We met at the bus stop. I don’t know his name; it didn’t come up. He asked me a question about bus fares and I answered him. He was going to pay $2 for his ride. I offered him a quarter so he wouldn’t have to overpay. We started chatting. He was headed up Connecticut to Bill Clinton’s book signing, which made me like him immediately. He didn’t ask where I was headed.
It was a pleasant chat. I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He was British. After we got on the bus, we parted company and I headed for a seat in the back. But then I remembered that I should tell him about transfers, in case he wanted to ride the bus again within two hours. I walked back to the front where he was sitting and slid down beside him.
He looked startled. I quickly gave him my piece of advice and returned to the back of the bus. Only then, during the walk back to my seat, did I realize that somewhere along the line he might have become worried that I was a little too interested in his plight. I feared that the re-approach after we’d already said goodbye might have been too much.
There’s a man who works in my building who caught my eye one day because he was carrying a canvas briefcase sporting the name of a Midwestern metropolitan newspaper. I am a journalist, I’m from the Midwest. There aren’t really any other journalists in my building and I am always eager for a Midwest connection, so I started chatting him up, first asking if he had worked at that paper. He said yes, he’d interned there, so then we started talking about journalism. I was friendly, but in hindsight, maybe I was too earnest about the conversation.
Since then, when I see him in the elevators or on the street near the building, he ducks away from me like I’m going to start dry-humping him right that minute. I swear I have no such intentions, but I don’t know how to tell him this without coming off like a total fool. I’ve tried looking as lesbian as humanly possible, but at my age and in this gayby boom climate, even that isn’t sure to deter a man’s suspicions that I want his goods. There’s always the risk that they will fear I’ll ask them to be sperm donors. (I won’t.)
Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe I’m not. It’s likely that low self-esteem plays into the equation somewhere, because my assumption is never that these men decide I am hitting on them and then feel flattered. No, in the messed-up universe that is my mind, they are always awkward and desperate for an escape.
They don’t pay attention to whether I’m wearing a wedding ring — or if they do, they mistake my sapphire ring as less than what it is. They avoid eye contact with me. They hope like hell that I don’t get off at the same bus stop that they do. They start carrying a different briefcase, with no newspaper name on it. They consider borrowing quarters from other strangers to pay me back, so they will not be beholden to me.
It’s only occasionally that something happens to set my mind to wandering — and wondering — like this. Most of the time, men and I have an implicit agreement: We pretty much ignore each other, except for a pleasant hello. There are a few men who choose to ignore our agreement and actually show romantic interest in me — or maybe it’s not romance that’s on their minds. But for the most part, I coexist peacefully with the Y chromosome set. It helps that I work in the heavily gay Dupont Circle area and live in heavily lesbian Takoma Park.
Is this phenomenon unique to the lesbian with low self-esteem, or are there gay men out there who experience the same thing when they talk to women they don’t know? Is the terror of being misunderstood — and not because it might lead to something, but because in the recipient’s eyes it most certainly will not lead anywhere — as intense for those on the other side of the gender fence?
Or is this a function of a heterosexist and patriarchal society, where men have the power in any random interaction between the sexes? Better still, is it that my imagined seduction victims are gay men themselves, and doubly afraid that I’m hitting on them — not just because they’re not interested, but because they might have to come out to me if I press the issue?
This was all so much easier when all young dykes shaved their heads and wore Doc Martens and the mullet was a fashion requirement for any lesbian older than 30. Now the lines seem so blurred. I like to believe that everyone who sees me instantly knows my sexual orientation and there’s no mystery — that coming out is a non-issue for me. But as I learn again and again on airplanes and in waiting rooms, plenty of people don’t make the assumption I wish they’d make. Isn’t it enough that I don’t wear make-up and do wear comfortable shoes?
Maybe, like another tired lesbian stereotype, I need to simply adopt a man-hating posture and be done with it – no more mistaken intentions, no more caring whether someone is worried about what I’ll say or do next. I’d do this, except that I have so many important male figures in my real life, and I truly love them (only platonically). But maybe this act is good enough for the bus stops and the workplace elevators, as long as I remember to rein it in when I share an elevator with my boss.
Kristina Campbell is not hitting on you, but she does like that cologne you’re wearing. Can she borrow it sometime? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read her typically nonsexist musings biweekly in “Alphabet Soup.”