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Don't Ask, Do Tell

Okay, so you've come out to your friends, your family, and your workmates. That just leaves everyone else you'll ever meet
Feature by Kirsty Logan.
Published 03 January 2010

Like most lesbians, I don’t look stereotypically gay, which can lead to some confusing exchanges. Working in a tea-shop – the type that sells tea in pots, scrambled eggs on toast, and buttered scones – I often have to force my way through conversations with sleazy old men customers. The ones about the terrible weather or how there's never anything good on television are bearable, but sometimes it gets worse. A recent example went like this:

Pensioner: So darling, do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Well, I have a girlfriend.
Pensioner: A boyfriend?
Me: Girlfriend.
Pensioner: Boyfriend?
Me: Girl. Friend.
Pensioner: Boy. Friend?
Me: Yes, OK then.

He paid for his coffee and shuffled out, and I was left feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The man’s misunderstanding was totally logical – after all, I hadn’t been wearing my 'I (heart) kd lang' badge or groping my fellow waitresses’ bottoms. I don’t blame a pensioner for not being au fait with the intricacies of modern-day queer sexuality, but I do blame myself for letting his assumption slide. Would it really have been so difficult for me to say the word 'lesbian'? Would it really have been so difficult for him to understand? The worst part is, it wasn’t the first time.

I also didn’t correct the letting agent who kept referring to my girlfriend as my ‘friend’, or the removal guy who repeatedly asked me if my boyfriend was going to be there to help him carry my couch down the stairs until I finally said "Yes, my boyfriend will be there. Except that he has breasts and a vagina and is a woman. Which is why I keep saying 'girlfriend', not 'boyfriend'. And using the pronoun ‘she’, not ‘he’." I only wish I’d actually said it out loud.

I’m not ashamed of my orientation or my girlfriend: I hold her hand walking down the street, I kiss her in restaurants, I tick the LGBT box on those overly-personal questionnaires. But I don’t feel the need to introduce my sexuality into every exchange I have. "Hi, I’m Kirsty and I’ll be your queer waitress this evening." "Hi, I’d like to pay this cheque into my account, and I also like to have sex with girls." I am proud of my sexuality, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing about me, so I usually just shut up about it.

Lately I’ve been thinking: when should I mention it? In response to a direct question, sure. But what about those passing moments, the constant assumption of heterosexuality? I don’t blame people for assuming I’m straight; after all, most people are. What bothers me is my own reluctance to correct them.

The type of person who has trouble understanding that I’m queer – the sleazy pensioner, for example – is the type of person who thinks lesbian stereotypes are accurate. A girl who wears make-up and shaves her legs can’t be a lesbian, and we’re all just waiting for the right man to come along. Surely these are exactly the people who need to know that we don’t fit into those ridiculous checklists. These are exactly the people I should be telling that I am queer and proud, so they can see that not all of us (in fact, very few of us) conform to the stereotypes.

On the few occasions that I do clarify that my girlfriend is indeed my girlfriend, and not a flatmate/friend/man, the response is accepting and indifferent: they say "oh", and then the conversation continues. People are not generally homophobic, just heterosexist. But is it really better to be ignored than hated? I don’t want to have to jump on and off my soapbox all day, but I also don’t want to be invisible.

So what is the answer? I could refer to my girlfriend as my ‘partner’ – or worse, my ‘lover’. But I don't want to have to play the pronoun game, saying "my partner, they…" or "I'm going for a romantic dinner with them" – not only is this a denial of my sexuality, it also makes my grammar ache. Or I could clarify that we’re a couple in every confusing exchange I have. But then I might sound like there's shame in not being part of a couple – heaven forbid that someone might make the hideous mistake of thinking I was single.

Or I could just let it go. I could let that old man think that all lesbians wear their sexuality like a neon sign. I could let that removal guy assume that two women living together could only be friends.

But I know that if I were heterosexual and a stranger asked if I had a girlfriend, I would not let it go. Not only would I tell them I was straight, I would wonder what it was that made me seem gay. I would not consider that to be shouting from a soapbox; just being honest. If a straight person wouldn't let a homosexual assumption slide, then why should I let people ignore who I am?