Stranger in a Straight Land

Alphabet Soup

There we sat in a staff meeting, all twelve of us, listening to the vice president for operations talk about kitchen upkeep.

"Every bottom should have a top," she said calmly, no trace of irony. She was talking about Tupperware, but who could let that one go by unnoticed? I looked around, but there were no smirks on the faces of my coworkers, until I traded glances with Will. We smiled at each other and then looked away quickly.

Will and I are, as far as we know, the only queers in our small office. We both came to our jobs from a certain local gay newspaper where he’d worked for almost three years (after two years at the gay paper in Portland) and where I’d been working for almost ten. This whole concept of the mainstream workforce is a bit of a brave new world for both of us.

Until March, I was a professional lesbian. When you get right down to it, my paycheck depended on my ability to hold and process knowledge about the gay movement. My abilities as a newspaper editor were useful too, but I knew I could be an editor anywhere. Few other places would pay me to be a lesbian, too.

When I decided to make a career change this year, I gave hardly a thought to pursuing other fulltime work in the gay movement. It remains one of my passions, but I needed a break. So I wrote up my little resume — and quickly saw how gay it was. After a decade in one place, it’s impossible to pretend that employer isn’t important enough to mention. My resume was practically painted pink, with rainbows in the corners and lambdas dancing in the margins. If I squinted hard, I could see little women’s symbols on all the O’s. There was no fooling anyone, even if I’d hoped to pass as straight.

It’s possible that during my job search, I experienced a lot of homophobia that I never heard about, because people don’t call you up to tell you why they’re not interested in you for a job. I had some nibbles, but chances are good that I would have had many more if I’d been the editor of an important non-gay weekly newspaper. When I interviewed for the job I have now, we talked about my sexual orientation a little. It would have been silly to not mention it, because it was flashing in neon lights in front of my future employer’s face.

My new boss is straight, and he’s great. He’s told me some of the best journalism stories I’ve heard. He makes goofy jokes that I think are funny — including some about sexual orientation, usually mine. One day in the spring I was hanging up my jacket and turned around to see Ira standing behind me, ready with a line he’d probably been hoping to use since my first day: "I see you’ve come out of the closet." Ha ha ha.

I knew Ira and I were a good match when he came running up to me just a few weeks after I started, practically breathless as he announced, "Breaking lesbian news!" I asked if it was about Ellen, ha ha ha, but it turned out that he was serious. There was a big story on TV about the man who’d allegedly killed two lesbian campers in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, something I’d helped cover as a gay reporter years earlier. He knows news, and he respects me enough to know what news will have particular significance to me.

My office is small, and there aren’t many secrets. My coworkers had the scoop on me before I walked through the door. I mention my partner freely, adorn my office with photos reflecting my unconventional life. Nobody bats an eye, which is beautiful.

But hardly anyone ever jokes about sex. It’s a different culture, even if we’re a bunch of liberals. I get some kooky questions, mostly in fun but often with a hint of real curiosity. Do all gay people have dogs? "Well, not necessarily," I’ll say, looking for a way to be funny but not rude. In my previous office we’d be trading stories about how gay our dogs are.

Then there’s the potentially offensive: I heard that Mystics games are a huge lesbian make-out scene. I found myself calmly explaining that no, they’re actually not — you couldn’t throw a straw wrapper in the MCI Arena on a Mystics game night without hitting a lesbian, but I’ve never seen any of them doing any heavy kissing there.

Are you married? This one came up just recently, while we were talking about the New York Times decision to publish gay wedding announcements. I’ve worked in this place for almost six months, and everyone knows I have a partner. But thanks to that good ol’ dilemma about how to label a same-sex romantic partner without using technically incorrect heterosexual terminology, it was not common knowledge that my partner and I are as married as the law lets us be and have been for almost two years. I wear a ring on the "wedding ring" finger, I make sly references to my brother-in-law with asterisked notes about how the title is good only in Vermont. But it takes an explicit conversation for them to learn this information about me, while the words husband and wife told me the same information about them in the beginning.

It all makes me wonder what it’s like elsewhere in the world — a bigger company, a less progressive mindset among the staff. I know I’m lucky to have my sexual orientation be such a non-issue and such a popular topic all at once. And when the going gets tough, there’s always Will, ready to crack an in-group joke with me that may or may not involve Tupperware.

Kristina Campbell’s straight-acting job is in the heart of Dupont Circle. (Thank god.) She can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.net.

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