December 25, 2012

On Passing For Straight

I got into a Twitter fight with someone almost a year ago. (I know. I can’t believe this is a thing either.) It was over an article I had written in which I’d said that, among other troubling reasons, I’d broken up with a high school boyfriend because he told me he found vaginas “icky.” This particular Tweeter, a self-proclaimed lesbian geek, took issue with my dismissal of this guy because she thought I was being judgmental to someone who might have just been having trouble accepting his homosexuality. I should have been more understanding, she said. Then, in an aside to someone else, but including my handle so I’d see it in my mentions column, she proclaimed that “all straight girls were alike.” (Which, okay, rude.)

“You’re assuming,” I told her, “that I am straight. I am not.”

“I am surprised,” she wrote back. “People can still surprise me.”

Many times on this site, people have berated me in the comments with the very same dismissal of “straight people.” (Come on guys, really? We’re gonna do that now?)

I’ve identified to myself, the Internet and one close friend as bisexual since I was about 12 years old, but I didn’t officially come out to the world at large until college. Coming out was terrifying. I only remember being similarly scared three other times in my life and two of those times involved potentially drowning.

I’d spent the first week of school equally flirting with a girl I’d met, a doll-faced lesbian, and a tall, lanky straight guy. On the orientation week boat cruise, they cornered me on the deck. “What are you?” they asked, exasperated, like I should have known already. Like I should have already had it figured out by now. Like I was a swirl of enigmas they couldn’t figure out.

“I’m bisexual,” I remember telling them. It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I was terrified. The words felt foreign and dangerous. “I knew it!” the girl shouted. Then, she and the guy high-fived. They were happy. I’d told them my big secret and they were both totally cool with it.

This was new for me. When I was a teenager, I was part of a group of popular girls at summer camp, led by a girl who told a lot of lesbian jokes. I remember another nerdy girl being called a “lesbian” in a derogatory manner for playing softball in a local league. I also went to a religious high school where being any form of LGBTQ was out of the question. That’s the other thing about passing. People feel like they’re safe to be homophobes in front of you. You’re also constantly coming out so that they shut up. It’s a bummer.

A while ago, Salon ran a piece by a bisexual Latino teenager about his coming out process. In the headline, they called him “gay.” The first comment on the article was about how the author clearly states in the piece that he is bisexual and that calling him “gay” in the headline, furthers the invisibility bisexuals already face. Even to other gay people, sometimes we don’t exist.

Once, a close gay male friend told me he thought I wasn’t really bisexual because I’d “end up with a guy.” Another admitted he didn’t believe in bisexuality. (How can you be gay and tell someone you don’t believe in their sexuality?!) When I asked what he thought I was, having dated both men and women, he replied, “You’ll end up being a lesbian.” I was hurt.

I guess, going by traditional stereotypes, I look like a straight girl. I am small and feminine. I have long hair. I wear clothes from H&M with bows and sequins on them. That’s what makes people just assume “straight.” I mostly feel guilty about it. Do I need to wear a baseball cap and cut off my hair? Is that the uniform so everyone can identify us? I’ve had a pixie cut before, but even then, even when wearing a vest and a bow-tie people just thought I was quirky. No one ever went, “Oh yes, there is a woman who likes women.”

When I was dating my ex-girlfriend, her lesbian friends hated me. They always side-eyed me when we went out together and rolled their eyes when I said something about an ex-boyfriend. I was not legitimized, and I was not to be trusted. I’d been in love with this girl for months and I’d pursued her but somehow I was secretly “straight” and therefore, the enemy.

“Passing” is when you can get away with seeming like the majority when you are actually the minority. Some people, those who constantly have to deal with the obviousness of their other-ness, feel it’s a luxury. And maybe passing helped me when I was being a coward. When I was trying to fit in as a teenager, or when I’m on a job interview with a secret homophobe or when I’m driving through southern Georgia or somewhere where lesbians wouldn’t be automatically welcome. Maybe passing keeps me safe.

But sometimes I just want to feel proud of who I am or accepted by the people who should be my people. I have a lot of mixed feelings on this subject actually so I’m sorry, but this piece doesn’t have a neatly wrapped-up, forgone conclusion. I guess, that’s actually kind of fitting. TC Mark

Gaby Dunn

Gaby Dunn is a writer, comedian, journalist and Jesse Eisenberg enthusiast living in Los Angeles. Email her at: …