Being a bulldagger in the workplace is a lot like being a bull in a china shop. After working for years outside conventional office spaces, I hadn’t realized how, by refuting mainstream, middle-class assumptions, the alternative worldview I’d come to hold was actually a point-by-point rejection of the way you need to act in an office. (My office is cooler than most, but it’s still got fluorescent lighting and a cubicle city.)
You're wearing that to work?
First and foremost, to fit in at the office, you need to look middle class: The office is the cathedral of the middle-class. The less style you have, the better. The goal is not to be so individual that people have to confront the raw fact that you have a background and a personality that you embody even at work. (This is the limit on our tolerance of difference: It’s OK to be gay or black, it’s just not OK to act gay or black, because that makes mainstream folks realize that they, too, are just a sub-culture.)
The best way to show that you fit in is to opt for clothes from the Gap, preferably khaki, or for preppy classics like wool sweaters and corduroys. The worst way is to wear vintage clothes. Vintage is the essence of alternative culture: You buy from a separate market, and you don’t spend all of your disposable income buying things—new couch, new leather jacket, new dishes, tsotchkes by Pottery Barn. Vintage clothes look great on the street, but in the fluorescent light of the office—where most people don’t recognize the look you’re going for anyway—they just look poor. And poor says, you don’t belong here. The other half of butch fashion is working class uniform chic. Also not a good way to remind your bosses that you're not, in fact, the janitor and that you would like to be considered for that exciting new editorial position. Butch fashion is, overall, a good way to put your name at the top of the layoffs list. Which is likely why butch dykes make, on average, much less than femme dykes (preliminary data, according to the Williams Institute).
That's just inappropriate.
I've spent years finding a way to be my brainy self and my butch self at the same time.
In queer culture, including GLBT nonprofits, it's pretty normal to talk about sex (sans details) and make sexual jokes. Sexual jokes are not acceptable in the straight workplace, and your coworkers let you know by giving you that pinched-mouth, eye-rolling look that says "What you're saying isn't refreshingly naughty, it's frighteningly beyond help." Suddenly your hip, smart, progressive coworker is looking and acting a lot like a church mom. And yet, the straighter the environment, the more I feel the need to say something that marks me as queer; it's hard to do that without being sexual in some way.
Advancing the homosexual agenda
Of course, butches also face the same hurdles that other minorities do. If you're the only woman on the board, you don't want to focus too much on women's issues for fear of being dismissed as a stereotype. Likewise, if you're the only dyke—which is always the case everywhere but
Even at a publication where people are by and large not homophobic, it's hard to get gay issues covered. Gays make up just 4 to 9 percent of the population. So when I proposed a graph looking at how being mainstream pays—men earn more than women, straight men earn more than gay men, married heterosexuals earn more than cohabitating heterosexuals, and preliminary data suggests that gender normative queers earn more than gender deviant ones—the greatest interest was in the comparison between the two kinds of heterosexuals. The concern was legitimate in its way: Most readers are heterosexual and middle class. Facts about other groups aren't as interesting to them about facts about themselves. Yet, the idea that they have pruned their personalities to fit in the workaday world is not an idea that they can capture; they can't see the forest for the trees.
In which I impersonate that feminist who has no sense of humor
And even well-meaning non-homophobic coworkers occasionally fail to see that gay jokes simply aren't funny. Most homophobia, at least of the quotidian variety as opposed to the getting-tied-to-the-stake-and-lit-on-fire variety, comes in the form of jokes. Often the humor behind the telling is meant to be something like "of course I don't really believe it, but you've got to admit it's funny." Larry David, with his endless "not that there's anything wrong with that" shtick, is the worst at this. If there's nothing wrong or titillating about queer sexuality, why are we talking about it ad infinitum?
Now, if I were to point out either of the previous two points to my coworkers, I call the phenomenon that would ensue "Hell hath no fury like privilege called out."
We’re all getting drinks after work.
There are a lot of really great straight people out there. Just do not put them all in a room together! They start to speak another language. Suddenly, the smart, powerful, feminist women I work with reveal that they, too, love to talk about clothes. Words I don't understand occur about 2.3 times per sentence. My coworkers don't understand why I never get drinks with them, but that's why. The one time I tried, I was introduced to the word cougar, and learned that my young male coworkers were so easily impressed by the mere sight of a pair of boobs, that they almost went home with said cougars. (This brings out the "boys, let me tell you how it's done" side of me, which I think ultimately doesn't help advance the homosexual agenda.) The 35-and-up crowd, which is technically my age group, busies themselves talking almost exclusively about real estate. (People who spend their days keeping their personalities to a minimum in tiny office cubicles compensate for it on the weekends. They sprawl out in enormous vehicles and take to the open road. They head to the largest store they can find, with the biggest things: Home Depot. There they buy things to fix up their homes, to personalize the one space they can.) I have nothing to contribute to the real estate conversation, because being butch and middle class eerily resembles being a vegetarian polar bear—I keep looking for the foliage.
Just a quick note to let you know I do my research: The Human Rights Campaign has done a study of employment realities for GLBT people. They find that everything is peachy, and getting peachier every day. But their survey is voluntary and there are only a few states with discrimination laws covering sexuality, much less gender performance, so HRC has only a carrot to use. Read between the lines, though. HRC sent the survey to more than 1,500 companies. 446 responded; 203 prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.