I was at lunch with a coworker today. I am out as queer to her, and often talk to her about the “queer life.” She identifies as straight but is of the openminded variety, and loves hearing about my new boi. So naturally, today’s lunch conversation veered onto a similar course. We were talking about how I had confused another coworker by talking about company visiting without alluding to what exact connection the company had to me. After some laughter, I made the comment that it would be difficult for the other coworker (to whom I am not out) to identify me as queer or gay because I do not look like a lesbian.
Y’all know what I meant by that, I’m sure. I know there isn’t just one way for a lesbian—or anyone under any identity—to look. To say that I’m familiar with that concept would be a gross understatement. In saying to my coworker that I do not look like a lesbian, I was in fact alluding to the wonderful (note: sarcasm) phenomenon of femme invisibility, using terms that I figured someone not familiar with the labyrinth of gender identity would understand.
Well, apparently I was wrong.
She told me she couldn’t believe I’d just said that. Then she proceeded to accuse me of perpetrating stereotypes. She even implied that just talking about it was equal to perpetuation. To say I was taken aback would be another gross understatement. After I regained use of my vocabulary I tried to clarify, but I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears, so I gave up. Apparently I can talk to her all day long about the erotica we both write, but the more complex topics of queer and gender identity were too foggy a sea to navigate with someone unfamiliar with the waters.
It just baffled me that she was so quick to jump to the stereotype accusation. But then it dawned on me: no matter how openminded she may be, she does not have the same relationship with stereotypes that any minority does, and more specifically, that any gay/lesbian/queer femme does. She doesn’t have to deal with being instantly pigeonholed the way most highly visible butches do, nor does she have to deal with being constantly overlooked the way so many of us femmes do. So it’s very easy for her to say that stereotypes should be completely ignored, when those of us who deal with stereotypes on a daily basis know that such a feat would be all but impossible. Whether it’s to embrace and rock the stereotype, to fiercely defy it or to simply blow it clean out of the water, we have to at least acknowledge that the stereotype exists. However, acknowledgement does not equal perpetuation. The only people perpetuating the stereotype are the people who believe that x must always equal y and can never deviate from the parameters set by an ignorant culture and the media.
I realize now that I probably made a poor choice of wording. Will I avoid that in the future? Absolutely. But I will also avoid broaching the heavier, more complex subjects of queer identity with someone who hasn’t been there, done that and bought the t-shirt.