In “It Takes One to Know One,” Robinson explores the phenomenon of passing in terms of both sexuality and race–and considers the connection between the two. She rejects the conceptualization of identity politics as a “politics of substance” and reimagines it as a “politics of optics” (716). This clarification realizes that our culture depends on an “optical model of identity,” meaning that the visible is assumed to imply some truth about an individual’s identity (718). Imitating the construction of race as a visual marker of difference, sexologists enforced a visible and binary concept of sexuality that “conflated gender identity with object choice so that gay and lesbian subjects could be read at all” (718). In other words, scientists declared that there were visible cues in one’s gender expression that imply something about their sexuality, just as there are visible cues that (supposedly) imply something about one’s race.
This train of thought becomes particularly fascinating in relation to queer cinema when Robinson begins to explore why and how a queer person can identify other queer people with such ease, based on some sort of special intuition. Robinson claims that it is not the queerness, or some inherent aspect of identity, that we are picking up on, but rather, because of our “familiarity with the codes of deception,” it is the “apparatus of passing” itself that we recognize (722). We can identify the performance, not necessarily any truth of the performer’s identity–because sexuality does not, in itself, have any visible form. Just as a human navigating the world might play up or down certain aspects of their gender to imply or reject certain assumptions about their sexuality (a deliberate or subconscious response to our culture’s tendency to connect gender expression and sexuality), an actor on screen might use similar cues to build their character. A queer audience, like a queer person in real life, is hyper-aware of these of codes and able to read into the character in ways that a straight audience might miss entirely.
Robinson, Amy. “It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest.” Critical Inquiry. Volume 20, Number 4 (Summer 1994): p. 715 – p. 736.