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?

Comments (11)

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  • Loved this - very funny!

    Posted by Anonymous | Tuesday 19 January 2010 @ 13:39

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  • Try this when you're a bisexual married to someone who presents as a member of "the opposite sex". Gets even murkier.

    Posted by K | Tuesday 19 January 2010 @ 16:59

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  • Thank you for the well-written and extremely relevant article. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in the same position.

    Posted by Samantha | Tuesday 19 January 2010 @ 23:31

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  • This was a great column. I've tried to explain this same occurrence and odd sensation to close friends before. When's the right time to tell a new friend if it never comes up, is it the business of my classmates? Not really, but then I sometimes feel like I'm hiding something when that's not at all my intent. Just another awkward moment in life.

    Posted by Epo | Tuesday 19 January 2010 @ 23:32

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  • Thanks for this, I run into the same issues! Visibility is important, but do the senior citizens riding the bus really need to be made aware I like the ladies? Rather than announcing "I'm a gaylord" every two seconds, I stick little rainbow chachkes on my bags and coats. Sometimes it prompts a conversation, though the catch is that oftentimes, only "family" and allies know what the rainbow means. In that sense, it might be preaching to the choir.

    Posted by Hana | Wednesday 20 January 2010 @ 04:41

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  • Love this article. Very thought-provoking, witty and wise.

    Tackling the "girlfriend," "boyfriend" & I'm "x" terminology, and dealing with pronouns can be a real issue for those of us femmy lasses who identify as bi or generally queer, too. And as it sounds like we've a few similar positions on how we deal with people publicly and how we think of our sexuality (where it relates to our complete person-hood), this struck a resounding cord w/me.

    Thank you for writing this. :)

    Posted by Nae | Tuesday 11 May 2010 @ 21:10

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  • This makes me happy we can legally 'partner' here in Seattle. So we always get to say 'my Wife' :D

    Posted by rkayne | Friday 10 September 2010 @ 02:58

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  • First of all I am a gay man in the USA. 16 years ago when we got married (yes I know not legal in Ohio, blah blah blah) we had to confront this issue. People always tried to throw it back in our face when we said that we were "married" (it's not legal for 2 men to be married or "where you married in Massachusetts or California"). I would always point out that truly, being married is a state of mind more than a legal position (i.e. the divorce rate of heteros, OK?) I am of the opinion that if they walk around and proudly discuss their relationship status that I could too. So that's what I did. When I was with friends or coworkers and they would start talking about their spouses, I did too. Some people were shocked and offended and even tried to get me disciplined for "sexual harassment/impropriety", so I filed charges against them too! To sum it all up, the people around me had to change THEIR attitude (yes, I know have a HUGE set of "balls"). No it wasn't easy and yes I was and still am scared s***less, but I will not deny myself the opportunity to have a "normal" so called life or to have a HUSBAND (deal with it) and to live our life proudly and out of the closet. To change the world you have to start with yourself. And slowly but surely it will spread to the others around you!

    Posted by lickingk | Friday 31 December 2010 @ 11:35

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  • I love this posting. I generally say, "my partner, he" and just let people ease into what I'm saying. And if they, for any reason, correct ME by saying something like "oh is SHE" I repeat with, "no, HE" and they usually get the hint and are still edged on with their interest in the conversation. Then again, I live in a small, mostly liberal town in central New Hampshire.

    Posted by Craig | Sunday 25 September 2011 @ 04:14

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  • Being a sleazy old man of 52 myself I can tell you that people make assumptions about you no matter who or what you are. No doubt many perfectly reasonable guys simply making conversation with a nice looking girl are thought to be some kind of pervert by those that should know better. If you have a guy chatting you up try a bit of humour and giving them the same degree of consideration that you are demanding. Or is respect only applicable to lesbians?

    Posted by Pete | Monday 15 April 2013 @ 20:35

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  • I've always used the word "friend" when referring to my sexual friends. "Girlfriend" and "boyfriend" imply a) that a relationship will be sexual if and only if the friend is of the other sex and b)that above a certain age you must be married.

    Posted by David | Monday 26 August 2013 @ 14:07

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