Demystifying Passing as Straight

Up until the age of nineteen, I navigated the world as a straight tomboy who would not shy away from a dress. Societal influences told me who I should love and how I should dress; and I really came to not only believe it, but also to live in its constrained box.  

As a young adolescent I witnessed my gay brother struggle with understanding his identity, coming out, and coming to terms with the lack of acceptance from family and strangers. I understood sexual orientation to be binary, either straight or gay with nothing in-between or outside of those concepts. I never saw myself as queer and was only attracted to the opposite sex. For this reason, I lived with the privilege of a straight person and was only subjected to the pain and trauma vicariously through my brother.

This was all my truth until I met a woman who released a side of me that I was not fully aware of. At first I saw her as “that lesbian who has a crush on me and I enjoy flirting with,” but I told myself I was not attracted to her, nor willing to take it further than that. Little did I know that after a year of friendship, we would share a passionate kiss that would make me question my identity.

I had drunkenly kissed girls before, but never with an outcome like this. I never felt the same sparks and electricity with anyone I had kissed before. After this moment, I would have to grapple with my newfound sexual identity. I had previously witnessed the pain and trauma my brother had gone through, but now I would be living through it in first person.

At first, my biggest struggle was finding a label for myself. Disclaimer: I understand some people do not need labels, but for me it was something that truly helped me come to terms with and better understand my identity. I definitely was not straight anymore, but I did not feel gay enough, and bisexuality did not feel right either. Out of all the other labels out there, some caught my eye, like “demisexual” and “pansexual.” But they seemed too specific and were not broad enough to change with me and with time. I finally found that “sexually fluid” and “queer” were the terms that resonated with me the most.

Even though it has been four happy years with my partner, the same woman I kissed that fateful day, I still find myself discovering new parts of my sexual identity and how others portray it. (It should be noted that many people assume my sexuality to be straight from the way I present). The newest thing I have had to navigate is managing my sexuality in the workplace. The first two years I was with my girlfriend, I was attending a very liberal college. The third year I worked at Planned Parenthood. These places not only accepted my sexuality but also allowed me to feel safe enough to be my authentic self and flourish.

It was not until I decided to go to graduate school for social work where I would encounter a different type of environment through my internship. This placement has broken me out of my LGBTQ+ inclusivity bubble.

Currently, I am interning in a hospital as a medical social worker. Many homophobic comments have been said in my presence by fellow social workers, as well as by other staff members.  Most staff members do not know my sexuality because I choose not to disclose anything about my personal life in this environment. You might imagine that especially after hearing their comments, I do not feel inclined to do so, unless asked directly if I have a significant other.

In a sense my passing allots me an invisibility cloak that lets me blend with the dominant culture and protects me from some oppressive forces. Although it is advantageous in that sense, it constantly puts me in a position where I have to come out with every new interaction. As if the first time was not hard enough, it is something that is relived constantly. Integrate workplace dynamics, and this can be even more daunting. How will they take it? What if they treat me differently? What if I’m fired? Do I live a lie or will they accept me as my authentic self? How can I do my job when it’s based in my ability to be authentic with clients?

This stage of discovery has taught me a lot about how strangers portray my sexual identity. Although demoralizing at times, I have come to realize the invisibility cloak can act as super power to normalize and humanize the gay experience. People can get to know me under the guise of being straight, and then when they least expect it I can slip the rug from underneath their feet: SURPRISE, I’m queer as fuck and happily in a lesbian relationship. This usually happens after I have already won their affection. The hopeful and idealistic outcome is that they begin to reconsider their hateful ideologies and small changes begin to occur. This is something I have been attempting and will try better to implement in the workplace.

Unfortunately, this method is not full proof. I am still trying to convince my family I am the same person that they have always known and that my sexuality does not change my personality. Although family dynamics can be different than workplace dynamics, when challenged I have gotten the same tired and overused rhetoric such as “I can never look at you the same again” or “I accept you and love you as a fellow human, but I can’t accept your ‘lifestyle choice.’” At this point there is no power left in my invisibility cloak and quite honestly not much left in me.

I realize I speak from a place of privilege due to my ability to pass as straight and this makes my experience staggeringly different from someone who presents differently than I do. That being said, I want to shed light on and demystify my particular experience. I also want to highlight the importance of using passing privilege to support our community without overshadowing the very important voices of those who do not pass and/or those who are faced with intersecting oppressions, such as race, gender, and class.

I also want to admit that at the age of twenty-three, I still do not have my own sexual identity and its nuances all figured out. Sexuality transcends developmental stages; we are constantly learning and discovering new things about ourselves as sexual beings, regardless of how old we are or how we identify.

The final words I will leave you with are some pointers for non-LGBTQ identified folks to affirm and provide a welcoming work environment for people whose sexual orientation is unknown. The first and most important pointer: Do not assume (especially from how someone dresses) who individuals are sleeping in bed with or if they are even sleeping with anyone. Use affirming language such as “partner” and “significant other,” rather than assuming someone’s orientation and the gender of their partner. Keep an open mind. Do not disclose judgments and condescending comments to individuals because ultimately you do not know the life of the person in front of you.

Finally: If you are still stuck in an ignorant ideology about queer folks, or if these concepts seem too farfetched, consider taking these pointers outside the realm of sexuality to become a more open-minded and non-judgmental person.

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