Monday, October 11, 2010

The Invisible Person.

Happy National Coming Out Day! I'm poly, bisexual, and kinky. You already knew that. My roommate, coworkers, and family still don't. Mostly because I feel like that if I told them, all they'd hear is "I'm a filthy horny freak and for some reason I'm sharing that, ewww." Which, well, it's partly true? And partly not.

In New York, we met up with a couple of Rowdy's family members. Sprite and I were his "friends," and while I appreciate that he didn't snub one of us by introducing us as "my girlfriend and my friend," it was rather awkward. (Moreso when they asked us where we were going afterwards, and because the real answer was "a fetish club," we panicked and lied and then they went "oh, we're going that way, wonderful, we'll walk together!" and our attempts to politely extricate ourselves reached teen-sex-comedy levels of awkwardness.)

It made me reflect on one of the real reasons it's important that people be able to come out, one of the reasons why "don't ask, don't tell" and "why can't you just keep your private life private" and "but why do you have to flaunt it" are bullshit. It's not just about sex and it's not even just about love. It's about the fact that being closeted requires you to hide an entire person--either completely, or at least in what they mean to you.

When Joe says "I'm gay, and Bob is my boyfriend," it may feel uncomfortable to people who prefer there be only one kind of relationship in the world, but the alternative is that Bob becomes invisible. Joe can't bring him along to social and family events, or if he does he can't talk to and touch him in their natural affectionate way. When everyone else at work is talking about their partners' weird habits, Joe can't chip in that Bob pulls all the cheese off pizza and eats it separately. When Joe is showing off his vacation photos, he has to edit out the ones where he's hugging Bob, if he was able to take any such photos in public in the first place.

Joe and Bob are going to feel like shit not because they can't talk about their sexual desires, but because they can't talk about each other.

And it's untenable. When people pry, lies of omission begin to require real lies, which when stacked up become impossible to maintain. Joe isn't just pretending to be "not gay" or "not anyone's business"; he's forced into actively pretending to be straight and single. (Unless he has a girlfriend who lives in Canada, in which case God help him.) Unless he excludes himself entirely from a huge number of innocent everyday small-talk conversations, Joe has to construct an entire mythical life just to not come out. It's a taxing, ridiculous, and precarious situation.

The problem with closeting isn't that LGBTQAetc folks can't talk about sex. (Actually, that's also a problem, but let's move on.) It's that they can't talk about people.


  1. I came to the same realization because of a previous post you'd were talking about telling white lies to your coworkers re: what you'd done the night before, and some asshat commented that he didn't see why you had to "flaunt" things. And also there was something about Denny's.

    The Denny's post also made me realize why I hate my job. It's stupid boring monkeywork, yes, and this depresses my coworkers as much as it depresses me - but they compensate by being social with each other and to a certain extent I can't.

  2. I'm out about being poly to just about everyone except my parents and my EMT classmates. The former because they're Mormon, and the latter because there's too large of an overlap between them and the people my wife works with, and she wants to remain closeted to her co-workers.

    Which... yeah, is inconvenient, because it means I can't talk about how my one girlfriend is also in EMT school, or how my other girlfriend does BJJ. (EMT and BJJ being subjects that come up pretty frequently in social conversation with my EMT classmates.)

  3. It's also that I can't talk about my weekends, my activism, my interests, and how I met half my friends. Me not getting to be open about sexuality/kink makes me BORING.

  4. Yep. I'm poly to friends, family, social colleagues... everywhere but work (I run a day program for developmentally disabled folks), which is hypersensitive to anything different and potentially evil or just bad-PR-inspiring (which is more or less the same thing to the corporate powers).

    At work, the girlfriend is just 'our close friend,' and a running joke between myself and my bosses and coworkers (or, at least, they think it's a joke)...

  5. @ seitk: same here. I'm proud of my activism and consider it one of the more useful things I contribute to the world. But I don't mention it at work because it would be seen as just more evidence of bad-scary-evil. Bah.

  6. I think that there is a limit as to what should be discussed in certain company. Certainly one should not have to hide their relationships, but discussing your trip to the fetish club or recent trip to the Brooklyn Bridge would probably not be proper with some people. You probably already know all this, but I felt is necessary to clarify.

    I have noticed that there is a fear in some people that if a person comes out to them they will then have to listen to this person tell them about all the weird and disgusting (to them) stuff that they do. This has not been the case in my experience, but for people whose only known contact with homosexuality is pride parades and other similar media items these fears seem quite well justified. It is sad and unfortunate, but something that must be dealt with.

    The casual conversation issues can arise out of non sexual issues as well. I like to shoot guns allot, and in the past I have had to work with people I knew to have issues with firearms. Because of this discussing what I did over the weekend could become rather unpleasant. I found that it was best to sound a person out on certain issues before I talked openly with them about things. Fortunately I am now in a job where everyone wears a gun to work so it's no longer an issue.

  7. This. This a thousand times over, Holly. I end up having to edit people in my conversation because I know they're gay, but others don't. That's hard enough for me, I can't imagine how hard it is for them.

    I can, 100 times a day, reference my husband and nobody bats an eyelash or accuses me of shoving my sexuality in their face. If I referenced a girlfriend once, the world would end.

    As a culture, we are insane.

  8. Keith, while I get that you're trying to make a bridge by talking about your experiences with feeling uncomfortable about talking about guns, it comes across more as cooptation/jerkishness. A person is not an object.
    My partner, who pervades *every single facet of my life* is not a hobby or an interest. When we went looking around for apartments, we were "roommates," at work places I've had a "friend" come visit once in a while. If I tell almost *any* story of my life it's going to include my partner. My partner isn't someone that I do stuff with on the weekends, it's the person that I say "oh yeah... that reminds me I was just talking about this the other day with [so and so]" about, or "last night we went to the museum."
    Did you think of your gun as a part of a "we" that you constantly had to edit out of every single conversation about your life?

    I'm out to almost everybody I know (realtors excluded) and yet still the other night I found myself having to edit talking about a gathering I'd been at, because one of the things I'd loved so much about it was getting to have really complex and engaging conversations about queer/gender non-normative communities, politics, and philosophy. And I realized that mentioning it to a friend (one to whom I'm out) would possibly still feel like too much of me "flaunting" or "overly focusing on" this aspect of myself.

  9. I think that there is a limit as to what should be discussed in certain company.

    Me too, but that doesn't stop my married suburban coworkers from publicly discussing how much they dilated when they had their last kid. Seriously - I now know that Sandi from Word Pro doesn't have a very stretchy cervix. And yet if I mentioned, just offhandedly, that my boyfriend and I went to a club with him crossdressed, that would be TMI.

    Certainly one should not have to hide their relationships, but discussing your trip to the fetish club or recent trip to the Brooklyn Bridge would probably not be proper with some people.

    "Discussing," maybe not. But I don't think anyone here is arguing for the right to describe their latest fetish club experience to their coworkers in brilliant technicolour detail. We just want to be able to feel comfortable mentioning it - to be able to answer "what'd you do this weekend?" with something other than "Ummm...nothing."

    I don't think that's too much to ask.


  10. I would put "kinky" in a different category than orientation or polyamory, here. Kinky is more what, which can be a legitimately "keep your private stuff private" matter; orientation and polyamory are matters of who.

    I don't want to talk to my coworkers about fucking on the Brooklyn Bridge; I want to talk to them about all the innocent, even piddling details that they talk about freely when it comes to their conventional partners. I have way too many conversations like this:

    Nurse: My husband is soooo cold at night and he puts his icy feet on me!
    X-Ray Tech: Haha, I'm usually the one doing that to my husband!
    Phlebotomist: Yeah, I use my husband as the human space heater, he's so much warmer than me!
    Holly: ...ha! ...yep. ...I'll go set up the IV boxes.

  11. So, I've got a couple of friends who I've heard through the rumor mill are in an open marriage. I don't know that for a fact, I've just heard it. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to let them know it's OK to talk about it if they feel like it?

  12. Mom: So who are you seeing today?

    Me: Oh just one of my friends.

    Mom: I don't get why you never bring your friends over anymore.

    Because sometimes they're my girl dates and even when they're just friends a lot of them are gay. My parents are conservative with a Catholic upbringing. I don't live with my parents but I visit them often. Every once in awhile I'll leave from their house to go on a date. I have to lie so much about who my friends are, where I go, and sometimes even dress differently around them (I prefer to wear men's clothes). I don't want to wear rainbows and makeout with girls in front of people, I just want to be able to say that Liza or Mel or whoever, exists and she's not just a friend.

  13. I like the insight here, Holly, I just don't have much to add to it. I think if you said this to most people on the "other side" of the issue, they'd give it a miss and go straight back to "but I don't want to hear about what two queers do to each other." I don't think most have ever thought of a gay relationship as anything except gay sex, period.

  14. Frequent lurker, but had to chime in on this post. YES. For example, a few years ago I was involved in a poly relationship and working in a very straitlaced environment where talking about poly could have utterly torpedoed me. I suddenly realized how much editing I was doing and how much it cut me off from making friends with my co-workers. A co-worker would have first-date jitters and I wanted to chime in and talk about my own; I couldn't because the response would have been "But you've been with X for umpty-odd years..." A relationship broke up and I couldn't commiserate about it with co-workers. Etc.

    Great post.

  15. I can't really add much to what others have said but "yup". When the answer to a coworker's question involves my fiancee, I can't say it involves my fiancee, because they all know I have a wife.

  16. This is mainly why I'm excited that DADT is almost completely done with (fingers crossed that the recent judicial decision isn't appealed). I'm part of a military family. My parents, since they're in a straight relationship, go to social functions together on base all the time. When my dad gets promoted, my mom can hug him at the ceremony. He can have pictures of her in his work space or, hell, even just on Facebook. They can talk about each other. Plus, mom gets health, education, and other benefits through my dad. It's not fair that they can be so open and accepted everywhere, but a gay couple doing the same things could result in career loss. It's not about gawking at people in the showers or having orgies in the barracks - it's about letting people acknowledge that they have families!

  17. Well, I can emphasize with that to some degree. I'm self-employed, work almost entirely from home, and pull 60-hour workweeks in order to afford my mother's health problems. And then there's a lot of difficulties and issues that have to be dealt with that are pretty far removed from what most people deal with. As a result, I don't have the time or opportunity to engage in socialization very often. And when I do...

    Well, there really isn't much to say. My work can be adequately described in a few sentences, and it's become stable enough that not much in the way of significant events happen, for good or ill. My hobbies are largely theoretical, since I don't really have time for them either. Can't talk about things that happened during my other social experiences because I don't really have any. Nearly everything else... judging by people's reactions, is either not very believable or else not something they're comfortable discussing. But editing out that stuff just results in most of my life being a big blank spot. It's not quite the same thing, though, since very little of it has to do with sex or romantic relationships.

  18. Yeah, I'm beginning to internalize what you're talking about in this post. I'm largely dedicated to the principle of editing myself as little as possible, and it helps that I can describe every one of my partners as my friend in full honesty (because they are), but I definitely dodged a half-dozen questions from relatives because the answer could have been inconvenient.

  19. TheDeviantE, I do see that it's not the same, but you might be surprised how clear the parallels can be.

    When my mother-in-law visited our first home for the first time, she asked me to promise that I would never shoot her daughter. She was literally losing sleep at night worrying about her daughter being married to one of those people--the scary gun nuts. She figured I would shoot somebody sooner or later (why else have the guns?) and she just wanted me to promise it would be someone else.

  20. @ Anon 1:26...

    Great post about DADT. I'm not gay, but I have an unfortunate penchant for officers as an enlisted female. I have to edit EVERYTHING I say, because it could cost him (and me) our jobs. I'm not admitting that what I do is right, but it does suck not being able to jump up and say how you feel without putting someone else, or yourself, in potential danger. Becoming a target is dangerous in any account, and editing and policing yourself is difficult.

  21. We should be free to bring those important to us with us, I wholly agree.

    But as for the side of this conversation about talking about people? No.

    -Everybody- should be talking less about their personal relationships; there aren't many settings where you should be discussing somebody else who isn't standing there, particularly not somebody who the others involved do not know; you're invading the privacy of the person being discussed and violating the sanctity of your relationship with them.

    "Nurse: My husband is soooo cold at night and he puts his icy feet on me!" <- Think about what kind of information is actually being sent here, after all - something wholly intimate. This isn't an experience her husband may wish to share with the group, but she has taken the choice away from him. Trivial information? Yes. But if trivial information isn't safe, how can you possibly trust somebody with something about you which is?

    Joe shouldn't be free to talk about Bob's weird habits. There SHOULD be a strong social taboo against that. Not because Bob and Joe are both men. But because Bob isn't there so Joe has something to add to the gossip - because he has chosen to share the most private aspects of his life with Joe and maybe he'd like them to remain private, and we should be respecting that.

  22. Orphan - Human being socialize and share, and that's both a good an inevitable thing. I don't want to work in a place where the only conversation is "WORKER BOT #1143209 IS HAVING A NICE DAY" and "WORKER BOT #1190324 APPROVES OF YOUR NICE DAY."

  23. Holly -

    By discussing your husband's cold feet, you are in fact evading socialization and sharing; you're discussing a third party who is not present, deflecting from yourself.

    In a conversation whose purpose it is to socialize and share, sharing something about your husband is defining yourself as part of your husband, a reaction to him, rather than a discrete and independent thinking creature; that is mechanical.

    Robots as you speak of them do not have a concept of "I" as it pertains here; they only have a collection of reactions to foreign stimuli, exactly the behavior you defend here as being human.

  24. Orphan--

    Okay, I'm an intensely antisocial, private person--and I am uncomfortable with the degree of oversharing that people often do at work--but human beings define themselves by a lot of things, and one of those things is their relationships with other people.

    What you're advocating is, in essence, for people to not talk about any of the other people who are important to them. I can't repeat any of the stupid little jokes that my husband likes to tell. I can't tell that ridiculous story about me and my best friend wandering around downtown drunk in fetish gear at 3AM. I can't say that my brother likes to listen to showtunes and bake. Because if I talk about any of them, that means that I'm defining myself by them. Basically, all I'm allowed to talk about are neutral topics--books and movies and philosophy, I guess. And speaking as someone who loves talking about books and movies and philosophy (and generally hates personal discussions), that sounds kind of like hell.

    (oh, and just adding my YES THIS to the original post)

  25. We'll never get over it until we talk about it. We'll never talk about it, it seems, until we perceive that everyone has gotten over it.

    I may be straight, but I'll be damned if I'll be judgemental or unable to talk about it. Introduce the Elephant In The Room, and move on to other topics.

  26. ...if trivial information isn't safe, how can you possibly trust somebody with something about you which is?

    No, totally. Because I can't see any difference at all between "Bob always forgets to put the eggs back in the fridge and it drives me nuts" and "Sometimes Bob cries during sex." Clearly, if I am willing to bond with my coworkers by telling an anecdote about my partner, I'm an unstoppable monster with no sense of boundaries. Next up: putting beautiful watercolour paintings of his penis on my cubicle wall!

  27. Trivial information is less safe from being shared precisely [i]because[/i] it is trivial.

    Orphan, good luck on the crusade against people talking about their spouses.

  28. Nobody has addressed the moral issue inherent in revealing information about somebody else - you're concerning yourself only with what is "normal," not with what is right. If you value normative experience over morality, I have to question your purposes in adhering to a movement whose fundamental purpose is to overthrow normative experiences on the basis of morality. (I assume everybody here is some flavour of feminist, masculinist, or humanist, all of which are at their core about overthrowing unethical social norms)

    Aebhel - you're addressing an argument I did not make. I was addressing the specific idea that talking about your spouse is necessary to socialization; if all you have to talk about is other people, yes, you're defining yourself by other people. You are only defining yourself by other people by making it a -necessity- to talk about them in order to socialize with fellow human beings.

    And perverse, yes, actually. There is no moral difference - both acts are fundamentally the same. The only difference is that in one, you make an ungrounded assumption that your partner will not mind, or that if your partner does somehow mind, they're being silly. You are demeaning your partner and treating them as less important than workplace bonding. If you have permission, that of course is an entirely different matter; but until that point, you're violating your partner's trust in you. (Implicit permission should be treated like any other implicit consent - invalid.)

    Don - If it's trivial, that's all the more reason to get permission; betraying your partner's trust over something trivial is -worse- than betraying them over something important, because not only do you violate their trust, you treat it as less important than the trivial thing.

    In both cases you're undermining your partner; as stated previously in different words, you're effectively stating your partner -has no right to object-. (If they have a right to object, you should give them opportunity to do so before they no longer can.)

    I'm dropping out of this conversation after this post unless Holly either okays the argument or involves herself in it again, as I feel my arguments here are derailing this post. (By all means prove me wrong, however, as my wish in stating this is not to try to have the last word, but to explain why I won't reply further; I will read, rest assured.)

  29. Good post, and I agree wholeheartedly. And I, for one, would much rather hear from the kinky/gay/poly people than the ones who talk about the cervical dilation and their baby poop!

    Another place where being out is crucial is when a relationship ends, when the grieving person needs social support, a shoulder to cry on, or at least a little leeway for those days when it's hard to function because your heart is broken. As bad as those times are, think about how much harder it would be if you couldn't tell anyone and had to pretend that everything was fine 24/7. Invisibility is dehumanizing in many ways.

  30. Orphan, you're completely correct. And there's so few people that understand that. Everyone just assumes everyone else is okay with giving up their privacy, because, darn, that's the norm.

  31. I was surprised to hear that my own instantaneous reaction to the trying-to-extricate-yourselves-politely part was really judgmental and slut-shamey. I was all, "Well, why didn't you have an excuse thought out ahead of time? You have to expect these sorts of things, you know, and be prepared."

    It's not quite as bad as the old "she should have known better than to wear those clothes," but it's in the same family. When I sit down and parse the "sorts of things" I'm telling you to expect, really what it comes down to is "you have to expect to keep these things a secret, and not only that, but you have a moral obligation to lie about it *and* to do so in a smooth, socially graceful manner that will not arouse suspicion". So apparently in my world, awkward people are not allowed to be kinky, ever, or if they are, they should, uh, not have families? Not go home for holidays? I don't even...

    I anonymously apologize to my sister for once having put something very similar to this on her. I know better now, but since we're not in contact (possibly because I used to be much more of a royal asshole even than I am now), I'll just put it out there like this. Anyone who's reading this who's ever gotten this sort of crap from a sibling, just pretend it's unambiguously an apology specifically for you. :-)