Like any good lesbian, Jen was innocently strolling the aisles of Target one Sunday afternoon with her partner Sally, when they ran into her co-worker, John. Jen says, "Hey John. How are you?" "Great," he replies while looking at Sally with curiosity. On cue, Jen says, "Oh, John, this is my friend Sally." He doesn't notice Sally cringing. She's mastered the art of deception. She smiles politely as she always does in these situations and simply says, "Nice to meet you."
What John doesn't know is that Sally is Jen's life partner. You see, Sally and Jen have been together 5 years now and aside from a few close gay friends, no one knows about their relationship. Like many gay men and women, Jen has worked hard to convince herself that this is the best decision because, she says...
"I don't need to advertise my relationship."
"It's nobody's business who I sleep with."
"My brother didn't come out as a heterosexual. Why should I have to come out as gay?"
"I think it would kill my parents if they knew. Why cause them the pain?"
"I don't need to rub it in anyone's face. What I am is of no concern to others."
Monday at work, John doesn't waste any time tracking down Jen to ask if she thinks Sally would go out with him. It is in this moment that Jen begins to feel the consequences of her choice to make her relationship invisible.
Many gay men and women refer to their partners as "friends" or "roommates." Frequently I hear these beliefs explained with things like "Heterosexuals don't advertise their relationships, why should I?" The bottom line as I see it is that everyone is assumed to be heterosexual unless it is suggested (or in some cases "proven") otherwise. The need to "advertise" one's heterosexuality is redundant. It's unnecessary. The advertising is already in place everywhere, all of the time.
Heterosexuality is like Coca-cola. Both have been around so long and each is so visible and widely known that automatic assumptions are made about them. In many regions of the country if a beverage is dark and carbonated, it's a Coke, no matter what brand it is. The same is true for humanity. If someone is human, they are assumed to be heterosexual. I realize this is not true in all regions. Some areas refer to refreshing cola beverages as "pop" or "soda" or even "soda pop." And the same is true about sexuality. Though in more progressive environments and diverse communities not everyone is assumed to be heterosexual.
Anyone who does not identify as heterosexual must say so for anyone to know. Mind you, "saying so" is often done indirectly be it a gay flag on one's car,a stereotypical hair cut, dress, mannerism, hobbies, etc...and as many of you may have learned already, relying on these unspoken messages can be dangerous. The point is, people won't assume you are gay unless given a reason to do so. They just won't. Well, my partner might differ with this - she would say that I assume everyone is gay unless proven otherwise. So perhaps there are others like me out there, but I'd venture to guess we are a minority.
As a result, any gay man or woman who wants to be visible MUST work to be seen. And sometimes it's more work than you might imagine. Take for example the lesbian couple that has lived together for 6 years, celebrated all holidays together, taken vacations together and even purchased a house together. Add to this picture one of the lesbian's mothers trying to find dates for her daughter's partner because she believes her daughter and her live-in, long-term partner and she are just friends. People have an amazing ability to see what they want to, rather than what is real.
While doing a workshop on coming out issues, I once had a woman stand up and share a true, personal story. She explained that after 9 years together, her partner left her. She was devastated and heart-broken and though unusual for her, she sought support from her family whom she had come out to many years earlier. In talking with her brother about how upset she was, she explained how hurt she was feeling. She said he seemed very baffled, saying things like, "you've got other friends, it will be okay - you can get a new roommate," etc... When she realized he was responding as if they were friends and not partners she stopped, looked him square in the eyes and said, "You know I'm gay, don't you?" To which he gasped and replied, "Well my God, you didn't tell her that, did you? No wonder she left!"
I've been thinking a lot about this whole, "heterosexuals don't advertise their sexuality, why should I" mentality. And in thinking about this I've decided that it's true. Heterosexuals don't really actively promote what they are. It seems to me, that the way it works is not so much about advertising what we are, it's all about announcing or shall we say, advertising, what we are not.
In most cases, a heterosexual is unlikely to announce their sexual orientation unless they are being perceived as gay. In cases where the assumption is made that they are gay, I have observed a wide variety of responses, some more impressive than others. As rare as it might be for most heterosexuals to be assumed gay, when it does happen, you will most commonly see a correction of this misunderstanding. How the correction plays out varies in style, grace and convincingness.
The worst I've seen is the adamant or even a defensive, "I'm not gay" with a hint of "how dare you" to it. Next there is the more politically correct group, who knows what to say, or thinks they do. It may sound like this: "No man, I'm not gay, but I've got gay friends so it's cool. I don't have a problem with it." More impressive still, but not the best I've seen, is the enlightened heterosexual who may simply say "I'm flattered, but not gay."
Rarer yet are those who feel no need to correct the mis-assumption at all. Instead they are comfortable and secure in their ability to simply be themselves, regardless of the assumptions made. They will mention in a natural conversation their heterosexual relationship if it applies, or share stories that naturally fit into conversation that reveal their heterosexuality.
So let's try this on for size.
Upon being assumed heterosexual we could respond with something like: "Pleeeaaaase! I'm not heterosexual. Come on, give me a break!" Or we could drop some of the defensiveness and say: "I'm not heterosexual, but I don't have a problem with people who are. In fact, I've got a lot of heterosexual friends." Better yet, we could say, "I'm flattered, but not heterosexual." Or best of all, I like this: we correct the mis-assumption by living our truth. We simply talk about our lives, naturally, just as heterosexuals do. We live our truth by going about our life and our relationships without censorship.
Instead of saying to the coworker who asks about your weekend, "I went to a movie with a friend," you can say "My partner and I went to a movie." They then have the opportunity to clarify, or to ignore. "How long have you been dating him?" They may ask. To which you can reply, "Sally and I have been together five years now." Suddenly the responsibility is on the co-worker, not you, for dealing with this information. They have made assumptions. You have subtly and respectfully corrected them. The ball is in their court. If they are uncomfortable, it is for them to work out. You are no longer bearing the responsibility of protecting them from your truth. And all you have done is lived your truth. You corrected the assumption that your partner is a "he" while keeping the focus on the question "how long have you been dating."
Of course there are some situations that require a more direct correction if you have been actively misleading family or friends to think you are heterosexual. It may require more finesse and sensitivity to communicate your sexual orientation in these situations than in the one above with the new coworker, John. And of course there are also situations where this kind of disclosure poses real threats to our safety, employment and life. Many people hide their shame behind these fears. A teacher faces much greater threat of job loss for example, than an employee of a company with protections for sexual orientation written into their policies. The key is to be honest, to live in truth, not deception.
The bottom line as I see it is, you can not simultaneously diminish the importance of your partner ("this is my friend" - a blatant minimization of the importance he has in your life) and validate or own your relationship as something worthy and good. Or would be better to say, "this is Sally" than to say this is my "good friend Sally" because the former does not devalue Sally, it simply leaves the possibilities of who s he is to you open, without breaching your comfort. You do not owe anyone an explanation about who Sally is to you. She is simply Sally.
I have all of the compassion and understanding in the world for people who feel shame about their sexual orientation, or feel fearful about their safety or job security, or those who worry about being rejected by friends and family. I've been there. That is real, and unfortunately, for some that is what happens upon coming out. Fearing for our safety and our relationships is a symptom though. The real issue, the issue we must begin to face, is how we really feel about who we are. Facing our truth, dealing with ourselves honestly and finding ways to honor who we are, not diminish who we are is essential.
I believe that we teach people how to treat us. If you prioritize the feelings of everyone in your life over yourself then you can rest assured that everyone in your life is going to feel better than you. If we don't accept ourselves, whatever it is that makes us different, then we invite others to also reject us.
I encourage you to be as honest as possible about your motivations to conceal who you are, what you are about, and who is most important to you. You can keep pulling the shade down on your sexual orientation but the sun is going to continue shining whether or not you acknowledge it. Covering up your truth does not make your truth go away. It does, however, make your truth powerless, meaningless and ineffective and your fears and your worries much more powerful.
You are exactly who you were designed to be. And you are perfect, flaws and all. Live your truth - whatever that is.
By Michele O'Mara, LCSW
Author of Love Tips and Trips for Gay and Lesbian Relationships; Ask Me