I had a really surreal day last week, when I was in an all day workshop about advancing my career at my current employer. I’m not sure what possessed me to participate in this corporate enculturation session, but I figured, since they were reorganizations already happening across the company, and I’m not really super connected with people outside my group, it would be a good opportunity to do a little bit of networking and also find out what kind of expectations there are for people who want to advance in the company.
I’ve participated in events like this before, and they’ve always let me down. I’ve always left them feeling cold, minimized, brainwashed, and disposable. But I have to say, this most recent rah-rah session I attended was less odious compared to the others I’ve gone to. One of the most interesting things that came out of it was some insights into one of the presenters. Two women were leading the workshop, one of them a perky, gung-ho, blonde-and-blue-eyed 16-year veteran of the company. The other was a tall, butch brunette who I could’ve sworn was a card-carrying lesbian from way back. She walked like it, she talked like it, she had all of the mannerisms and voice inflections that have signalled lesbian to me over the last 30 years that I’ve been out. Interestingly (or, perhaps predictably) she made it clear almost from the start that she was in fact married to him A Man and had Children.
But through the course of the day, I got a really good sense of why exactly she was situated socially the way that she was, and how she probably got there.
See, this woman was extremely competitive. She’d played team sports during high school and college and actually got picked for a national team and one for sports. She was the kind of person who needed to belong, the kind of person who needed to be accepted as part of the team. On top of that, her fundamental butchness propelled her through life in a competitive, highly focused manner. The kind of manner that crowds out everything else, except The Goal. Interestingly, she’d grown up around the same time that I was growing up, maybe five or 10 years earlier, and in the same part of the country. And I knew from personal experience, if she’d stayed in that part of the world (she had) and gone with the whole lesbian thing (she hadn’t), she definitely would’ve been pushed to the outside. And that wasn’t something that she could tolerate.
I spent the day watching her. Wondering. Figuring out where she was coming from and why she — who could have been a proto-lesbian and a fine credit to our tribe — had opted out. I was uncomfortable at first (and to be honest, I still am), but over time, it really started to make sense.
You see, in some ways, her queerness, her drive, her abundance of aggression and competitiveness, all set her up to prove that she was straight, to prove that she belonged on the team… to prove that she could perform straightness just as well as the next person. I got the sense that for her it was absolutely a mission-critical performance she had to prove to herself that she could do. Even if it meant cutting off a major piece of who she was and what she was all about.
With the goal in mind — to fit in, to be part of the team, and to make lots of money in the process — she willfully disregarded every impediment and distraction that might have gotten in her way. Such as:
Queerness — check.
Feelings for women — check.
Being different — check.
Mark them off, cross them out, get ’em out of the picture.
I can’t say I blame her for her choices. I would never want to be in her position, with a husband and two kids and a social standing she now has to uphold. I got lucky. I got out. Of course, I made unpopular choices, and I was persona non grata in my family and place of origin for years and years, but that’s neither here nor there, at this point. I’ve made peace with my estrangement. My family and connections were lost to me, years ago. I’ve learned to live on the periphery, even while feigning belonging… for their sake.
And I do realize that if I’d needed to belong the way she did, I could have ended up like her. It might have been so easy, under certain circumstances. Back in the day, if you stayed in the rural area where you grew up and never ventured beyond it, you weren’t going to come across any queer people who are happy about their station in life. If anything, being non-straight made you miserable in that part of the world. So if you’re gonna be miserable, you might as well do it in the socially acceptable way and cut your losses. Heck, I tried it myself for a few years. Didn’t work out.
But for a whole lot of nearly-queer people living in that world, then and maybe now, it’s easier to conform and amputate a big part of your identity, than be 100% true to yourself and be 100% miserable in that place. If you don’t, you won’t have the kind of professional options you have when you’re straight. You won’t have the same social connections, that same sense of belonging that you have when you’re married to someone of the opposite sex and you’re raising a family. Just like everybody else.
So, really, that competitiveness, that aggression, that drive, that made this woman such an obvious dyke, also shunted her into about the straightest life you could ask for.
It doesn’t make me happy to think about it. In fact, I cringe. But in a way, it makes total sense.
And it reminds me, everything I’ve done to get myself here, where I am now… It’s well worth it.