BY ERICA PEPLIN
When my straight, male boss mocked a gay man’s voice, I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t mean any harm but his imitation made me uncomfortable. I wanted to say something but I felt like I couldn’t. He was my superior and correcting him would have been awkward. I said nothing and smiled politely. When I was back at my desk, I felt guilty, like I was turning my back on the whole LGBTQ community and Tyra Banks is in the back of my head saying, "I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!"
I spent four years working at large corporations and I learned that the corporate office is a very straight place. There were no dykes in pricing, no lezbos in marketing and no butches in branded content. I was only queer woman in the office and it was kind of weird.
It starts with the dress code. The women in my office dressed like Sheryl Sandberg Barbie. They had nice skirts and pretty blouses and an endless collection of statement necklaces. As someone who has to set a reminder to brush her hair, these women amazed me. Next to their manicured nails and shiny bracelets, I probably looked like a pumpkin in a wig. Most days I didn’t worry about it but sometimes I wondered if HR was going to ask me to change my clothes. I imagined they might receive complaints and they would call and tell me to dress like a proper businesswoman. Or maybe they would say nothing and just email me coupons to Ann Taylor Loft, to drop a hint.
During lunch, that precious window when people talked about things that didn’t fit into Excel spreadsheets, I was forced to listen to a lot of conversations about marriage. If my straight coworkers weren’t planning their own weddings, they were complaining about someone else’s. I learned about floral arrangements, ring sizes and what to wear to a bachelorette party in the Hamptons. As interesting as these conversations could be, I didn’t have much to contribute. My queer friends and I never talk about marriage. It was off-limits for most of our lives, so I guess we’re not that into it.
Most people didn’t ask about my personal life because they didn’t want to seem rude. They were trying to respect my privacy and I get it. Sexuality is personal and maybe we’re better off not talking about it. But there were also a few brave souls who brought up sexuality over lunch. They were usually the very straight women, secure enough in their own sexuality to feel comfortable asking about mine. "How can you tell if a girl is gay?" "Who pays for who?" "Did you tell your parents?" Some queer people don’t like being asked questions like this because it makes them feel like a freak but I don’t mind. My coworker’s curiosity isn’t cruel. They’re trying to learn.
There’s a statistic somewhere that says most married couples meet their spouses at work and I have long ago accepted that such a statistic will never apply to me. The corporate office is a terrible dating pool for a queer. If I developed a crush on a female coworker, it was always hopeless. She has zero interest in me and no matter how bi-curious she might seem, I’m willing to bet she has a boyfriend.
Queerness poses a special problem in the office because it’s about more than just being different. It stands as a disruption to a complacent "normal" that’s all too filled with sexist, racist or classist underpinnings. The corporate workplace seems to be predicated on a uniformity of style and sense of productivity. Does success in that corporate realm come at the expense of queerness?
While it would have been nice to have queer women around, I didn’t need them. The corporate office can be an alienating place for anyone. I’m sure we all had days where we felt like no one understands us. I couldn’t always gush about Carol or gossip about Ellen Page but I made some straight friends, and I know exactly what to wear to a bachelorette party in The Hamptons.
Erica Peplin is a queer writer from Detroit. She has been published by McSweeney’s, Autostraddle and The Brooklyn Rail. You can find more of her work at ericapeplin.com.