Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in 1893 to a Danish mother and a Danish West Indian father, both of whose names have been obscured by history. Nella's father died when she was two, and her mother remarried a man of Danish origin while Nella was still quite young. All biographical references indicate that Nella's step-father was a source of racial tension in Nella's childhood home, which resulted in her alienation from him as well as her mother.
At 16 Nella went to Denmark for three years to visit her mother's relatives. When she returned to the United States she went to Fisk University, but her stay only lasted one year. Evidently she was dissatisfied with both Fisk and the United States, because when she left Fisk, she left the country as well, going to Copenhagen, where she audited classes at the University of Copenhagen for two years. She returned to the United States late in 1914, but this time she went to New York City, where she earned a nursing degree in 1915 from Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses. Immediately after receiving her nursing degree, she went to Tuskegee Institute, where she was employed as superintendent of nurses. She must have been dissatisfied with Tuskegee, because within one year she left the institute and returned to Lincoln Hospital.
She abandoned nursing in 1918 and began studying to become a librarian. In 1921 she became the children's librarian at the 135th Street branch (Harlem) of the New York Public Library, where she remained until 1929. During this interval she married Elmer S. Imes, a physicist. The couple lived in Harlem, and in all likelihood they were part of upper class African American society. Meanwhile Larsen wrote two novels.
Larsen's novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), depict the mulatto theme which had become popular in American literature. In such works the male or female protagonist, who is light enough to pass for white, finds that all personal ambitions (education, employment, social mobility in general) are severely limited when one is held to the racial restrictions which typified the early 20th century in the North as well as in the South. To remedy the problem, the protagonist chooses to pass for white and move into the white world, only to find even greater dissatisfaction. Torn between two worlds, one white and the other black, and alienated from them both, the protagonist becomes a tragic figure.
Passing recounts the reacquaintance of two childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare disappears from her childhood home when she marries a well-to-do white man and passes into the white world, while Irene lives a life of comfort in Harlem, married to an African American doctor, Brian Redfield. The two women begin to socialize together when they happen to run into one another while shopping. As the story unfolds, Irene becomes convinced that Clare and her husband, Brian, are having an affair. The climatic scene depicts Clare accompanying Irene and her husband Brian to a Christmas party. Irene's jealousy of Brian and Clare "[presses] against her"; she begins to perceive Clare as a threat to the security of her middle-class marriage. During the party, Clare "falls" to her death from a sixth-floor window. Critics have questioned whether Clare indeed fell or was pushed by Irene. Both women have participated in a kind of passing: Clare into the white world, Irene by adopting the values of white middle-class America.
Larsen’s novel Passing can be seen as a parallel to the life of gay men and women, especially those who are in the closet. The novel positions two light-skinned women as antagonists and psychological doubles in a drama of racial passing, class and social mobility, and female desire. Their racial passing can in a way be seen as gay people in the closet. We are trying to pass as someone we are not. Irene Redfield demands safety and security in contained, self-sacrificing race and gender roles; Clare Kendry functions in a self-seeking, risk-filled existence on the edge of danger and duplicity. Although Clare's racial passing is one of the novel's concerns, Irene's obsessive desires, represented through her perspective as the central consciousness, expose a range of intense emotions all cloaked by her persistent concerns for social respectability and material comfort. Recent attention to Passing has emphasized Larsen's use of passing as a device for encoding the complexities of human personality, for veiling women's homoerotic desires, and for subverting simplistic notions of female self-actualization.
Larsen's search "for a sense of belonging" is similar to the journey that all members of the GLBT community face. We search to belong. At first, we often work to hide our true selves. While in the closet, depending on our situation, we will do almost anything to keep our secret. If we are not our true selves, then we are doing as Clare and Irene and just passing. When we hide our true selves, from ourselves and others, we are trying to pass in what the world considers heteronormal. When we try to pass ourselves as “straight acting,” we are trying to find a homonormal medium. Normal does not exist in this world, especially if we strive to be ourselves, because we are all unique and special in our own way.