“Passing” and People as Shelter

The idea of people as shelter was brought up by my group after our walks outside the other week, and after finishing Parable of the Sower I thought I’d share my own experience in relation to what we’ve read in the novel. Throughout the book characters seek shelter among people when suitable shelter is not accessible. The neighborhood that the Olamina family lives in serves as a physical shelter, but when this neighborhood is destroyed it is the less tangible neighborly bond that allows Lauren to feel comfortable seeking shelter with Zahra and Harry.

In the absence of buildings for shelter, I initially found myself seeking shade on my walk. I noticed an older man sitting on a bench under the small tree and clock pole by Erwin. In an effort to not “out” him, I will just say that his shirt had a phrase that I interpreted as being potentially threatening to my identity as a gay woman. What could have been a good spot for shelter, immediately made me feel uneasy. I held this fear that there would be some confrontation with this person should I take the seat next to him, and thus the space then felt inaccessible. Through this search for acceptable shelter and being confronted by this experience, I thought that I must decide who provides safety and who does not, or be alone and potentially vulnerable.

Quick content warning here: I talk about the politics of “passing” in this post.

It is necessary to acknowledge that as a cisgender, femme, gay woman, I “pass” as straight. I have the privilege of hiding if I need to for my safety. While I am using this word to refer to passing as heterosexual, I want to point out that the politics of passing is incredibly loaded in the trans community. It can often mean safety, but the idea of “passing” disregards varied representation and visibility and also implies an inherent failure or flaw in those that don’t “pass.” I do not have the authority as a cis woman to comment further, but will instead link to two sources discussing the controversiality regarding the term from Slate and The Trans Advocate written by people who are trans.

This being considered, I don’t think I “looked like a gay woman” to the man on the bench, and I wonder if that protected me from any sort of confrontation should one have even occurred. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren chooses to dress as a man in order to essentially pass as a less visible target to predators. She details that this is not only to reduce the chance of being attacked because she is a female, but to also draw attention away from passers-by interpreting her friend group as containing an interracial couple (Butler, 171). Attempting to pass as a regular-feeling person is something that Lauren also must grapple with throughout the novel, and Butler seems to comment here on the actual danger to those who do not pass, as sharers like Emery and her daughter Tori are kept and sold as slaves. Lauren chooses to conceal her hyperempathy to protect herself from others, and it is only until she encounters the other sharers that she fully understands just how much of a danger all of that feeling can be.

Outside of my thoughts surrounding passing, my experience with the man on the bench also reminded me about snap judgements and its place in seeking people as shelter. He could have been kind and lovely and not judge me, but from my own experiences with older people wearing similar shirts that come to this campus, I perceived him to be a threat. In the novel, Butler appears to underpin that snap judgements are to be avoided, in that the people that the group picks up on the way all end up being assets, but they also encounter those that are not as kind, keeping them wary. Lauren finds that when she opens up to others, as she had to do with everyone in the group, they choose to stand by her. While people are easily a danger, Parable of the Sower reminds us that they are equally our shelter. I wonder if I chose to seek shelter next to the man on the bench if I would be reminded of the kindness of others too, but my wariness has kept me from finding those answers.

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