Last night a woman asked me if I was single because she wanted to set me up with her friend. Her male friend. *sigh* So I told her that I’m a lesbian. She said it was too bad because the guy would be perfect for me (what kind of guy is perfect for a lesbian I’m not exactly sure …), I said that it was a damn shame about the whole penis thing and we had a little laugh.
She’s an acquaintance and, obviously, not someone I’ve ever told that I’m gay. It’s not that I cared if she knew or didn’t want her to know, it had just never come up. I’m not one to randomly declare my orientation to people I hardly know, so it didn’t make sense to tell her before last night. And to her credit, she didn’t react as though I’d been harboring some deep, dark secret. But that’s not always the case …
I remember once when I was a number-cruncher a woman I worked with stopped by my cubicle to ask for some information. While I ran the data we made small-talk and she picked up a framed picture from my desk.
“Is this your sister?”
“I don’t have any sisters,” I said. “That’s my girlfriend.”
“So does that mean you’re …” she lowered her voice, “… a lesbian?”
“You don’t have to whisper,” I told her. “It’s not like I have …” I matched her hushed tone, “… cancer.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you’re gay?” she asked.
“I didn’t know it was required,” I said. “You never told me you were straight.”
But that’s different! you protest. Most people are straight so unless you tell them otherwise, they assume you are, too.
And I agree with you, I do have to tell people that I’m gay if there is a reason to. But this woman was simply a co-worker, someone with whom I worked on projects and attended meetings, or ran into in the break-room. We weren’t friends, we didn’t go to lunch or get together for happy hour after work. In what context was my gayness relevant to our working relationship? Was she going to look at the reports I’d been providing, slap her forehead and say, “I didn’t appreciate the significance of the managerial changes contributing to the increased turnover rate in the Northwest region over the past three quarters, but now it all makes sense. You’re a lesbian!”
There are a lot of factors – attraction, love, politics – wrapped up in the whole gay package. But that’s not what all people hear, some only hear is the sex part. And I can think of very few instances where it’s appropriate to say, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you! I have sex with women.” Your best friend may know some of the intimate details of your personal life, but you don’t reveal these little factoids to everyone. Because of the automatic association between gay people and their sex lives (seriously, how many guys hear “lesbian” and think womens’ rights and strong female role-models?), it would be similar to having everyone know you’re into light-bondage or heavy-anal.
If you’re not gay, it may be hard to imagine what it’s like knowing that people have an expectation that you’re obligated to reveal something personal about yourself. But perhaps there’s something that people can’t tell by looking at you, or might not know if they’ve never seen you in person. Religion isn’t visible; so if you showed up at the gym during Hanukkah wearing a yarmulke, you might find it somewhat surprising if your personal trainer demanded to know, “Why didn’t you ever tell me you’re Jewish?” Or, what if you were a hotel clerk who buys her clothes in the full-figured department. It would be rather unnecessary for a guest with whom you’d dealt with by only phone to show up and say, “You never told me you were so big!” Religion has nothing to do with getting rock hard abs and being a zaftig reservationist doesn’t affect ones ability to book a room, so (hopefully) these things wouldn’t come up. Yet when it comes to sexual-orientation, people seems to think they have a right to know.
I know some people who do feel the need to reveal their sexuality to everyone. And to a certain extent I can understand their reasoning. Since it can’t be seen, like race or a disability, there’s always the chance that someone will make an off-hand remark in your presence without knowing they’re offending you. By telling people you’re gay right up front, you can make sure to save the person who declares, “Homos are ruining marriage for normal people!” any unnecessary embarrassment. It’s only polite …
I’m by no means closeted, but I prefer the “let them figure it out for themselves” method of disclosure. Which, if you’ve followed my blog at all, you know doesn’t always work out for me. My sexuality is only a part of who I am, and telling the barista won’t make my coffee any more caffeinated, my melons won’t be any riper if the produce guy at Trader Joe’s knows and my money won’t go any further if I come out to the bank teller.
I did think it was important to tell my gynecologist, though. Oddly enough, I find this has never stopped him from asking me if I’m currently using any birth control. Yes Doc, as a matter of fact I am … it’s called I’m a lesbian!!