Passing for Straight

My girlfriend and I went furniture shopping recently—mattress shopping, to be specific. It was the kind of financial and time commitment that made us both realize how old we are. After several post-college years of sleeping on other people’s donated mattresses, we had arrived at what seemed to be some kind of anticlimactic milestone.

After our first consultation, my girlfriend said to me, “I noticed you were playing it straight in there.”

I hadn’t expected to hear that, and it stung. But she was right. All through her conversation with the salesman, I hung back, reading sticker prices and giving non-committal responses whenever she asked what I thought. When the salesman asked her if she was going to need someone else’s opinion (in other words, was there a partner who would also need to approve of the mattress), she hesitated, glanced at me, and said “No.” When she asked me to test the samples with her, I laid on the far edge of each mattress; limbs tucked in to make myself smaller. My head stayed turned toward the ceiling. With my body like this, there was no possibility of touching or even looking at her. I wanted it to appear like the thought of any contact between us on a bed would never even occur to me. I did not want this salesman, friendly as he seemed, to realize he was selling to a gay couple.

So yes, I suppose I was playing it straight.

This isn’t something that I, as a queer woman, am happy about. It’s certainly not ideal. I felt guilty afterward, like I had betrayed my girlfriend on some level. I’m sure others would even take offense to this decision. As we push for greater recognition and legitimacy, sometimes it feels as if we are expected to wear our sexualities on our sleeves.

There is an insidious misconception I’ve seen creeping around many social networking and media sites over the past couple of years that queer people in 21st century America have nothing to lose by being out. It’s true that we are seeing more social progress. It’s true that we have gained a great deal in the past decade especially. But this misconception paints us all as a monolithic community with the same experiences, backgrounds, privileges, and fears. Due to such beliefs, I’ve seen other queer people denigrated for not being the ideal spokespeople of loud and proud queerness. The fact that there has even been debate about whether or not queer celebrities are “obligated” to make their sexuality public evidences that.

On one hand, playing it straight may seem to give heteronormative society what it wants: queer women rendered invisible and voiceless. I certainly understand this viewpoint. But on the other hand, it can also seem like a viable, and at times necessary, evil.

For me, playing it straight becomes a safe option when money and power are involved. I grew up in a rural, economically depressed area where many people struggle to meet their basic needs. The state was an employment-at-will state, meaning that employers could legally dismiss an employee without cause. Combine those factors with the sociopolitical conservatism that so often has a stranglehold on such places and you can imagine how easily a queer woman can find herself unable to keep a roof over her head because someone objects to her identity.

I have seen protective laws ignored when it comes to LGBT people. I have seen sellers raise prices because of a customer’s ethnic or sexual identity and gender expression. These are images that have stayed with me years after I moved away from home. Lesbian author Dorothy Allison and other queer folk from rural, depressed areas have written eloquently on the legacy of the home and how it influences our relationships with the rest of the world.

I live in New York now, where people express disbelief that I still feel uncomfortable (or even unsafe) acknowledging my sexuality unless I know I am surrounded by fellow LGBT folk. When I encounter these people, I want to tell them that I may be in New York, but it is not my home. Home is where I learned that sometimes, you have to keep your head down. You have to watch the numbers being entered into the machine. You have to wait until the ink is dry. You have to wait until you know whether or not the people around you might want to harm you, whether physically, emotionally, or by removing your means of survival. Only afterward can you be let your guard down.

I played it straight. I felt bad about it when my girlfriend acknowledged it. But I also didn’t want us to get screwed over on the cost of a mattress because of who would be sleeping on it. I have no idea whether or not the salesman would have done that, but it wasn’t a chance I wanted to take.

There are other reasons LGBT people play it straight in this day and age, even in places where same-sex marriage is legal and accordingly the straight and/or inexperienced presume It All Got Better. Not every queer person has a supportive family or social network, and some aren’t yet ready to lose that. Some who are usually open about their own sexuality play it straight out of respect for partners who can’t be. Some bisexual people in opposite-sex relationships may feel their partner wouldn’t understand. Some may not feel welcome even in LGBT communities. It isn’t an ideal choice, but it’s one that some feel they have to make.

In an era in which we push for more openness and recognition, is it unethical to play it straight in everyday situations? I don’t think there’s really a clear answer, but I lean heavily toward “no.” Things are easier now for many of us than they were years ago, but they’re nowhere near perfect. Even simple interactions can be a minefield when relationships, finances, jobs, or even safety are at stake. We still have to negotiate with others and with ourselves.

I feel a little guilty about my decision that day, but I’m not losing any sleep over it. The mattress is actually quite nice.