Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bulldagger in a China Shop

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. San Francisco is, as far as I can tell, the only place where there are enough butches to make the project more viable than, say, being a vegetarian polar bear. Because I work at a progressive publication, I've actually found a job where I think both parts of me should be of professional use. However, I've found that, on the surface personality level, my brainy butch balancing act relies on mixing advanced vocabulary with obscenity. For example, "That is just so fucking disingenuous!" I get away with my profanities at my present job, barely, but I can't get away with my irreverent references to sex and sexuality.

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 San Francisco, and often the case here, too—you risk ghettoizing yourself if you talk about queer issues. I'm a journalist, though, and I think the media is doing a terrible job of covering queer issues despite the fact that the culture is obsessed with queers. I think there should be some way of harnassing queer sensibility as well as simply covering GLBT issues. I have opted to make comedy out of my efforts in that direction at my current job by announcing pretty regularly that I'm a mole, there to advance the homosexual agenda. (Do we have an agenda? Because if we do, we're even worse than the Democrats at advancing it.)

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.


Tara said...

Maybe it's time we came up w/ a homo agenda to advance...

midge said...

i'm not even identifiably butch (just a kind of non-gender-specific easy-to-ignore something-or-other) and i have experienced all of this. i'm only an hour and a half away from san fran, but it doesn't matter. every time someone makes a gay joke, or comment about a woman's unacceptable appearance, and i make my feminist-lesbian response to it, i get the same reaction: silence, down-cast eyes, and the feeling in the air that the comment will be continued once i'm out of hearing range.

the ghostis said...

Some part of me feels like I too am the enemy in this workplace drama, being gender normative and all. But go ahead and continue making these good liberal folks uncomfortable with your jokes, because maybe one of these days they'll stop reacting like good old fashioned church ladies. I probably act like a church lady too sometimes when someone utters something unexpected. But it is not always a bad thing. And the discomfort surrounding going out for drinks with straight co-workers runs deeper than the superficial discussions about clothes, I believe. Those sorts of excursions could benefit from the exertion of a bit of a queer agenda.

Anonymous said...

This makes me grateful to work where I do. Shop talk 24/7, and people don't spend time trash-talking other people's clothing choices (as long as the clothes are clean). On the other hand, I am older and partly gender normative (wear bright colors and jewelry, but not skirts, heels, or makeup) - middleaged females don't really rank as obvious sexual beings.

Emma said...

Is it PC forced silence that is stalling any sort of real forward moving acceptance in the workplace? I find that one of the biggest queer/minority issues is that everyone defines diversity and minority embracing policy/beliefs differently...but they're not willing to talk about their own definition for fear they'll sound the bigot. At the same time, by not talking about our own definitions of diversity we all assume we have the same meaning and the same goals to that end, which is completely false. I'd rather you admit you're uncomfortable with "my people" so we can talk about it than pretend we all get along.

Thirza said...

Thank you for saying that butches make less income than femmes. I've always had major issues with finding employment, I could have amazing qualifications but as soon as my boyish self turns up at the interview I can just see them going "Nah . . ." It's almost embarrassing when they go through the motions of the interview while you're both sitting there knowing you're not getting the job. Even worse is when family bitches at me for having difficulty finding jobs and completely not recognizing that my gender identity is the biggest hindrance. I'm glad to know it's been proven.

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