(Originally posted on January 12, 2013 at I Dig Your Girlfriend.)
I am not out at work.
A handful of my co-workers are also friends with me on Facebook, and they’re bombarded with my truth on pretty much a daily basis. My super gay life is all I talk about on the Internet these days. But most of the people I work with don’t know I’m gay. Some of them may suspect, I suppose, but they haven’t received any sort of confirmation from me.
My non-work friends are surprised when I tell them this. Some of them can’t fathom the idea of a person knowing me and not knowing that I’m a big lez. To them, my gayness is a blinding rainbow beacon, unwavering and undeniable. “Have they not seen you walk?” they ask.
It’s a fair question.
Until recently, I wasn’t prone to oversharing. I took a passive approach to conversations, not volunteering any information I wasn’t directly asked for. This was a defense mechanism; a way to avoid being judged. And it carried over to small, stupid things, like not mentioning a TV show or band that I liked, for fear of being disagreed with or thought less of. One of the biggest driving forces in my life has always been my need to be liked. And a great way to do that is to sit back, observe, and mirror what people want to hear.
I’ve never liked being conspicuous. I’ve spent most of my life feeling completely different from everyone around me. And this feeling of alienation – of unbelonging – has often driven me to focus all of my energy on being unnoticed. On blending in.
I’m friends with a lesbian who, like me, isn’t out at work. I was surprised when she told me this, because she has a long-term girlfriend. But on reflection, I can believe it. She’s not someone who would have pinged my gaydar; at least not right away. She can certainly pass for straight. And since a lot of ordinary people consider “straight” to be the unquestioned default setting for everyone they meet, it’s possible that she doesn’t have to work very hard to keep this information to herself.
I’ve been out at other workplaces, but never right away, and certainly not with any big declarations. I’ve come out to co-workers gradually, one-on-one, and usually after having formed friendships first. I tell people I’m gay when they ask, and then I assure them that it’s not a secret.
It’s not, really. It’s just not something I lead with. I prefer for people to get to know me first. That way, “lesbian” is a label they’re applying to a person they already know. Once they know me, they like me. Once they like me, it’s less easy for them to dislike all lesbians on principle.
My friend suspects that the reason she doesn’t declare her gayness at work is because she doesn’t like making others uncomfortable. I would say the reason I don’t volunteer it is because I don’t like making myself uncomfortable. I don’t like standing up in front of a group and declaring how different I am. I already feel plenty different without saying a word.
I have another gay friend who feels the exact opposite. She is a very vocal lesbian. She is also quite femmey in appearance, which makes her fly under many a gaydar. She finds this discouraging, as she wants the world to know how gay she is. She wears a rainbow ring and loves surrounding herself with obvious lesbians in public. She wishes her gayness were completely apparent to strangers.
I don’t think I’ll ever share her wish.
Why is this the case? Am I carrying around some sort of shame? Is this indicative of some latent, self-oriented homophobia? Or is this just a question of the two of us having completely different personalities? Am I just more private by nature? Is that ok? Do I owe it to myself or my fellow homos to be loud and proud?
The truth, however uneasy I may feel admitting it, is that I’m somewhat pleased when people mistake me for straight. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it feels like some sort of achievement. Like I’ve managed to look or behave like a “real” woman, even for a fleeting moment. Like I’ve finally succeeded at blending in.
I’ve made many strides over this last year. But when I really examine some of my attitudes about my own sexual identity, I can’t deny that there is still work to be done. I want to be proud of this part of me at all times. I have so much love for my gay friends. How can I reconcile that with hanging onto even a hint of inner homophobia?
Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. This divide is emphasized by the fact that I go by a nickname most of the time. To my family and friends, I’m Mo – an out lesbian who shares a good part of her life with the Internet. But at work, I’m Maureen – a friendly co-worker who doesn’t really talk all that much about herself. I feel safer that way; more in control. I feel like I’m hanging onto some semblance of power over how I’m perceived.
I have many “coming out at work” stories, but my favorite happened five years ago, after I had decided to move on from the company. I had already given my notice, and by that point, I was out to everyone in the office except one – our IT person. She was sort of a fascinating woman. She was doing a job typically done by men, and doing it well. She was funny, and blunt, and a pretty good storyteller. She was also a devout Lutheran.
She never made any secret of being uncomfortable about gay people. Once in the lunch room, someone was talking about Brokeback Mountain, and she cringed, insisting that the whole thing just “wasn’t right.” I left the room soon after, not wanting to hear anymore. I knew I should speak up for myself, but I felt too scared and alone. Too unready. I buried my head in the sand that day.
Fast forward to my last week at work. She was sitting next to me at my desk, doing something to my computer and having a casual chat with me and a couple of co-workers. To this day, I can’t remember how the conversation started. But she said something like, “I must admit, I’m a little homophobic.” And I, surrounded by smirking co-workers who knew my “secret,” responded:
“You probably shouldn’t be sitting so close to me, then.”
She looked at me, not processing what I meant.
“Because I’m gay.”
That moment felt powerful. So many times before, I had confirmed my gayness by simply saying yes to a question, or by talking around the actual statement, saying something along the lines of “I like girls.” But on this day, when I was least sure of getting a positive response, I said the words.
She was definitely surprised. I had rocked her world a little. I had forced her to re-evaluate her worldview. Suddenly, lesbians weren’t mythical, abstract creatures. She knew me. Dare I say, she liked me. So how was she supposed to feel about gay people now?
Apparently, after I left the room, she asked my co-workers if I was actually gay, or just messing with her. Her first instinct was that this news, which didn’t make sense to her, had to be a mistake. My friends confirmed that I was indeed extraordinarily gay. She had to think about that.
In the short time we had left together, she showed signs of starting to understand. She seemed genuinely sorry for how her careless words had made me feel. But it wasn’t until my very last day of work that I felt like she really got it.
My co-workers and I were all out at a restaurant, having my goodbye dinner. The waitress was cute, and somehow, in her hurry to serve all of us, she had managed to spill ketchup on my shirt. She apologized profusely, leaned in, and immediately started rubbing at the stain with a wet cloth. And as this cute waitress carefully worked on my shirt, I caught the eye of the IT girl across the table from me, cocked an eyebrow, and smiled.
To my surprise, she started laughing.
This memory makes me happy. I think what I like about it is that it was a completely non-verbal moment that spoke volumes. As someone who tends to use more words than necessary to get my point across, I have major respect for quiet moments of truth.
Stories like this make me feel like I should come out to everyone I meet. And yet, I’m not sure this declaration would have had the same impact if she hadn’t already had years to get to know me as a person. To her, I was a person first. Once she discovered that I was a lesbian, she was well on the road to realizing that lesbians are, at the end of the day, just people.
But I’m still not planning to come out at work anytime soon. Unless someone asks me directly, I’ll most likely keep this information to myself. Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do. Maybe it means I have some personal hang-ups I need to reflect on. Maybe it just means I’m placing my day-to-day comfort level above being a public service announcement.
Hopefully someday I’ll have some answers on this subject. Until then, I guess I’ll have to content myself with asking the questions.
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