The delicate balancing act of showing people that my life isn’t totally defined by my sexual orientation
By: Abby Dees*/Special to TRT—
I often joke that I’m a professional gay. What I mean is that I have this-here regular LGBT column, I’ve written a book on communication about LGBT issues, and I’m a host on IMRU, the longest continually running LGBT-themed radio show in the country. I’m totally out, obviously, and presumably just as proud. With a few small exceptions, my public life is totally queer.
Except that I still get kind of embarrassed to tell straight people about it. I’m quick to point out that it just happens that I’m doing all this gay-themed stuff and that I’d really like to stretch out a bit and write about other things that are important to me, like the history of free speech law, or the Beatles. So when I tell people, “I’m a professional gay,” I’m saying it with a smile, a bit of irony, and absolutely no gravitas. I’m meaning, “I’m much more than a lesbian, really I am. I’m so chill about it that half the time I forget I’m gay. Please don’t think I’m one of those people who can’t get past it.” [pullquote]Except that I still get kind of embarrassed to tell straight people about it. [/pullquote]
Ugh. Now I’m ashamed of being ashamed.
As I sat down to write this week’s column, I got stuck scrutinizing this knee-jerk embarrassment and questioning my sense of pride – or lack thereof. Instead of writing about anything worthwhile, I detoured into flagellating myself for being a hypocrite and a bad, bad lesbian. And having accomplished nothing, I gave up and tuned into a Law and Order: SVU rerun instead. (May I briefly observe that Law and Order is like the ramen noodle package in the back of your cupboard? You’re hungry, nothing’s in the fridge except salsa and limp celery, and suddenly ramen noodles seem palatable.) It was a ghastly episode from earlier this year, all about pathologically somber, bland-attired, tortured lesbians protesting the patriarchy and who only know how to be angry. Not a wisecracker or Olivia party cruise habitué in the bunch – if you don’t count the unintentionally hilarious casting of Kathy Griffin as the closeted bisexual who hits on absolutely everyone she meets.
I shouldn’t be surprised. These are some seriously ingrained old tropes, going all the way back to the invention of media. I’m just amazed that no one whipped out a cigar and cracked a beer open with her teeth. While SVU researchers did somehow manage to dig out the apparently real existence of a small lesbian subgroup called “aggressives” (who knew? I didn’t, though I’m guessing that SVU isn’t really the best source of information on these badasses), they completely missed the boat when it came to portraying your more typical lesbian: lesbians who are concerned about our state of affairs in society AND whose lives aren’t completely ruled by this feeling. You know, three-dimensional people. We can even poke fun at ourselves. To wit: I’m a professional gay. It doesn’t pay much, if you were curious.
This was the medicine I needed. I realized that I’m not ashamed of being gay at all. Nor am I ashamed of anything I’ve written about it either, except the occasional typo (look closely – there might be one right about here). I’m just always aware that of this entrenched idea out there that lesbians, by definition, have massive chips on our shoulders about it, and therefore that our sexuality completely defines us. [pullquote]I realized that I’m not ashamed of being gay at all. Nor am I ashamed of anything I’ve written about it either…[/pullquote]
Where I tripped up was by confusing the fact that my personal identity is a comprised of lots of parts – including being a lesbian, as well as being a word wonk, Beatles geek and a lawyer – with thinking I needed to downplay my fabulous lesbian self. By contrast, I don’t feel inclined to downplay my word wonkiness because people don’t have seriously messed up and destructive stereotypes about how word wonks only ever care about Scrabble or that Beatles nuts will try to convert your children (which I will indeed try to do if given the chance). But I shouldn’t downplay any of it.
Sometimes, though, I admit that I feel ashamed about being a lawyer. Maybe it’s time for The Good Wife to start again.
*Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25-plus years. She can be reached through her website: queerquestionsstraighttalk.com.