How I Went Back To The Closet
I remember when it seemed the world was made for queers like me. We had our workshops and bookshops, bars and parties, Queer as Folk and Boys Don't Cry. I could buy cashews and stembolts without leaving the gay hood. I came out to my distant relatives, my old kindergarten teacher and the guy who brought me turnips from the organic farm.
All my friends were gay. I had a pink streak in my hair. We all had high-paying Web jobs or consulting gigs where we wrote things nobody read. I spent all my spare time protesting and writing essays about queer liberation for zines and Web sites. I had three serious long-term boyfriends, one of whom I married for a couple of years. I planned to save up and then take some time off and do volunteer work for queer groups.
Then the start-ups all shriveled up, and my boss at my Web enterprise consulting gig called me into his office. "Having to rationalize," he said, fiddling with his stapler. After that, I found a job analyzing the securities industry, but after nine months, that boss called me in and muttered, "Merger and consolidation." And then the next job took longer to find, and felt less secure. Everyone I knew went shit-bucket broke. For a few years we all scraped by. All the members of my queer discussion group agreed we were rediscovering simple living, and it was a blessing in disguise.
The disguise got harder and harder to see through, especially after the real estate market crash of '06. After half a dozen years of scraping by we all started to fidget. Things I learned: a pearl of toothpaste does as well as a stripe. Mix peanut butter with instant noodles for a low-cost alternative to eating out. Forget clubbing or going to the movies. One year I worked three months and stretched that cash to cover the other nine. Temp-to-perm gigs ended up being just temp.
Morris, my boyfriend of two years, left me to move back in with his parents in Milwaukee. By that point, he and I had managed to disprove once and for all that misery loves company.
So here's me in interview #275, summer of 2008. Still wearing one diamond ear stud and rocking the flamey body language, rich laugh and divatalk. Facing me, two crewcuts and a soccer mom, seeking a self-starter/team-player who can thrive in the challenging post-megamerger corporation. No amount of eager buzzwords from me would gainsay my wrongness out of the box. Not right for our culture. Not a good fit.
I'm not saying anyone ever didn't hire because I was queer. I'm saying it didn't help, and jobs were scarce.
I wanted to be a good fit.
I took out the stud and got a bad haircut. I practiced sitting and talking in front of the mirror. I pinched myself every time I crossed my legs the wrong way or let my voice rise above baritone. I ended up with bruises all up and down one arm. I made myself laugh less and less loud. I'd always been "straight-acting," now I gave myself acting lessons.
There were a lot fewer small companies around, it seemed. All the jobs I saw advertised came from corporate mammoths gorged on mergers.
So I got an interview for a customer service job I would have scoffed at once, at MagnaCo. I did my Henry Hetero Act in the interview, and it felt different. I bonded with the guy with the clipboard. He joked about extreme skiing and I laughed. The chick sitting next to him gave me an extra couple of beats on her farewell handshake. I got the job.
So once I had the job, I could relax and be "myself," if such a person existed. Right? But I still felt paranoid and freaky. I had made one can of sardines last a weekend. You don't take a job for granted after that.
I watched sports and straight romance movies, listened to country music, ate more red meat. I wasn't sure what would make me smell het. I shared a corner of a cube farm with Benjy and Pauline, who condoled together about their opposite-sex dates. I shared their pain.
Benjy and Pauline would probably have said they liked queers, and nobody ever queer-bashed in my hearing. One guy in accounting, Herman, gave sissy vibes you'd have to be blind to miss. Nobody ever went to lunch with him, including me.
I spotted Herman one Saturday night next to the bar at my usual hangout, the Arena. He had the pencil-thin Van Dyke around his mouth, and he'd put on a leather jacket over his white-collar work shirt and khakis. He hadn't spotted me. I felt terror stab my heart. What if he saw me here and outed me at work? He might be hanging in there as the token office homo, but my job felt as precarious as my apartment would be if I paid rent late another month.
I turned and pushed through the crowd of old acquaintances and strangers. I elbowed fags aside, spilled drinks and stumbled into hand-waving dancers. I ran out onto the sidewalk, looking around lest anyone from work spy me coming out of there.
I told my queer encounter group I feigned straightness at work. "Join the club," trilled Barry in his best queen voice. It turned out half the others were doing the same thing. "Times are tough," said Ruben. "You do what you gotta."
"It's all don't ask-don't tell at work," sang Barry. How the hell did he pass at work, I wondered.
I heard the local gay bookstore was going out of business, but I just couldn't be seen there. Even if I could have afforded rainbow-colored roadkill or whatever.
After a while, Benjy and Pauline kept offering to set me up with girls they knew. It meant I was passing, but at the same time I needed to get them off my back.
I arranged to meet Dutch at a Starbucks near the old queer ghetto. Her parents had christened her Duchess. She had a duchess' sleekness, but sported a dyke haircut and "buetz." She could pass for straight if she grew her hair a little. Dutch eyed me between latte sips. "You won't ever call me your 'beard,'" she said. "I'm not an outgrowth of your face."
Some women had decided to reclaim the word "beard" in an ironic power trip, the way I'd once called myself a faggot. Of course they couldn't claim that identity publicly, but they published zines and Web sites semi-anonymously. But not Dutch.
Dutch moved in with me and filled my bathroom with aromatherapy and homeopathy. I put her picture on my desk at work. Coworkers started to ask about her. Her name tripped off their tongues like an old friend's. Every day, I reported on her health and hobbies. Finally, I asked her to join my coworkers for dinner.
"It's like part of my rent," she sighed. They loved her. I reciprocated with her coworkers.
One day I realized a year had passed since I had been "out." A year without holding hands with a man in public, or venturing into the gay bookstore (now closed) or wearing a pink triangle. Day to day it hadn't seemed a big deal, any more than ordering takeout instead of going to a restaurant. Now it gained a year's weight. This is what my life is like now.
You could still unearth my past outness if you Googled my name or talked to people who'd known me before. But I discovered what I thought was an irreversible process was more like a plant that needed tending or it died.
I went out for burgers with Dutch. "I feel depressed that I'm not more depressed," I said. We sat in a 1950s-style diner with waitresses on roller skates. It felt easy-going, without the itchy wryness I would have pinned on its 50s pageantry once. Dutch said she was surprised she wasn't more surprised, and disappointed she wasn't more disappointed. Mostly we were getting by. We agreed on that. We shared a milkshake, and as sugar blinded both of us at once, we felt some kind of affection. Then Dutch went over to her girlfriend's place and I went to the alley out back, where a man from the Internet awaited me, hands clasped below his waist in some form of welcome.