Identity / Life

Passing As Straight

passing as straightA couple of years ago, my friends gave me a t-shirt that says “I Love My Portuguese Husband.” While my partner is from Portugal, she is not a man and definitely not my husband, but I wear the shirt fairly often because it is one of the softest and most comfortable t-shirts that I own, and every time I wear it I wonder if by wearing a shirt declaring my love for my husband, I will pass as straight.

With my short hair and androgynous style, I have rarely passed as a lover of men except for that one time someone yelled “faggot” at me from a passing car and that is obviously not the same as passing for a heterosexual woman who loves men. I’ve been called “dyke” enough times to feel fairly certain that I give off Big Queer Vibes.

I do think having children has changed how people read me at times. When I was pregnant, I would walk through downtown Minneapolis on my lunch break and wonder if a single person saw me and thought, “Oh look! A pregnant lesbian!” Not that I wanted to feel like the lesbian llama in the petting zoo, but I didn’t want my identity to be erased either. I got the feeling that my pregnant belly and the ring on my finger cancelled out the short hair and cargo pants. Or maybe the guy at the sub shop who repeatedly hit on me simply had a very specific fetish involving pregnant lesbians. When I’m out with my kids but without my partner, I’m sure there are times when people assume I’m straight because the socially ingrained assumption that queer people don’t have kids remains strong. I have even made that same assumption about others only to be proven wrong. It seems that children wreak havoc on gaydar, among other things.

But, when I am out in the world alone, I feel conspicuously queer.

A few weeks ago, I went to Target wearing my “I Love My Portuguese Husband” shirt and was standing near the pharmacy waiting for a prescription when an elderly man approached me and said excitedly, “Your husband is from Portugal?” He was adorably earnest, and suddenly I felt like a complete jerk for wearing a shirt that was misleading.

I could have explained that I didn’t actually have a husband but I imagined the conversation going something like this: Me: I don’t actually have a husband.

Praya Earnest Elderly Man: Oh, I’m sorry. Did he pass away?

Me: No.

Earnest Elderly Man: Oh. Divorce?

Me: No.

Earnest Elderly Man: Oh. Did you get the shirt at the thrift store?

Me: No, my friend gave it to me.

Earnest Elderly Man: Oh. Does your friend have a Portuguese husband?

Me: No.

Earnest Elderly Man slowly backs away

So, rather than look like a fool or make him feel like one, I played along and said, “Yes. My husband is from Portugal.” He was thrilled about this because he was very interested in Brazil and the Portuguese language and loved meeting people from other countries or, in my case, people married to people from other countries.

Earnest Elderly Man: Where did you meet him?

Me: I met him at university. A friend introduced us.

Earnest Elderly Man: That’s so nice. What does he do?

Me: Well, he works in public health.

Earnest Elderly Man: What is his educational background?

Me: He has a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics.

Earnest Elderly Man: How wonderful! 

It didn’t feel wonderful at all. First of all, I have never played the pronoun game because as soon as I realized I was a lesbian, I blurted it out to every single person in my life. Secondly, I was a big fat liar, and he seemed like a genuinely nice man, a little too curious maybe, but still nice. I was so thankful when the pharmacist called my name and we had to part ways because I didn’t know how much longer I could make small talk about my husband.

That day, I learned that if you wear a shirt that mentions your husband, people are going to assume you have a husband no matter what you look like and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. In my 20s or even 30s, I would have corrected the Earnest Elderly Man because I was evangelical about visibility. But in that moment, in my 40s, I cared more about connecting with a kind stranger than making a point – maybe because attitudes are changing in regards to gender and sexual orientation or maybe because I’m getting older and have realized that how I see myself is more important than how others see me.

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  1. Ugh. I have had this conversation about my ‘husband’ more times than I can count. Always in a medical setting too, but in my case I’m the doctor, talking w/ my patient.

    It certainly happens more now that they want to hear about my child, and her co-parent, which in their worldview surely must be a husband. I have had a few really refreshing questions about whether my daughter has 2 moms or a mom & a dad. I don’t think it’s because I present particularly queer, but I have been in the habit of playing the pronoun game & speaking of my ‘partner’, so the astute patients can maybe pick up on that.

    This is becoming a huge comment, which seems appropriate, as this is a huge dilemma for me. On the one hand, who I am am/love is generally not pertinent to my patient’s medical care (& for some I fear that knowledge could undermine our therapeutic relationship). But I also know that hearts & minds can change on the issue when people realize they know someone is gay. So what to do? Any other medical providers out there have advice of thoughts about what you do?

    Funny thing is, I am probably more likely to tell a stranger about my kid’s other mom than volunteer that to a patient.

    • Well, you are in a completely different situation because of the need for professional boundaries. As a social worker, I never got personal and avoided the discussion whenever possible.

  2. Suzy Soro (@HotComesToDie) says:

    Before I went to India my male Indian acct in the US said to make sure never to mention I wasn’t married, and more importantly, didn’t have children. Naturally I forgot and the first Indian person who asked me, I answered No to both questions. Then: Did they die?

    I forgot the second time as well. Then: Pitiful looks.

    Finally I remembered.

  3. Suzy Soro (@HotComesToDie) says:

    I had a business partner for 8 years and technically, we still are. She’s a she. I was used to saying, “My partner and I” until the day, many, many years ago, when out gay people started referring to their s.o.’s as partners. So the next time I mentioned it, someone said, “I didn’t realize you were gay.”

  4. I could write a book about the complications of passing and how it’s changed over the years, but you helped me think about it a little more easily. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Thought provoking, as always … but this one made today worthwhile, “a very specific fetish involving pregnant lesbians. “

  6. The other day we were getting gas in our car and Jenny went in to pay. In the short time she was in the store, the very friendly cashier asked her, “Is that your sister or your friend?” whilst nodding outside towards me. WHY DO YOU CARE, SIR?
    I admire that you were kind to that gentleman and engaged with him how you did. I need to practice that.

    • Ha! When I had knee surgery when I was but a wee lass of 21 and newly out, my girlfriend at the time was at the hospital with me and the nurse asked if we were sisters. We said, “Uh no.” She said, “Oh you just seem so close.” HA HA. We didn’t say anything because it was Iowa in 1990 and my mother was there and not pleased at all.

  7. I guess people have gaydar. I don’t and I know people both straight and gay who defy stereotypes. I have a social worker friend who wears high heels and lipstick every day, has two kids and has been married to her wife for twenty years. I have another friend who had had three male husbands and five kids and is frequently mistaken for s man because of her buzz cut, ever present jeans and flannel shirts. We are all more interesting than our outside packaging. BYW, I love your hair and I (the twice married to men mother of four) am going to show your pic to my hair dresser.

  8. The point is that you are beautiful in your gray t-shirt and little old men are trying to pick you up. 🙂

  9. Sometimes it is just nice to talk to someone and totally natural to not want to tell your life’s story. I think enjoying the moment is nice. I live abroad and so my accent gives me away EVERY time but sometimes I would just like to “pass”, so that I don’t get the inevitable follow up questions. I truly hope that people do listen to you when you do want to talk about your life because you give it a very sincere voice.

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