my boss’ son came into the office yesterday morning, to get his mom’s help on some schoolwork. he’s about 20 years old, in the 2nd or 3rd year of an education degree in phys ed, but taking a womens studies course cuz he needed the credit. in general, i like him: he’s nice, kinda sheltered, but nice. i mean, he really just seems to avoid thinking about anything… and while i don’t condone that sort of thing, i also recognize that he’s young and ignorant.
so anyway, he’s in the office and asking his mom for ideas for this 100 level wostud term paper. she suggests that he write about sports, about how women aren’t treated the same as men who are professional athletes. that got the rest of us (boss, admin, myself, i.t. co-op student) talking about the women’s ski jump not being accepted for the 2010 olympics. boss’ son responded by saying it’s not fair that there’s no men’s synchronized swimming… then said that he wouldn’t watch it anyway.
(oh yeah? why not?)
“okay,” we all said, “but if there are men who want to compete in synchro @ the olympic level, of course we think they should be allowed to too! that’s the point: the link between equity, gender, and athletic competition. it’s about there being an opportunity for all, not just those who are deemed worthy.”*
boss’ son got defensive about the idea of opportunity. “what about hairdressing?” he asked. “a straight guy can’t become a hairdresser, and that’s not fair!”
my coworkers and i were all like “dude, what are you talking about? of course he can!”
boss’ son insisted that no, a heterosexual man can’t be a hairdresser because if he did, people would think that he is gay.
“but that,” i said, “is a homophobic statement, because you are assuming that a straight man would have a problem with people thinking that he is gay. it doesn’t mean that a straight man can’t be a hairdresser.”
boss’ son said that all male hairdressers are gay anyway. “no, they’re not,” his mom said, and the rest of us are all like “dude, how could you know?!”
to which boss’s son replied that “you can tell!” and began to describe what a gay male hairdresser is like.
at which point i cut him off.
i told him that his ideas are based on stereotypes, and that he actually does not know who is gay. “i am gay,” i said, and paused as his eyebrows shot up and he suddenly looked very embarrassed. “the point is, any one of us right here could be gay,” i went on, “and you are being offensive. i know you’re just trying to figure this stuff out, and that’s great… but you need to learn how to do that differently, because the way you are talking is homophobic. this is my office, and when you talk that way, i don’t feel safe here. which is… well, not okay.”
boss’ son looked like he wanted to crawl under his mom’s desk. “i’m sorry,” he said. “i’m sorry.”
“it’s okay,” i replied. “really. you just need to seriously think about these things a lot more.”
the entire time her son was speaking, my boss was just as incredulous at his opinions as the rest of us were. after he left, she thanked me. i am glad that she didn’t apologize for him, that she made it clear he needs to get his act together. the support that i received from my coworkers allowed me to feel proud of myself, even as i was jittery for the next hour or so. today, my boss told me that her son apologized to her last night at home, and apparently they had a good conversation about it. i’m glad to know that he was at least as shaken as i was.
writing this is more difficult than i thought it’d be. the incident happened so fast, and i said the best things i could have under the circumstances. still, i am replaying everything and thinking about it more than is probably healthy.
i’ve chatted with this fellow almost every week or so throughout the past 2 years that i’ve worked with his mom, and it makes me feel weird to think that during all that time, i was being taken for heterosexual. i realize that most people assume i’m straight, and i usually blame that on the fact that i’m really not rawking many of the queer stereotypes these days, at least not in my physical appearance. this incident has made me reflect on how heterosexism and homophobia are so fucking beyond my choice of long hair and skirts: my invisibility is not a function of what i look like so much as it’s about pervasive fear and hatred, and the stereotypes that are built upon the ignorance that is perpetuated by these emotional responses.
i’ve “known” this for a long time, but i feel as though i didn’t really know it until now.
* to be clear, this entire conversation was pretty basic, lacking any nuance regarding class/race/non-binary-gender… we didn’t even get close to these issues.