I’ve written before about the euphemizing (euphemization? Neither of these appear to be actual words) of queer relationships–how it marginalizes us, how it feels when straight friends or family do it to us. But lately I’ve been thinking about the dynamics at play when we euphemize ourselves versus when others euphemize us.
What’s at play when I refer to my girlfriend as merely my friend?
For me, this is just one more manifestation of the way I, as a queer person, am constantly negotiating a largely homophobic and heterosexist (not to mention transphobic and cissexist) world. Even without realizing it, I’m assessing the potential risks of every situation. Is it safe to hold hands with my girlfriend on this street? If this co-worker knows I’m queer, will that change the climate of my workplace? Do my career prospects suffer if potential employees can’t decide whether I’m male or female?
The stakes range from very minor to very serious. I can’t say that I’ve ever personally felt like my life was in danger, but make no mistake–queer and trans people all around the world are assessing situations where the risks include assault and death. I’m lucky; the worst threat I usually face is a security guard getting involved in my bathroom routine.
Still, sometimes I decide the risk isn’t worth it. I decide I’m headed out of town to visit a friend. I decide not to bring up my girlfriend in conversations with co-workers, even as they’re all mentioning their (heterosexual) spouses. I never feel great about these decisions–in fact, most of the time I feel extraordinarily guilty and cowardly. But I make them, and I have to live with them.
So how do the straight, cis people in our lives feel when they’re making these same decisions on our behalf?
More to the point–what is your dad, or your neighbor, or your co-worker negotiating when he or she decides to refer to your partner as your friend or roommate?
Some of these people are certainly our allies. They are thinking of the same stakes that weigh heavily on our own minds. Do these people know she’s queer? I don’t want to screw anything up for her at work, so I’ll hedge. It’s not safe here to tell them about his boyfriend–I just have to lie until we can get out of here. They may sometimes get things wrong, and sometimes they might even err on the side of caution more than we do, but they don’t offer up these euphemisms thoughtlessly. They choose their words with care, and afterward they ask us about them. They may even apologize before we have a chance to bring it up.
But not all of those who euphemize us have our best interests forefront in mind.
So if a straight, cis person in my life refers to my “friend,” what kind of stakes are at play? Is he ashamed of my relationship? Is acknowledging a queer relationship taboo around here? Does she not want her friends to know? Have they decided I’m not in a real relationship?