBTQ Students

There were a lot of memes in 2017—not a surprise, given that the shelf life of the average meme is undeniably short, and most memes aren’t based off actual discourse. The “Gay Culture Is” meme, though, took a sharp turn towards “too real” on Twitter this past year:

“Gay culture is being a teenager when you’re 30 because your teenage years were not yours to live” ~ @introvertgay

This is a multigenerational observation that rings true to so many LGBTQ people: a yearning to have been one’s true authentic self at the time when many of us were just beginning to discover our queer identities. One of my greatest regrets as a young queer man growing up in Kentucky was that I had no visible examples of independent, positive LGBTQ role models. Even today, with LGBTQ people coming out earlier and more easily, role models are still hard to come by—especially for those of us outside major metropolitan areas.

As a result, when I was approached about serving as a mentor for the 2017 Out 4 Undergraduate (O4U) tech conference in San Francisco I was extremely thankful to be given an opportunity to serve LGBTQ youth. MongoDB, as a sponsor of O4U, sent my colleague and me to serve as mentors for LGBTQ students engaged in tech and tech-adjacent degrees throughout the world. Along with mentorship groups, the weekend was filled with keynotes from established LGBTQ voices, breakout sessions, panel Q&As about career paths, and network receptions.

All 90 mentors were provided training on how to facilitate conversations, ensure all students felt safe and encouraged to discuss their identities, careers, and more, and how to foster camaraderie amongst the teams and across all 214 students. The conference began examining the identities of LGBTQ people, especially examining how people modified their appearance or actions when facing adversity. This transitioned into establishing goals for both their first jobs and for their overall career, making space in between for the intersections of our identities and our aspirations.

Identity & Covering

“Gay culture is wishing you could go all the way back and be yourself from the beginning” source: http://willcolbykettles.tumblr.com/

A major discussion item across all teams was the concept of covering, or hiding aspects of oneself depending on the situation. NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino writes that passing (being mistaken or initially read as “cishet” —cisgender and heterosexual) has been replaced in much of society by covering, where LGBTQ people reveal only aspects of their identity that they feel are safe or relevant.

He outlines four areas of covering: 
(a) covering one’s appearance
(b) covering one’s behaviors affiliated with identity
(c) covering one’s advocacy and action toward the safety and respect of their identity
(d) covering one’s association with other group members

Yoshino writes that we have arrived at covering after a century of progress, beginning with early barbaric attempts at conversion (with the goal of actually becoming heterosexual permanently), to passing (with the goal of being read as heterosexual in public), and finally to covering (with the goal of being read as not-queer in a specific environment or timespan). Passing is still relevant, as we live in a society where we are often de facto assumed cisgender and heterosexual. Of this Yoshino writes:

“Each time I tell my story, I am released, yet this is also the story from which I yearn to be released.”

Speaking to the students in my group, covering was more relevant; while not all were out, many understood the feeling of being tacitly out, responding to questions about their identities directly and truthfully, but through covering essentially insured that such questions would not be asked. There is absolutely emotional labor involved with coming out—Yoshino’s quote identifies how grueling coming out repeatedly can be, but also highlights that the result ultimately provides an emotional reprieve. I would posit that covering one’s identity is also emotional labor, but without the benefits of coming out.

Covering, like trauma, is deeply ingrained within us and embodied. If coming out to oneself can be seen as an assertion of one’s existence in the face of complex trauma, then the echoes of this trauma are preserved by covering, often a manifestation of internalized shame, fears, and danger. The blame for these behaviors, however, is societal. Covering boils down to recognizing when a given situation will invalidate your identity or expose you to danger; borrowing privilege from others’ tacit assumptions can be powerful, especially in the face of violence. These causes are external; the responses, internal.

Back at O4U, our teams discussed situations where we felt compelled to cover. Many mentors in my generation expected answers about changing how one presents themselves in order to blend in—Yoshino’s covering of appearance. However, most students already felt confident in their self-presentation, and were at least partially out (often amongst friends). Their most common triggers for covering involved the need to stand up for other LGBTQ people—Yoshino’s covering of both advocacy and association.

If we think of covering in terms of positive action (behavioral addition) and negative action (behavioral prevention), covering of advocacy and association are largely negative. One can hide desired appearance/behaviors, or explicitly include passing appearances or behaviors; however, in terms of advocacy and association, one is most likely to avoid specific people and engagement in social causes. Positive manifestations of covering advocacy and association are extreme, and indicate strongly internalized phobic attitudes toward LGBTQ people (e.g. actively protesting LGBTQ causes despite being LGBTQ).

This is striking to me for a major reason: to counteract these forms of covering one must be spurred to action. Taking non-actions in the context of advocacy and association result in much the same response as those who actively cover. To address this covering, we must examine our interactions with the advancement of LGBTQ rights and respect, and allow our open existence to serve as a tacit resistance.

With students from around the world, the topic of safety came up frequently, with individuals feeling that they used covering as a defense against potential violence or enmity from others. Heralding the connection between advocacy and action may be admirable, but the acknowledgement that LGBTQ safety is paramount means understanding that there is a tremendous difference between covering (in specific contexts) versus coming out. In a post–It-Gets-Better society, it is too easy to vilify the closeted, and as an extension, vilify the covered. Instead, we must recognize that part of advocacy is creating a safer environment for all LGBTQ people, and that rather than admonishing those that cover, we should examine our own actions and their relationship to creating change.

Covering & Imposter Syndrome

“Imposter syndrome is gay culture” ~ @spaceghostess

Reconciling this with the future careers of these students was more complicated. Nearly all agreed they wanted to work in an environment where they would not need to cover and could be completely out. Yet, most agreed that the work of exposing one’s authentic self is a lifelong process, much as there is not one “coming out”, but countless assertions of one’s identity for each person. Others acknowledged that a perfect job may not exist, and beginning positions may put them in situations where coming out could be risky, and covering may provide a sense of security.

Another major theme approaching career goals was that of Imposter Syndrome, which was commonly shared by myself, the other members of the panel on Software Engineering, and most of the audience. There is no question that in response to facing immense pressure as LGBTQ youth, insecurities from passing and covering day-to-day reinforce recurrent feelings of fooling others, and in turn diminish their own capabilities and accomplishments. All panelists also shared a common trait: we happened into software engineering indirectly after college, and not all of us held technical degrees. We recognized this as being increasingly relevant in the field of technology and engineering—more and more engineers are entering the field being largely self-taught, and it was agreed that this volume would only be increasing in the coming decade.

Imposter Syndrome is perhaps more prevalent amongst LGBTQ people than cisgender heterosexuals—in fact, the subject of Queer Imposter Syndrome often gets specific attention. When you have to assert your own identity against an identity projected onto you, it is easy to fall back to previous expectations of you and feel like your authentic self is a facade. Imposter Syndrome also begets more Imposter Syndrome; if you are not a complete queer person, is it not more likely that you are also a fraud in other areas of your life?

This is compounded by the fact that coming out publicly is tightly entwined with passing privilege—the privilege of being read as your identity rather than having to actively assert your identity. It is perhaps no wonder that queer individuals that have to present their queerness should struggle with imposter syndrome. Passing as heterosexual and cisgender can be seen as a privilege because of the relative safety and societal respect it accompanies. Passing as one’s own sexual orientation and gender identity, however, can be more complicated; it is certainly a privilege to not have to actively project your identity onto yourself at all times to avoid being misread or misgendered, but it comes along with the tremendous risk (especially for trans people of all genders) in terms of safety.

Two observations: one, the decision with regards to how to present, and covering in order to pass cannot be simplified to an argument like “being out is better than being closeted”, because it oversimplifies the trade offs between safety and hiding identity. Two, by needing to inhabit these spaces, passing may trade off safety for a sense that who we are treated as and who we are are incongruous—a rookery for imposter syndrome.

It is no question, then, that regardless of industry, imposter syndrome is so prevalent amongst LGBTQ careers and that so many students felt this topic hit home. Just as we previously labeled covering of advocacy as negative action (behaviorally preventive), we labeled covering of appearance and behaviors as both positive actions (behaviorally additive). We can think of trying to pass as LGBTQ and ourselves as being the other side of covering for appearance and behavior—instead, we are presenting and acting accordingly to our identity (still behaviorally additive).

By this logic, making technical decisions in one’s career also occurs at the same time as examining one’s identity and the intersection of it. The same fragility that can underpin imposter syndrome about one’s identity underpins imposter syndrome about the quality of one’s work. Compounded, without visible queer leaders in the workplace, the presentation of an impactful career is largely a cishet one—cisgender heterosexual people never have to question how becoming a director is going to involve their gender or sexuality, whereas an LGBTQ employee becoming a director has to immediately balance professional concerns, potential needs for covering, limits of passing’s usefulness, and their visibility as it relates to other employees.

In the panel at O4U, none of us were able to offer up advice with regards to Imposter Syndrome beyond pushing through, and reiterating to yourself “I am here because I deserve to be”. Acknowledging it, however, is the first step in addressing it, and our personal stories grappling with it resonated with students, who felt less alone in their own struggles.

Takeaways

“Gay culture is learning how to make a family out of friends” ~ @nigeltpatel

Mentorship played a major role in validating and affirming the desires and lives of the students, while also offering guidance — it played such a major role that one of the groups pitched an idea for a mobile and web app connecting minority engineers with mentors that shared common life experiences and identities. The group, in response to this affirmation, expressed their desire for a world where all LGBTQ people could connect with one another and find a mentor earlier in life to help with the intersection of their burgeoning identity, rather than only those privileged to attend conferences like O4U. The applause in response was raucous.

When running our closing mentorship session, the overwhelming consensus of my group of students was an appreciation and thankfulness for an environment where being queer was the norm, and where they could bond over that commonality. I remember when I first came out as a teenager, I personally assuaged those I came out to by saying “but I’m still me–this doesn’t define me”.

This of course was an over-simplification. The truth was that in that moment, my life was changing dramatically, and I was beginning to create the identity I valued, rather than the identity valued by others. In this way, students were experiencing a community that responded “this is a part of you that is important, and I want to know that part”; a radically different form of acceptance than society’s typical response. In that way, the most important part of mentoring students to me wasn’t asking questions, or talking about my own experiences, or even listening to the stories of the students themselves. It was fostering a sense of community amongst the students and stepping away enough to let that grow, and learning this was invaluable.