Welcome to !Hola Papi!, the advice column where John Paul Brammer helps people work through their anxieties, fears, and life's queerest questions. If you need advice, send him a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Within the past year, I realized I was incredibly gay (and not just generally uninterested in men). I'm out to friends and siblings now. I'm also straight-passing, for better or worse.
At my relatively new job last week, some female coworkers were talking about their personal lives and bonding. For a bit, it was nice to be included. The conversation turned to their tastes in men and discussing which of the two leads in a popular fantasy movie they preferred. I turned to my work to subtly leave the conversation, but one coworker asked me pointedly, "X or Y?" regarding the male movie characters.
In that moment I realized I had to lie and explicitly closet myself, or come out to the office. I wasn't ready for either, Papi. Maybe it was homophobic for these coworkers to assume I was straight and put me in that position, but is it internal homophobia that I couldn't look them in the eyes and say "I'm a lesbian?"
I said I wasn't sure and the conversation moved on, but it was a reminder that I didn't really belong in that conversation with straight women -- and I feel like a coward. Was this a microaggression? What's wrong with me that I don't feel like I can be out at work, despite living and working in a progressive city?
Signed, Closeted Nine to Five
Hey there, CNF!
Oh goodness. Workplace problems. I'll admit, I've never been terribly good at navigating those. Most of my jobs these days involve an office of one (me) and I can't imagine wanting to engage with anyone while I'm working. Situations like the one you present are exactly why. Having to come out to a group of people I didn't choose to be around sounds exhausting. People are weird and they have bad opinions and they love to subject you to them! No thank you.
But I think before we go labeling yourself or your coworkers homophobic, we can look at this incident through a more charitable lens. Yes, we live in a cis-hetero-centric world where LGBTQ+ people are casually erased in everyday language, and yes, even if we aren't cisgender or straight ourselves, being brought up in that world leaves us with a lot of shame and self-hatred.
You don't have to look very hard for examples of this. Let's take a page out of your coworkers' playbook and look at movies: anything other than a heterosexual relationship is immediately called distracting or unneccessary. "Shoving it down our throats," I believe the old heterosexual proverb goes. Simply being gay, it seems, is often perceived as a political statement in itself, one that can be debated, argued with, or, as is too often the case, vehemently rejected.
This can be a lot to deal with, especially when you're still getting used to navigating the world with a new understanding of your identity. I remember that period of time. Everything felt unusually harsh. Everywhere I looked, I saw casual homophobia, which I connected to my experiences with overt, violent homophobia. People around me couldn't understand why these ostensibly small slights would get me so upset. It's a pretty intense process, CNF -- realizing the world wasn't built with you in mind, and then having to push through it anyway.
So I understand why your coworkers' actions elicited this response from you. It's the everyday erasure and discomfort LGBTQ+ people have to deal with, even in environments we would call "progressive." It's not really fair that we have to deal with it, and I'm not looking to convince you that it's fair here. But I think, too, it's important we recognize that there are ways we also might be doing the same thing without even knowing it, and allow for some grace.
Here's an example from a few years back. This guy was flirting with me online, and I couldn't quite tell if he was into guys or not. Finally, I asked him if he was gay or straight, to which he politely responded that he was bisexual. I realized then that I had reduced sexuality to a binary and not even entertained the notion that he could be bisexual. Was it the worst thing a person has ever done? Probably not. But my approach, which seemed totally sensible in the moment, was in fact obscuring someone's truth and feeding into a violent concept that already predominates culture: that bisexuality isn't a thing.
Language is a powerful and imperfect tool, CNF. It ought to be wielded with the utmost care, but it usually isn't. The language a person employs indirectly says a lot about how they see the world, and, in this case, who they don't see. We're all going to make mistakes using such an unreliable system of communication -- we cannot, for example, articulate the absolute reality of our inner selves in a perfect way, because language doesn't allow for that. But if we want to improve the world for people who don't look like us or don't share our identities, we ought to do our best to adjust our language to be more accommodating.
Are your coworkers homophobes? I mean, they could be! But as you know, one needn't be brazenly homophobic to consciously or unconsciously contribute to homophobia. This is true of pretty much any ism or obia out there. In that moment, yes. They were erasing the possibility that you were gay. That hurts. It sucks! But you didn't fail all of gaydom by not immediately coming out to them and putting them to the sword, and they are not necessarily the Westboro Baptist Church. You're new there, so I'd give it some time to see if they are in fact shitty people or, as is more likely the case, merely heterosexual and clueless but open to learning.
I hope things improve for you at your job, CNF! If you need me, I'll be feuding over Slack with my house plant. This apartment is a coworking space and she's been hogging up one corner of it for far too long.