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Nobody Passes

Elly Kugler
Date Published: 
August 01, 2007

Review of NOBODY PASSES edited by Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore
Seal Press, 2006

Nobody Passes feels like a helpful read for anyone who finds themselves stuck in the midst of multiple identities and exhausted from not finding even one place where all parts of their selves and communities fit. From conversations on the meaning of the US flag in different generations of immigrant organizing, to musings on shifting identity by the formerly straight-identified female partner of a transwoman, the writings in the book are short, readable, and interesting.

The book tackles “passing” in the sense of being taken as a member of a group with institutionalized power; for example, passing for white, for able-bodied, for male, for straight, for non-transgendered, for Christian and more. The readings are full of tales of living at the edges of multiple identities and having only some of them perceived, and many contributors write about passing through the margins of many different communities. Writers struggle with being Chicana enough, queer enough, trans enough, bilingual enough, enough in general, with negotiating mixed race identities, and with encountering oppression and hypocrisy within what are supposed to be healing community spaces.

Nobody Passes is no heavy textbook. Many of the selections are people’s stories and memories with a pinch of reflection thrown in and a lot of room for the reader to engage in their own reflection around categories, labels, and fitting. Reading the book through in several sittings feels a little like having a series of intimate conversations with friends and strangers. The selections are all based loosely around the theme of passing, but the voices and experiences are highly eclectic (sometimes to the point of feeling a little random). Within the mix, Nikki Lee Diamond’s piece on life and resistance as a transwoman in prison and Priya Kandaswamy’s essay on the loss of the battered women’s movement’s original militant roots are special winners.

Personal accounts

The book is refreshingly full of varied political perspectives and practices. While Mattilda hirself says in the introduction, “I feel terribly hopeless about the possibility of systemic change. I feel more hopeful about individual and collective acts of resistance”, other anthology contributors explicitly call on readers to take on systems of discrimination and violence where they are found. In Dean Spade’s essay on the state violence and the gender binary system, Spade asks, “How are trans people faring, not just in your school or office, but in the shelter in your town? In the jail down the street? In the prison out in the country?”

Not everyone presents plans on how to bring about the revolution, or even how to build more space for people to exist as their whole selves. Instead, most pieces present detailed, personal accounts of lives lived across the margins, with perhaps some glimpses of how they and people close to them have survived and found passion and joy.