Last year, I was leaning on my cubicle wall, talking with a coworker; she had just come back from lunch, and she seemed really agitated about something.
She pointed at the bulky, black frames she was wearing and asked me, "Are these some kind of code for something? Do...certain people...wear these?"
"What do you mean?" I asked her.
"Like, if you wear these glasses, do people think you're...gay?"
At this point, I was totally confused.
"Um—not that I know of. I think those hipster glasses are usually worn by people who are liberal-minded, so maybe there's crossover there with the LGBT community, but I've never heard of them being worn specifically by gay people."
"Oh. I was wondering—because this lady was hitting on me when I was at the store and just...ew."
She made a face like she smelled sewage and shook her head. I'm sure my expression was fixed on "politely puzzled", but on the inside I was burning with anger. She continued on:
"I just don't like people like that. It's fine—they can do whatever they want—but I don't want them around me. One time I went to a spa for a massage, but then I saw the lady who was gonna work on me. Nuh-unh. I don't want someone like that touching all over me."
I tried to inject some logic into the conversation (without really revealing what side I was on) by saying, "Well, I mean, you like men. Would you let a straight man give you a massage?"
She paused, then said, "I don't know."
I sincerely hope that I gave her something to think about that day—something that questioned the basis of her own fear and prejudice. But since I never saw her wear those glasses again, it's probably a good thing that she doesn't know I'm pansexual (i.e. someone whose sexual preference can include a partner of any biological sex, gender, or gender identity).
Obviously, this was not the first time I had run into prejudice aimed at sexual orientation. One of my childhood friends, Gwen*, first came out to me when we were both seventh graders at our tiny, southern middle school. I remember at the time feeling really special that I knew someone who was different (which was a little silly, in retrospect). I soon found out—when Gwen started dating her first girlfriend in eighth grade—that not everyone felt that way. Gwen was careful enough to date a girl from another school, but rumors have a way of taking on a life of their own; by freshman year of high school, the whole school seemed to know. It was kind of like an open secret: denigrating messages written in the textbooks, sideways looks paired with whispering behind hands and obvious, deliberate avoidance. Some people were bolder about it. I can remember at least one person who asked me if I was gay. Huh...? Why did she think that? Well, she'd seen me hanging out with Gwen. I scoffed at her and told her being gay isn't contagious, and some people pick friends for reasons other than who they make out with. There were only a few gay people at my school, and I was friends with all of them—and I remember all of them being singled out, bullied or ostracized in one way or another.
I suspect that witnessing all that contempt for homosexuals growing up was at least partly why it took me so long to admit to myself that I was bisexual (until later choosing the label "pansexual"). I remember experiencing my first female crush when I was nine, watching the 90s cartoon version of Catwoman prowl around on rooftops; I never examined it deeply enough to consider what it meant, but it was there. When Gwen came out to me, and it really clicked for the first time that being gay was a thing, I remembered that crush. Shortly after, at a sleepover at Gwen's, I remember being excited at the thought that she might try to kiss me or something. Then I started getting worried. Was I gay? Well, no, I couldn't be. I had tons of crushes on boys. It must have been that I liked Gwen, but didn't like her.
But as I went through high school and early college, those feelings didn't go away. As I got older, my sexual feelings grew stronger, for boys and girls. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but the reason those feelings were scary was because it would mean a change to my identity. I knew by fifteen that bisexuality existed, but my sense of self was only just barely formed—I don't think I could handle the idea of it evolving again, especially in such a hostile environment. For a long time, I convinced myself that the feelings were just the result of base urges: I love sex, so I'm just really open to having sex with anyone. Even then, I only told a few people that I had these feelings. Eventually, when I was nineteen, and after changing a lot as a person, I finally got real with myself. You're bisexual, dummy. Just be yourself, and fuck what anyone else thinks. I didn't want to make some kind of spectacle out of my realization, so I only told a few people; I told my boyfriend at the time, and I told a few of my closest friends (one of whom was also bi).
It was after that when it dawned on me that I really wasn't all that afraid of being judged or ostracized. In fact, as a young teen, I was pretty intentionally counterculture and didn't have a lot of friends because of it. Instead, I was really more afraid of being pigeon-holed. I didn't want people to take one part of my identity and stereotype me with it. A bisexual female? She probably dresses butch. She'll probably sleep with anyone. She probably just wants attention. She probably likes one gender more than the other. She's probably horny all the time. As it turns out, my fears have only been about half-realized: sometimes I've been treated that way and sometimes I haven't. There was the one time my boyfriend mentioned my bisexuality to a friend of his as a way to brag. In contrast, when I told my older sister, she just said, "Oh. Okay, that's cool;" it wasn't really relevant to our conversations after that, so it hasn't come up again. On the whole, I haven't had to fret about it too much.
Transitioning from the college atmosphere to a work environment, however, brought worries to my mind that I had never considered before. It was no longer about the concern of being defined by one label and nothing else or the possibility that some people might avoid me on campus. I realized that being out at work might have a tangible, detrimental effect on my work life. For the first time since high school, I was genuinely afraid about people finding out I wasn't straight. Was I worried that people would intentionally treat me differently? Well, considering that at both of the corporate jobs I've had, the employees have been led in prayer at some of our work functions (and religious folks aren't always cool with the LGBT spectrum), yeah, that was something of a concern. But I was also worried that people would think less of me and subconsciously hinder me because of it. Our biases are more insidious than we think they are. Even someone who prides themselves on being "tolerant" might wind up picking a straight applicant for a promotion over a pansexual one, simply because they've deeply internalized their sense of discomfort.
Now, at my current job, I still haven't told anyone I'm pansexual. Though I previously had fleeting thoughts of coming out to a few people, after the woman with the hipster glasses, they were summarily extinguished. To be sure, people are more accepting of homosexuality in America nowadays, but it's not like the victory bells are sounding yet. And if people can't accept something as simple as same-sex attraction, how the hell am I supposed to explain pansexuality? It would be uncomfortable at best and disastrous at worst. Even if I was naive (or brave) enough to try, there would be at least a few people who would look down on me. I'm pretty lucky that I have a boyfriend and pass as straight. One of the women I work with is a lesbian; she's stocky, always wears pants, and has short hair and piercings. As I watch her walk through the corridors amidst whispers and backward glances, I'm reminded of Gwen. My insides are burning again—but this time with shame and guilt that I take advantage of a privilege she doesn't have.
Sometimes my coworkers will suggest that we all hang out one day after work: get a beer, go bowling, go to dinner. I always try to find an excuse. I feel like I can't get truly relaxed with people who aren't my friends—and they just don't qualify as friends. How can they? They don't even know who I am. Not really.
*I have changed her name as a precaution