Hidden Agenda

22 01 2010

My viola professor in college always talked about his housemate. A good looking 30-something year old man with a same-sex roommate can only mean one thing. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just come out and say it. It was obvious. Everyone knew. Perfectly manicured nails and effeminate gestures. Why pretend otherwise? Because it was 1994, and we lived in Western Michigan. It would be another 3 years before Ellen came out of the closet and before the lesbian scene on Xena Warrior Princess. And 10 years before we would be all deemed lepers and have same sex marriage and domestic partnerships banned in the state of Michigan.

Back then I didn’t understand that it was different being out at work verses being out with friends at college. When you get into a profession, there’s more to lose. You want to be respected by your coworkers and trusted by your clients. If you’re perceived as being gay that can will negatively effect people’s perceptions of you and your work.

When I started at the hospital in 1999, I wasn’t out. At first I was the young professional with the 3-tone spiky hair and the hole in my nose. I didn’t start wearing my nose piercing for another 5 years. I was young enough that having a roommate wasn’t a red flag for queerness. And for my patients, I was whatever they needed me to be—that conservative Christian nurse administering to their needs.

But when my “roommate” died, I had difficulty explaining it to my coworkers. I was devastated. I couldn’t even call into to work, because I would start bawling as soon as I tried to explain. My friend called in for me.

“They’re asking what’s the relationship.” She held her hand over the phone and looked at me. The amount of time off allowed for bereavement depended on the relationship to the deceased. “Roommate” was not a listed relationship.  I shrugged and waved my hands in the air.

“She’ll have to explain that,” she said.

It was 2 weeks before I returned to work. I’m sure some people guessed, but it was never really discussed. Only a couple of my coworkers really knew. And after that there was really no point in telling everyone that I was gay, because I wasn’t with anyone anymore.

I let my hair grow out, and started wearing it in a conservative old lady bun. People treat you differently when you have long hair. Men hold open doors and give you their numbers. I blended in. I kept my next relationship to myself. I even had roommates that were just roommates.

In 2004, one of my coworkers asked me to sign a petition banning same sex marriage. She didn’t ask me just once. She asked me twice—like she had forgotten that I refused the first time. Either it was a witch hunt and she had found me, or I blended in that well. Around that same time I had protested at the Kent County Court house to allow for gay marriage. Between the Lines had interviewed me at the protest and put my picture in their paper.

I sent my boss an e-mail telling her how uncomfortable I had been with the situation. Work is not the place for anyone’s political forum. A week later, we were all required to attend a mandatory meeting on the zero tolerance harassment policy. I was surprised to find that sexual orientation was included. Wow, I was protected.

Once you have established yourself in a certain way, as a certain type of person, it’s difficult to change. In 2005 I had a private commitment ceremony with my girlfriend. I decided that I would wear my titanium wedding band to work. If my coworkers asked, I would tell them. Nobody asked. I continued on as before.  When my ex-girlfriend died in 2006, I took a day off work for my deceased “friend.” I remember Val asked me, “But you weren’t as close to this friend as your other one?” I couldn’t really answer, because we weren’t that close anymore, but we had been the same amount of close at one time.

I spent 36 hours every week for 10 years with my coworkers, but there was always this barrier. I never realized the amount of stress it created by not being out. Energy that could have been used making friendships was used to maintain the self-ostracizing/self-censoring glass bubble. Toward the end many people knew, and I was able to talk more—mostly because of my Facebook status. I might have pretended at work, but I wasn’t going to pretend elsewhere. And I think if I would have trusted them enough to give them a chance, it might have been different.

I’m out at my new job.  I talk about my partner instead of my roommate. I didn’t want it to be like it was at my old job. Wondering if people knew or not. Waiting for people to find out.  Not being able to talk about my life. Not being able to explain that I need time off because my partner is seriously ill or dead. And honestly, I feel more relaxed even though I’m caring for patients that are more acutely and critically ill.

It amazes me how accepting people are even from more conservative backgrounds. Really, no one gives a shit. When you finally show who you really are, you find that people like or dislike you just the same. You also find that you’re not the only one.  

As far as my patients go, I tell them what they want to hear. I’m married to my chef husband, Jack.




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