Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Closeted with Something to Lose

Hey folks, I read a thing on the internet and it made me have feelings.  I know the author's experiences aren't about my feelings, that I should listen/signal boost more and talk less, but I'm not sure how it does people any good to have me shut up all the time.  Is there some kind of magic ratio?  Someone who knows how this is done please clue me in? I Google stuff, but there's no comprehensive guide about how to not be a jerk. I still haven't worked out what "check your privilege" means in practice, even if I have (finally) worked out that I have a lot of it.  So go read that other piece, at least.

When I was in high school, I had very little fear.  I wore boy's jeans, fitted tops from ThinkGeek, pink fuzzy slippers, duct-taped my mouth for Day of Silence, and flirted with everyone. I'd been out since basically middle school when I'd had the least-closeted relationship possible, and my mother had told me that I could date as many girls as I liked as long as I quit lying that hickeys I came home with were mosquito bites*.  When ScanTron forms asked me for my gender, I marked "Male" half the time because "Female" wasn't right either, and when they left a blank when asking for my "sex" I wrote "YES PLEASE".  What was the worst that could happen? If people didn't like me, then I didn't like them, my grades always reflected my ADHD (the full range from F to A), and I didn't have a job to lose.

Eventually, I grew out of my adolescent belligerence, but that didn't stop me from being open about any of it, if anyone cared to ask or look up my Facebook profile.  I stayed less-belligerent-still-open as I went to two colleges, trying to figure out how to make a living in the world, working at a preschool and at a minimum-wage retail job to pay for books because my family had generously contributed most of my tuition.  What did I have to fear?

Then I got accepted at Clarkson University with a merit scholarship that covered most of what my parents couldn't, and I found out some of what I have to fear. I had signed up for on-campus housing because I didn't have the contacts or time to look for off-campus housing, and I was placed with three blonde girls, two of whom were in the Army ROTC program.

I don't know if it was because of my Facebook profile or if it was just because I wasn't their friend whose spot I'd been placed in, but they treated me like I had walked into their house with a dripping suitcase full of virulent pond scum rather than a couple sets of cheap plastic drawers for my clothes and an extra-long twin bedding set. In a thousand tiny ways, they made it clear that I wasn't welcome-- not to exist there, not even to study late in the library and come home at two in the morning to sleep before I left for a nine o'clock class.  I raised my concerns with the housing department and the RA staff, but everyone refused to help me.  "Compromise more," the people who might have helped told me.  I didn't know where else I could compromise and still maintain the GPA I needed for my scholarship.

It was three against one, and it wasn't worth taking a stand.  They drove me out of what was supposed to be my home.  I moved off-campus the next semester, living with three guys who were more than happy that I was picking up the rent their friend wasn't paying, but I remembered that when three people decided I wasn't worth respect, nothing in the world could make them treat me like a human. I had found my fear.

I felt it every time I tried to go to a hockey game and the Pep Band yelled homophobic slurs, every time I saw a women-in-engineering quote defaced in the hallway. I met people richer and more conservative than I'd ever met before, my-vacation-home-has-more-bedrooms-than-your-actual-home rich and all-poor-people-are-lazy conservative. I found out that the real reason Clarkson gets people jobs after graduating relates to its historically-wealthy alumni network, and I learned whose favor I'd need to curry if I wanted to find similar success and pay off my loans.

I have one of those alumni-network jobs now, so I spend effort to look like an ambitious, straight, white, cis, married woman.  Nothing to see here, employer, just another hard worker doing her job and trying to prove she wants a career (not just a job for maternity benefits). It's not even so far from the truth: plenty of people are happy to argue with me about whether I'm gay enough or far enough outside the gender binary to count as anything but.

I hear the comments the higher-ups in my company make, about women and about people of color and about anything that's outside of their upper-middle-class aesthetic, and mostly I put my head down. When I feel brave, I suggest we go out for Thai instead of steak and quietly explain that I was personally kind of uncomfortable when my boss's boss made that comment about how my co-worker should take her sweater off. I'm scared I'll risk my job, my paycheck, my home, the food on my table, if I say more.

I know I've sold out, but I don't know what else I could do that would be any better.  The world taught me that it expects me to behave in a certain way, present myself in a certain way, and that there will be consequences if I don't.

I behave.

*Actually, I think she wanted me to stop coming home with hickeys, period. I love you, Mom.