My boss says I'm a lesbian but I'm not!

I like to dress a certain way, and I have many lesbian and gay friends, but I'm straight and sick of the gossip.

Published October 23, 2007 10:46AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a full-time college student who is working a retail job off-campus to make a little extra money. The store is pretty small and while I wouldn't necessarily say that I love my job, I do enjoy working for the particular store that I work for considerably more than I think I would have had I chosen to try to find a job at a larger, more corporate store. I also like working for my boss -- she's really understanding about the schedule that my academic life demands, and she is generally fun to be around.

Now, she is a lesbian, and I have absolutely no problem with this. However, it has gotten back to me that she talked to several other employees of the store about how "closeted" I am. This shouldn't bother me, as it's an assumption that people have made about me my entire life because I never wear makeup or shave my legs, I wear clothing that is pretty androgynous, and I rarely ever date. However, I find this particular set of occurrences particularly offensive and hurtful not only because it is happening in the workplace, but mainly because of how confidently and often she assures my co-workers that she knows exactly who I am.

I've had a lot of gay mentors and close friends (both men and women) throughout my life, and I consider myself a strong ally of the LGBTQ community. I know that if I were a lesbian, then I would have no problem admitting it, especially to myself. I actually have done a lot of meditation on this particular issue, and while I am willing to admit that I have found the occasional woman or two attractive (I'm definitely a believer in the Kinsey scale), there is no doubt in my mind that I am overwhelmingly, vastly more attracted to men, and I definitely identify as a straight woman.

Today, after I rang up a purchase for a male customer about my age, she told me to follow after him and flirt with him. She gripped my arm and practically threw me in his direction. I did not want to cooperate at all: He wasn't cute, he bought something that I thought was distasteful, and besides, I'm very shy. The idea of approaching a complete stranger is not something I can do easily. And why should I have to be willing to throw myself at any random guy in order to prove that I am a straight woman, anyway? Nevertheless, I am certain that she will be using this incident as further fodder for gossip with my fellow employees.

I don't want to come across as being homophobic and disrespectful to her, but I am bothered by the idea of her ringleading this circle of gossip about my sexual identity behind my back. Even if I were a lesbian, I wouldn't be comfortable knowing that she was outing me to everyone without talking to me first. Even more disturbing is the way that she tells people as if she knows me better than I know myself, like just because she herself is a lesbian that she is an expert on my feelings. I think that this gossip is highly inappropriate for work, maybe even borderline sexual harassment. I would like to ask her to stop, but I don't think that I should be forced to "prove" myself or go into a deep conversation with her about my personal self-exploration, especially when she has already shown that she cares more about creating good gossip than about protecting my own feelings. Regardless, I don't want her to come away from the conversation thinking that I am a homophobic bitch because that can't be further from the truth. So how do I get her to stop in a way that keeps us both feeling safe in the workplace?

A GLBTQ Ally (though one with limited patience)

Dear GLBTQ Ally,

You interest me strangely.

I mean, in practical terms I think you should find another job, and your boss is behaving badly, and if you want to challenge her on it, or file a formal sexual harassment claim, you are certainly free to do so and see what comes of it.

But what interests me is you, and why you dress and act the way you do.

Surely you have tired of people saying, with exasperating and simple-minded gall, that you are obviously a closeted lesbian. That is not what you mean to convey by your dress and your manner, is it? So what do you mean?

I imagine what you mean is fairly complex. After all, they don't call it a dress code for nothing. In your dress you apparently express a shifting code of private androgyny; you wear masks; you flirt with passing as this or that; you play at being seen a certain way, and yet, because you hold your true identity close to your vest as it were, you always prove the observer wrong. That is, you play the trickster; you express both allegiance and contempt.

Here is the way I can relate to your situation. Mainstream culture in the United States is largely heterosexual, capitalist and Christian. It sometimes pretends not to be -- it dresses in drag on Halloween -- but mainly that is the American culture: heterosexual, capitalist and Christian. Those of us who don't like heterosexual, capitalist, Christian culture must find ways to participate freely in society while maintaining our own identity.

It isn't easy. If you work in a mainstream business you must disguise yourself.

I passed for five years as a temp at Chevron. It was a fascinating but distressing period. There were certain aspects of drag about it. Within the culture of capitalists, oilmen and mariners, which is a fairly manly culture, I was passing as ... what? ... a clerk, I suppose, one of those marginal, powerless androgynous males, neither businessman nor artist, manning the unpretentious desks of the world, reading poetry on the lunch hour. At one point I began slicking my hair straight back, severely, in a parody of the virtuous and loyal clerk of old. This afforded me a secret revenge and distance, I suppose. It was my clever ruse, my way of surviving.

So you are sort of in drag at this store, are you not? You're not a lesbian. You just dress like one. So maybe this is trickster energy: You are bored not only by mainstream culture but by the mainstreamed cultures and codes of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community as well, and you need to tweak it all, and you are taking secret pleasure in the inability of others to read you correctly.

But what people see, apparently, when they look at you, is a lesbian -- or at least, let's be fair, they see the social construct we have agreed to call a lesbian. So is your style serving the purpose you want it to serve? If that purpose is to trick people, then perhaps it is.

But this is kind of weird. It would be one thing if you were a lesbian and wanted to disguise the fact. But you are not a lesbian. You are trying to disguise the fact that you are not a lesbian.

Why? Is it for the sheer joy of wordplay -- or clothesplay, I should say?

We all wear masks. But it seems that the mask you have adopted is problematic. If you want to not be considered a lesbian, your dress isn't working. If you want to repel curiosity and intimacy, if you want to blend in and be invisible, you can dress in a way to achieve that.

I dressed, at Chevron, in the most boring way imaginable. I nearly made myself disappear.

Now, you may think that the androgynous look is a way of repelling sexual interest from women. But apparently it is not. It may be that an androgynous look, rather than indicating a general lack of interest, instead signals that you have a complex and fluid relationship to your own gender identity. So people look at you and they think, hmmm, maybe I can help her work out some of that gender identity stuff myself!

So, basically, um, I'm a married heterosexual white man in my 50s who spent five years hiding under my desk at Chevron. So I dunno. That boss of yours should lay off. I know that. She's way out of bounds. But do you really want to get into it with her? Where's the profit in that? If I were you, I'd find a new job, and I'd do some reading and some soul-searching, asking myself, "What am I actually trying to accomplish with my choice of style?"

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Lgbt Since You Asked