Forty Hours Straight
When Closets Are for Clothes was just starting out- when it was only a twinkle in our eyes- I felt like a fraud in a way. Here we were, screen-printing pride tee shirts out of our basement- while I was closeted myself. I was working full time at a small mortgage company. Forty hours a week, I pretended to be somebody else. I had convinced myself from the beginning that they wouldn’t accept me otherwise. This assumption was not without warrant, I had recently been fired for being openly gay. *Yes, you can still legally be fired in the state of Michigan for being LGBT.
Every morning, I woke up early to be sure I blended in with the rest of them. I had grown out my short hair, long enough for some pathetic excuse for pigtails. I started wearing dresses and painting my nails regularly. I traded in my wallet for a purse… it was that serious. I made this hurried transformation to prevent my coworkers from ever questioning my sexuality in the first place; because I know that I am a terrible liar. It’s strange because as a kid, I couldn’t tell the truth to save my life. Maybe somewhere down the line, I exceeded the limit for telling fibs; because all I’ve got left now is unfiltered honesty. Secrets aren’t something that I am capable of digesting, and word vomit seems to be a regular occurrence in my life.
Shamefully, lying by omission is an art form that I’ve mastered with grace. In this situation, I learned to avoid tough questions and eliminate the use of pronouns. When speaking of my girlfriend, she remained nameless. She was “my boo.” These cryptic conversations eventually lead to curiosity among coworkers. Never at any point did I directly tell untruths, (with the exception of one ridiculously huge lie). In my eyes, if you insist on telling tall tales, go big or go home. Get creative, if you’re going to be making shit up, at least make it interesting.
My first of many awkward encounters at the office was cringe worthy to say the least. A loan officer had noticed that I was wearing a Claddagh ring. He asked what the story was behind it and what the significance was. Eventually, this conversation lead to asking what my “significant others” name was. Yeah, he said significant other? Obviously he was on to me.
(When you’re in the business of keeping secrets, every question is an accusation).
Being the quick thinker that I am, I responded with the most violent case of projectile word vomit. Fear had taken over, as I temporarily lost control of my speech. Without even the slightest pause, I looked him in the eye and informed him that unfortunately, due to the circumstances, I could not tell him my significant others name because I was in the Secret Service. I think I may have been equally as shocked about the words that just spewed from my mouth. His lack of response to this fabrication was probably the best I could have hoped for. He said nothing. He walked away quietly with a slightly puzzled look, while I was left to sit with my thoughts. I don’t know why that was my go-to answer. If I was going to lie, I could have at least said something a little bit more believable, maybe along the lines of “Ben, my boyfriends name is Ben.” I can’t explain the things that happen to me most days. I have these moments, outbursts of extreme social awkwardness. I’ve just learned to roll with it. I’ve discovered if you’re confident enough in your weirdness, nobody will even question it.
I had often considered coming out at work, but was always waiting for “the right time.” I was looking for the perfect opportunity to casually slide “I love ladies, more than the average bear” into conversation. I never found the right time, because it did not exist. I knew that the longer I waited, the more awkward the conversation would be. Keeping secrets wasn’t something I was good at, and suddenly, I had been keeping one for almost two years. For the first time in my life, I was afraid to be myself. It was a feeling that I can’t describe, and one I hope to never experience again.
The first company Christmas party was a struggle. I knew that everyone would have a date, so going alone wasn’t really an option. I considered renting a boyfriend for the night, but that would have committed me to a whole chain of lies that I obviously wasn’t capable of producing. After discussing it with friends, I chose to bring my girlfriend, and introduce her as my best friend/roommate. The good ol’ roommate trick… because that’s not gay at all. The worst part about the situation was that I forced her to play the straight girl role with me. I’m not saying that either of us deserved an Oscar, but she was wearing high heels and lip gloss.
Of course there were a few slip-ups on my end. There was the photo strip incident, let’s talk about that. It was pouring rain one afternoon when a colleague rushed over to tell me that the windows were down in my car. After coming back inside, I ran to the bathroom to dry off. When I returned to my desk, I was surprised to find a photo strip of my girlfriend and I kissing. It was sitting on my desk, for all to see. Panic sank in as I wondered who it was that found it, and whether or not they showed anyone. The next few weeks were spent making up entire storylines in my head of how it actually played out.
As time passed, I was beginning to fear being myself outside of work. I started to worry about coworkers seeing me in public with my girlfriend. On my way to Ferndale Pride last year, I joked with a friend about how I hoped I wouldn’t end up on the news. Just my luck, my photo appeared in the Detroit Free Press photo gallery, wearing a shirt that said The Other Team. Of course that would happen to me. I remember being there and thinking about how silly it was to be at PRIDE, when I had no real pride of my own.
Towards the end of my time at the mortgage company, I slowly started dropping hints. It wasn’t even because I felt comfortable enough to do so; I just couldn’t keep it a secret anymore. It’s a lot of work to be anybody other than you. I went to last year’s Christmas party alone. I ended up nervously drinking shot after shot of Patron with my boss. At some point, a coworker offered me a ‘blow job’ shot, to which I responded “you know…blow jobs aren’t really my thing”. It was awkward for everybody. Obviously the Patron had disintegrated my filter. Secret Service guy ended up driving me home. I was told I did some gymnastics upon entry. After the Christmas party, my “Secret Santa” emailed me to apologize for getting me a gift card. She insisted that she was in a hurry, but promised she liked me a lot. She also casually mentioned in this email that she was not a lesbian. It’s always good to state things like that, you know… for the gay record. I’m not sure if she was hinting that she knew, or if she was just saying it… for the record, either way it made me nervous.
Looking back now, I realize the weight I was carrying, by keeping my personal life hidden. By constantly having to censor myself and filter the information I shared, I was slowly becoming isolated from my coworkers. Aside from that, it was messing with my confidence. I felt like I wasn’t good enough the way that I was, and that the only way to change it- was to be somebody else. I don’t want to be anybody else. I know now, that who I am is enough. Never again will I let the fear of rejection determine my pride. Being gay is one part of who I am, but there is so much to me than my sexual orientation.
Shortly after I came out to one of my co-workers, I was laid off for two weeks and then terminated, days before my birthday. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and consider it mere coincidence. They claimed it was because my computer had a virus, and they couldn’t afford to fix it. I could call it an unfortunate situation and feel bad for myself, or I could see it as a second chance. I told myself that wherever I ended up, I would be honest from the beginning.
In March I started working for a real estate company. Since then, I’ve been an open book with everyone. Some coworkers I added on Facebook, and let them figure it out on their own. There is an incredible sense of relief in knowing that I don’t have to hide anymore. I mean, I’m not prancing around the office wrapped in a rainbow flag or anything… but if people ask, I’m not telling them I’m in the Secret Service. Despite the initial awkwardness, telling the truth is so much easier than dodging questions and bending the truth.
Last week I came out to an older co-worker and it was probably one of the most unexpected reactions I’ve ever experienced. We were talking about break ups, and he had asked if I’ve ever been broken up with. I told him that it’s only happened once. He asked how “he” did it, so I took that opportunity and ran. I told him that he was a girl. He whisper shouted “whaaaat, you’re gaaay” followed by… “does anybody know?” Just by looking at him, I realized that his mind was blown. His brain basically exploded onto my desk. I told him that dudes weren’t really my thing. I didn’t know what direction this conversation was headed at this point, but I didn’t care. I said it with absolute confidence. All he really said after the initial shock of it all, was “you’re so much cooler now in my book.” If only everybody’s books read that way. He acted as if I told him something impressive, like I was a race car driver or something.
I’m not suggesting that everyone who is closeted at work should come in tomorrow with a megaphone and announce it to the world; actually I would strongly advise against that. I understand that our jobs are important. We live in a world where sometimes it isn’t an option to be out in the workplace. I would say to go about this situation cautiously. The information that you choose to share is entirely up to you. I am only writing from personal experience. I have been fortunate enough to finally work for a company that makes me feel safe enough to be myself. It is important to think about how deeply it affects your life by choosing to be out, or staying closeted in the work place. Forty hours straight- makes for a long week.