Coming Out at Work, An Introductory Queer Library, and Being “Queer Enough”

by Lindsay Miller

I’m a college student about to be an RN and I work in a bar. It’s difficult when men flirt with me — the regulars like me, but there’s times where I’ve had bitter men say to other customers at the bar that my problem is that I don’t like men and don’t waste their time tipping me well. Femme queer-invisibility is a real thing in my workplace. I should be able to be an out lesbian at my future employment, but when working for so many people in a continuously changing environment, I almost wonder if I should just remain a “liar,” stay closeted and just keep my distance from my co-workers.

Dear Men of the World: A tip is something you provide to a customer-service worker in exchange for good service! It is not a down payment on a future sex-for-money arrangement! If you tip bartenders better or worse depending on how likely you think they are to sleep with you, congratulations on being a human-sized, ambulatory pile of trash!

Unfortunately, you can’t control whether the Trash People come into your place of employment, so you have to decide whether being out all the time is worth the trade-off in terms of your income. Being in the closet at work doesn’t make you a liar; withholding personal facts from people who would be likely to use them against you is morally and karmically neutral, so don’t worry, your integrity is totally safe. And I know really well that having to come out over and over again to each new person you meet can be goddamn exhausting. I would be hesitant to advise you to pass yourself off as hetero at work if you were planning to stay there indefinitely, because that can get really stressful in its own right, but if you know that you’re only here until you get your first nursing job, it might be easier to wait to come out until you’re in a more stable long-term position.

That said, if you feel like you need to be out RIGHT NOW or your head will explode, trust your instincts! Coming out, like so many big decisions in life, is ultimately a question of, “Will the consequences of doing this thing outweigh the consequences of not doing this thing?” And when it comes to your own life, no one can answer that but you. If it’s worth it, you’ll know. (But bear in mind that you don’t have to be out to shut down sleazy dudes who hit on you while you’re working. Straight girls aren’t into that shit either.)

While I’ve known I liked girls since early childhood, have been in a long term relationship with a woman, and have always avoided explicitly identifying myself as straight, I still spent the last eight years dating increasingly conservative men and telling myself I just didn’t like making big declarations, when in fact I was taking pains not to blow my cover to anyone who assumed I was straight (which is most people). In the meantime, I gave up on dating women because my “discretion” required one to fall out of the sky and into my lap for anything to happen. This more or less happened recently, and was surprising enough to wake me up.

Because I had assumed that I was 100 percent OK with my identity despite all clues to the contrary, I skipped that whole thing where you go on a literary/ cinematic/ artistic/ musical quest for self-recognition. Although I definitely perk up when a well-written queer character or subplot appears in something I’m reading, I’ve never gone looking for this stuff specifically. But now I really want to! I am a Books Person specifically and an Arts Person generally, and this type of journey feels very necessary to my journey overall.

But there is so much out there! Where to start? Will I have to watch a lot of bad movies and throw a lot of books across the room, or is there some way to avoid that? What must I absolutely read and watch to avoid future embarrassment and cluelessness? I’m working on the whole out-of-the-closet-in-real-life side of things, but I would like my bookshelf to begin reflecting this change as well.

PS: I really like Helen Oyeyemi, Jesmyn Ward, Hisham Matar, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I did not like But I’m a Cheerleader, but did like Mosquita y Mari.

First of all, congrats on coming to terms with your identity — that’s a big step and it’s rad and I’m proud of you!

Second of all, I’m afraid this is a journey you’ll have to take yourself; I cannot guide you. For one thing, if you didn’t like But I’m a Cheerleader then we obviously have fundamental, irreconcilable differences and there is no way I can understand your worldview well enough to recommend books or movies you would like. Which is fine! It takes all kinds, that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla, etc., etc. — although if you do not enjoy ’90s soft-butch Clea Duval, consider asking your doctor whether you might be a robot.

But for another, more important thing, reading a bunch of different things is crucial to figuring out what you want from your queer literature. You’re gonna need to read books you love and books you hate and books that confuse you and books that piss you off and books that are mostly boring except for one amazing, sparkling sentence that completely re-orients your relationship with yourself and the world. You’re gonna need to be disappointed by how hard it is to find queer lit at all, let alone queer lit with diverse characters and storylines, because that’s part of the struggle and everyone has to go through it. Plus, a love-hate relationship with queer media artifacts is a key building block for queer friendships and community. Someday you’ll be at a queer get-together where you don’t know a soul, and on that day the sentence, “So how much do you hate the last season of The L Word?” is going to be your icebreaker and best friend.

Read Rubyfruit Jungle and Nightwood and Stone Butch Blues and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Tipping the Velvet and Ali Smith and James Baldwin and Richard Siken and Michelle Tea and Adrienne Rich. Read Nevada by Imogen Binnie and Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Watch I Can’t Think Straight and Saving Face and The Itty Bitty Titty Committee and the fourth season of Buffy. Or don’t! I’m just listing things I’ve liked or found interesting or been productively irritated by. None of these things are requirements for being a grown-ass queer person in the world (confession: I’ve never read The Well of Loneliness or The Price of Salt).

Follow blogs like Bisexual Books and The Lesbrary. Find a writer you like and read their interviews to discover who influenced them, and then go read all of those people. Take recommendations from friends you trust. Start a book club that only reads queer writers. Wander through the library and pick up books you’ve never heard of. Just don’t try to skip to the end, where you know everything worth knowing and have read everything worth reading, because getting there is the fun part, no matter how many books you have to throw at walls along the way.

Hello! I’m a cis lady in my mid-twenties who’s always dated cis men — I was a serial monogamist from high school until my current relationship, which is nonmonogamous but all my current partners are cis men. So, like, the record shows I’m pretty straight, but I’m definitely attracted to all genders — this is something I’ve only recently figured out. I’d love to date some queer folks but I’m nervous about trying to get out there because a) I never have and new things are hard; and b) I’m worried that my being in a heterosexual, serious relationship is probably a turn-off for lots of people I’d be into. I realize that will happen when it happens, but, here’s my question: Am I supposed to come out? My partners and my closest friends know that I’m not only attracted to men, but is it worth making a big announcement or going out of my way to have that conversation with other people I care about? One of my concerns is that I don’t feel like I can “claim” a queer identity since I experience nothing but straight privilege and I always have, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never been Out-out. I just have a huge not-queer-enough complex, but dammit, I’m at least a little bit there. I also think nonmonogamy is important enough to me that I want to invite conversations about it, but also maybe not. I feel like I could go either way and I’m not sure what either option really means. I guess that’s what advice columns are for?

If you want to date and/ or sleep with women, you’re gonna have to be at least a little bit out. Most gay/ bi/ queer chicks will not make a move on a woman we think is straight, because we got that shit out of our system in high school and it was AGONIZING and we will never feel up to it again. And if you try to hit on a girl who thinks you’re straight, she is likely to assume that you’re just one of those naturally flirty people and that you don’t mean anything by it.

So, being out, at least in situation where you’re trying to get laid, is an important step. Bi invisibility is an annoying but apparently inescapable cultural default, so if people know you have a boyfriend, they are absolutely going to assume you’re straight. You can decide when the time is right to disclose to your close friends and family (via Serious Conversation, social media, or skywriters — whatever feels best to you), but even after you’re officially “out,” or even if you decide you want to stay mostly in, you’re still going to have to bring up your orientation periodically to new people, especially ones you think are cute. You’ll also have to get used to coming out as non-monogamous, since exclusivity is another thing people will assume if they know about your relationship. Neither of these things has to be a major announcement — you can just mention it casually if it comes up in conversation, and you don’t have to answer follow-up questions if you don’t want to.

Finally, try to stop worrying about whether you’re Queer Enough. You have plenty of things to worry about (is that cute person into me? Are they queer? Are they open to non-monogamy? Do they snore, and if so, is it a cute little whistle-snore or a loud trying-to-start-a-snowmobile-snore that will completely fuck up my REM cycle?) without spending your valuable time second-guessing your entirely legitimate sexuality and experience. If you’re attracted to people of multiple genders, you’re definitely Queer Enough — there is no further litmus test. Welcome to the club!

As a trans person, when do I “come out” to my date?

There are two basic schools of thought on when you should reveal sensitive personal information to a new romantic prospect. One side holds that you should wait until the relationship has progressed a bit, give the other person a chance to know and get attached to you before they learn anything that could be off-putting. This way, they’ll become so enamored of your loveliness that they’ll overlook the issue and stick around.

On the other hand, there’s the train of thought that goes: If someone sees an aspect of your life as a dealbreaker, better to get that shit out of the way early, so you don’t waste a bunch of time on anyone who’s unworthy of your attention and affection. This is where I come down. It’s not your job to be somebody’s educational experience, so be up front about your gender history and weed out anybody who’s not ready to be cool about it. There are a LOT of hot, smart, funny, interesting folks out there who have zero problem dating trans people; if your date isn’t one of them, save yourself the trouble and find someone who is.

One way to address this is to be extremely, publicly out — like the kind of out where you blog about trans issues under your real name — so out that the most cursory pre-date Google or casual discussion of you with mutual acquaintances reveals your trans status. That way, everyone will have a general idea of what’s up before you even get to the dinner-and-a-movie stage, and anyone who has a problem with it will just self-select out of your dating pool. Of course, this isn’t ideal if you don’t want to be out to your friends, coworkers, etc. If you’re not comfortable with that level of disclosure, addressing it on a case-by-case basis works too — just remember that sooner is better than later. If they get weird about it, well, better to be home early watching Bones reruns in your jammies than having overpriced drinks with some transphobic miscreant.

As a caveat, obviously you shouldn’t come out to anyone who you think might have a dramatically negative reaction (violence, vitriol, outing you against your will), but presumably if you thought someone had that kind of behavior in them, you wouldn’t have invited them for sushi in the first place. Sushi is sacred and should only be shared with the deserving.

Previously: Logan Echolls Syndrome, Cohabitation Power Politics, and The Girlfriend Label

Lindsay King-Miller is also on Twitter, and you can peruse the AAQC archive here. Do you have a question for her?