November 07, 2008

passing as straight, standing out as queer, or something else entirely

In my job, I supervise a few people from time to time. They are about my age, and the nature of the job involves a fair amount of waiting around, and sometimes traveling from place to place together, usually on the T. Therefore, I have a social as well as a professional relationship with most of the people who I supervise.

Because of how young I am, word got around the group very quickly that I was married (see, marriage and civil unions really do have different social meanings - somehow the fact that I am married is some juicy social gossip - who knew?) The other thing that people tend to know about me is that I often bring in homemade tasty treats, and that more often than not, these treats are made by my spouse.

Recently, I have been involved in conversations with two different people that I supervise that became awkward (more so for them than for me). In each case, my supervisee asked me about my "wife," either about what she did as a job or about what part of the country she was from. In one case, I responded by saying "my husband does ___." The person did not even notice and kept asking about my wife. In the other case, I started by saying "actually, I am married to a man."

When each of these two people ultimately realized that I was involved with a man, they seemed suddenly shocked, and extremely apologetic. They were suddenly confused, thinking they had now learned that I was a straight woman. I told them not to apologize* and I told them that people often think that I am a lesbian and that I am very involved in the queer community. One of them, I explicitly told that I was queer, but then that led into a series of questions that I did not think were particularly appropriate in a work environment, particularly with someone I supervise. I certainly would not want to make someone I supervise uncomfortable, and I'm not sure that's superbly easy to avoid once conversation moves toward sexual practices or private gender identities and expressions.

In reality, it does not make a ton of sense that people's partners, or their identities come into play at the workplace at all, but then again people are not just "workers," they are people too and when we spend a lot of time with our coworkers, we share ourselves with each other and want to get to know each other. And yet, there are things that we do not share with our coworkers, things that are private or personal.

Because our society categorizes sexuality and gender as binaries, and considers information about who we sleep with to be non-private information (and society assumes that we have one monogamous partner, or serial monogamy of some kind), this puts queers in an awkward situation where suddenly it seems like our fault that we brought up something taboo, when actually, we were not the ones who brought it up. I am not the one who asked for a description of a coworker's sexual or gender identity, or asked someone why they would allow others to believe "they were queer if they weren't." I'm not the one who brought it up. And yet, I am up against a taboo if I answer the question or respond to the statement. And I'm bad at tiptoeing around issues.

I'm not someone who can hide my queerness - even the most clueless straight people seem to read me like a book. There is something about me that just doesn't fit into "straight," even just upon sight, seeing me walk, or hearing me talk. And yet when I'm not the kind of queer they expect me to be (a non-trans lesbian), confusion always ensues.

*It is a separate (but related) problem that people felt a need to apologize for thinking one is queer. I choose to believe (hope) that these folks were apologizing for making an assumption rather than apologizing for "insulting" me.


spork said...

Great post. Now that I'm working, I think about this stuff too - I was surprised how often people talk about their spouses/SOs in general, and how often assumptions fly around.

maudite entendante said...

In-deed. After three years of not using any pronouns on campus, to avoid using the wrong one with someone who didn't know what I thought they knew about the Estimat, I'm slowly switching over to saying "he," now that he and most of the people who knew him have graduated.

And let me *tell* you, the confusion that that's generating in people who have thought for three years that I was a lesbian because I talked about my "partner" all the time, instead of my "boyfriend"...? VERY stressful.

maudite entendante said...

(actually, what's silliest is when I'm signing ... it's been pointed out to me that I sign "partner" and mouth "boyfriend." Holy Mixed Messages, M.E.!)