In her last post on the cabaret duo The Wet Spots, Aviva wrote:
The Wet Spots play up their queerness in a way that’s engaging and hilarious, and don’t seem at all self-conscious or apologetic about doing so while being in a different-sex marriage. It’s refreshing to see them appearing to avoid the trap even I sometimes fall into, of preferring to be seen with someone of a similar gender and assumed gay than seen with someone of a different gender and assumed straight.
I want to use this as a jumping-off point for my post on different-gender relationships and straight privilege, because I often wonder why you don’t see that many couples like Cass and John in the public eye, and why different-gender relationships seem to lead so many bisexuals to feel their queerness has been rendered invisible.
I definitely fell into that trap of invisibility for a while, and I think a huge part of it came from my obliviousness to the privilege I reaped from being assumed to be straight. I could have been more visibly queer then, but being seen as straight was so easy, I barely even noticed it was happening at first, and being out seemed impossible and scary. Why? Because I would have lost some of my privilege, and I think the prospect of losing privilege that you don’t even understand is much scarier for a lot of people than understanding your privilege and voluntarily giving some of it up. Sometimes I wonder if this is what is going on when some bisexuals pass as straight. But I ultimately can’t speak for anyone else, so here’s how it was for me.
For two years, I was closeted at work. It’s odd now to remember how little I had actually considered how I was going to negotiate my sexual identity as an adult in the working world. I closeted myself on my very first day, though it took me quite a bit longer to realize what I had done. I was eager to impress my boss and my new coworkers; they all seemed (and turned out to be) incredibly kind, caring people, and I wanted them to like me. I was young and inexperienced, I was desperately grateful for the job after almost a year of post-college temping, and I was afraid that my oddness and social awkwardness would hurt me now that I was working in an office and had to be a team player, as it were. So I wanted to prove I could interact with “normal” people, that I could fit in with them and not freak anyone out too much. I had never really been required to do that before, and I had no idea if I could.
That’s what was in the back of my mind when I went out to lunch with my boss and someone else in my department. Over the course of the conversation, I brought up my roommate twice. And then I panicked, thinking that they must have assumed I was a closeted lesbian whose “roommate” was her girlfriend, and so I made sure to mention my boyfriend at some point, to “even things out.” And you know, once I mentioned him, everything did seem more relaxed. I may have been perceiving the conversation differently because I was relieved at how easily I had passed as “normal,” but I swear they seemed more at ease, more gregarious, like they had me figured out and were back on familiar ground, where they knew what questions to ask and what predictable answers they would receive.
Looking back on it, that is some fucked-up shit. It’s hilarious how badly I judged the situation. My references to my roommate? They probably didn’t even notice. Passing as straight to look more “normal?” I should have been appalled at myself. But I didn’t think in these terms, not consciously. That’s exactly how privilege works: the first gift it gives you is its very invisibility. You slip into it. You don’t see it until you look for it, or someone else points it out to you, or you brush up against its margins.
My current partner is the first boyfriend I’ve had since high school, and those high school relationships were short-lived and generally meaningless. So when we first started dating, I was giddy with the privilege our relationship gave me. Yes, I was ambivalent about it, too, and I hated when people assumed I was straight, and I thought the system that granted me privilege was fucked up and unfair, but I have to admit now that in those early days of our relationship, part of me loved holding hands in the street without thinking twice about it, mentioning my relationship to whoever I wanted to without considering the consequences, and this strange overall feeling of fitting in, of being in the club.
I’m a geek. I don’t have a long history of fitting in. It was intoxicating.
And I was still in this phase when I mentioned him on that first day at work. For a few months, I kind of liked being seen as straight for eight hours a day. I was struggling to socialize with my coworkers because I hadn’t yet found the ones who shared some of my interests and I was still insecure about my social awkwardness. So I had to rely on general small talk, which I am terrible at, but my coworkers could always ask me about my relationship, and we could talk about what we had done for my birthday, where he lived, what he did for a living, and I could answer their questions and ask polite ones of my own, and presto! Respectable socializing! I felt like I was in drag, wearing modest, drab, button-down shirts with black slacks every day, talking about respectable things with respectable people, being responsible and orderly and extremely polite on the phone. It was kind of thrilling, acting like a completely different person and getting away with it. Until it got really old.
And so I started to wonder if there was anything I could do about it. I couldn’t think of a way to bring up my ex-girlfriend. I certainly wasn’t going to say I was bisexual; my office was fairly conservative and I wasn’t about to say “sexual” in front of my boss.
(Side note: I think it’s interesting that some kinds of sexual behaviors and identities are desexualized enough to be seen as “appropriate” for public or professional conversation. Opposite-sex marriage is certainly at the top of this list, but nonmarried opposite-sex relationships are also up there, and in plenty of circles, the words “gay” and “lesbian” no longer immediately provoke the response of “Why are you telling me about your SEX LIFE?” I think “bisexual” is still pretty sexualized in the popular imagination, considering how many stereotypes of bisexuals revolve around our supposed sluttiness or (for women) exhibitionism.
I don’t really think it would be progress to cut off bisexual identity from sexuality or to defend ourselves by claiming we’re actually quite normal and non-slutty, because plenty of us ARE slutty or non-normative in our gender presentation or sexual practices, and we have every right to be. It’s far more productive to challenge the notion that any adult’s consensual sexual practices should lead to discrimination against them and push the limits of what sexuality is considered “acceptable” to discuss and what is not. Ok, that’s clearly another post. End digression.)
So anyway, there I was, passing as straight, wondering how the hell I was supposed to make my queerness known, and once I finally thought about it, I decided to stay closeted. To this day, I have no idea if coming out would have hurt me at work. I don’t think it would have cost me my job, necessarily, but I do think it would have made my days awkward and unpleasant for a long time.
Once I decided to hold on to my privilege, I started to see how much privilege passing had given me all along. I could wear butch clothes to work and cut off my hair if I wanted to, and nobody would bat an eye, because to them I was still reassuringly straight. I could talk about my relationship whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to plan what I would answer if someone asked me what I had done that weekend or where I had gone on vacation. I could be confident that nobody looked at me and saw a representation of a deviant, immoral, or just plain weird kind of sexuality. I never had to fear that judgments of my job performance would be biased. This privilege, combined with the privilege I already had from being white and middle-class, made my daily life much, much easier.
But the straight privilege also had a price. I had come to really like many of my coworkers, but I felt like they didn’t actually know me. For all the freedom passing gave me, it took a lot of freedom away; I couldn’t talk about much of my politics, I couldn’t talk about large chunks of my past, and I couldn’t let anyone I worked with really become close friends with me. Hell, I couldn’t even friend them on Facebook!
And ultimately, I just got so tired of keeping up the “normal” act. I felt resentful and alienated and really guilty for all this lying, and I started to dread going to work. I ended up quitting for an unrelated reason, but this was a big part of why I was so relieved to go–and why I vowed to never, ever be closeted at work again.
I don’t want this to go into a long rant about how terrible and alienating it was to pass as straight. It did cause me a whole lot of angst, but it was still helping me the whole time. I was benefitting from a fucked-up system, and my angst didn’t change that. I am still benefitting from this same fucked-up system when I hold hands with my partner and don’t get harassed or beat up for it. And of course, this very same system will sometimes protect me and sometimes leave me vulnerable, depending on the genders and gender expressions of my future partners, or simply depending on my own gender presentation as I walk alone.
It’s not terribly ground-breaking to say that bisexuals have a complicated relationship with straight privilege. But still, I think it’s interesting that I was so clueless about its role in my life until I had to really face it head-on. Now I’m much more aware of what assumptions people are going to make about my identity in the absence of confirmation, and I try to out myself as early as possible with new acquaintances (and now I usually do it by mentioning this blog! Thanks, blogging!) And I’m trying to think of ways I can use my part-time privilege for good, rather than for evil (though I suppose using it for awesome would also be acceptable…)
I’m not a fan of denying or rejecting privilege unilaterally, because that sometimes isn’t even possible, and too often it’s used as an attempt to avoid coming to terms with or admitting that you are in fact privileged. So I am not going to try to rid myself of all straight privilege. However, I do want to think about when my privilege really is unavoidable and when I can choose to forgo it in exchange for more honesty (for me) and more visibility (for bisexuals/queers in general.) I want to remember the ease and safety I feel when navigating the world with a male partner and demand the same when with a female partner. But there’s got to be more I can do.
I think that one of the biggest lessons this whole experience taught me is that when you’ve been granted a privilege under some circumstances and denied it under others, you get to know its workings really well. So what can we do with this knowledge? And what should we do with our privilege?