What’s at Stake?

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?

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5 Responses to What’s at Stake?

  1. Megan Honig says:

    Oh, wow, do I think about this stuff all the time. It’s particularly tricky when the coworkers mention their heterosexual spouses in ways that assume that their experiences and assumptions about how relationships work are universal. I have nontraditional relationships, so even mentioning a girlfriend feels like opening the door to faulty assumptions. I often choose not to say anything at all–but that just makes me feel even more isolated, and I wish there were a better way.

    Then there was the time I was dating a genderqueer person who used the pronoun “they.” I quickly learned to stop mentioning them to people who weren’t politicized around genderqueer stuff–they all assumed I was “euphemizing” my relationship with a woman (and when I tried to explain, was told that my partner was just being a “diva” and should just “admit” their “real” gender).

    So… I hear you on this? No idea what the answer is though. Total openness doesn’t always feel like an option…

  2. pandanose says:

    I also find myself going overboard in the other direction sometimes–if I suspect a co-worker might be queer, I either drop heavy hints or just out myself in a really heavy-handed way. (Which I guess could be super annoying, but the feeling of ZOMG I MIGHT NOT BE THE ONLY ONE can be so intense in some settings I don’t blame anybody for being desperate for allies. Hopefully other people give me the same benefit of the doubt!)

  3. human says:

    This kind of thing was so invisible to me, as a straight-identified person, until I moved in with someone who is in a same-sex relationship. I would mention “my roommate’s girlfriend” in conversation and all of a sudden people were mentioning their own same-sex relationships to me left and right, whereas that just had not happened to me before. It was a bit of a shock to realize that people had clearly felt the need to hide their relationships from me, not because I’d displayed any hostility to the idea but just because I hadn’t actively done or said something to show that I don’t care if people are gay.

    As for the obscuring part – my roommate is pretty open about her relationship, so I always followed her lead. But I know other people who are not necessarily as open with strangers and that gets weird. I just try to follow their lead, but I’m not going to out them with them standing there; I’ll let them do it. But it leads to some awkward situations.

    Like if I’m with a friend who is gay in a group of people who I know but he doesn’t – and someone says something obnoxiously homophobic. This happened. I wanted to tell them to stuff it, but I was worried that if I made a big deal out of it they would put two and two together and it would result in a very uncomfortable situation for him. So it’s hard to figure out what to do in that situation.

    And it’s so easy to just coast along wrapped in clouds of straight privilege. It’s harder to break out of that in a meaningful way, when you aren’t forced to by circumstances.

  4. pandanose says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if people could combat homophobia just because they’re reasonable human beings, without the assumption that calling people on their shit means a) you’re queer or b) you have a friend/relative/dogwalker who’s queer? Sigh.

  5. human says:

    Wouldn’t it? Maybe we should all wear signs: “I don’t really care who you’re sleeping with.” Once enough people do it there’d be a certain amount of social pressure ….

    Ah well one can dream, right?

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