So I called my mom for the first time since I told her I sort of have a girlfriend. I’d say it was a poor choice, but I had to do it eventually. It’s been four days since we talked; any longer than that and she makes something out of the fact that I haven’t called. Didn’t make it any easier.
My mom has a track record of decision reversals about my queerness. She’s reacted positively at first; then once she came back with harsh outright rejection, and once with some strong commentary on how she “just wanted to make sure” that I “understood that being with a man and being with a woman are very different things societally.”
This time she came back with how I present at work.
I was telling her how everyone at work had “flipped out” about my new, long-pixie haircut.
“Flipped out how?” she asked a little too sharply.
“Oh, in a good way. They loved it.” I told her about all the compliments I’d gotten from other teachers and staff.
“I like it better when you part it in the middle,” she said, repeating word-for-word what she’d said when I last saw her. “When you sweep it to the side like that it makes you look like a boy. And maybe you want to look that way.”
This time, in the silence following that comment, I chuckled. Barely audibly, darkly, and uncertainly. I hoped I didn’t sound as strangled as I felt.
“You’ve looked very masculine to me lately, with your hair, and your t-shirts. I’ve been a little bit shocked. As a mother, it’s been a little scary.”
I chuckled again, a little sadly, thinking she was referring to losing the image she’d once had of me, perhaps feeling the same kind of grief I sometimes do for the life I might’ve had as a woman.
“And as a mother, you shouldn’t have to feel that. I mean, I would hate for a parent to come in and have any reason to complain–”
Oh. No, she’s talking about me being “visibly queer” (not that she knows such a phrase) at work. Aside from the faculty and staff, she was saying, there were the parents of my students to think about, and she’d hate to see me compromise my career or my good relationships with coworkers…
“I think you need to just be as neutral as possible, and not… put anything out there. Because if you put something out there and someone has a problem with it, you can’t take that back. And that’s not something you should be putting out there. I mean, in a professional environment, it’s not something that should be… out there in… anyone’s faces. I think.”
I murmured something. Some noncommital agreement. I can’t. I can’t be the one to make her understand how much bullshit that is, that I should have to neutralize and sanitize myself at my job to save other people’s delicate sensibilities. I can’t lay my neck out on that chopping block. Educating my mother is like trying to defuse a bomb blindfolded.
(I go back and forth about exactly how scary my relationship with my mother is, whether it’s abusive, whether it’s as bad as it looked through my teenage eyes. But I think it is. Disagreeing with my mother is tantamount to personally disrespecting her; being vocal about that is… well. The last two times I made decisions she didn’t agree with–once she threatened to cut off all financial support and confiscate all my own savings, while I was in college, and once she told me I was abusing her. By saying I wanted to stay three nights with a friend instead of two, and holding my ground. Right.
When you’ve grown up with that kind of thing… I can’t. I can’t offer up my mental health for the sake of educating her. It’s taken seven years of her cutting her teeth on my sexuality to accept that alone.)
And when you’ve grown up with that kind of thing, you lose your grip a little on reality. Am I presenting way more masculinely than I think I am? Am I putting my job in jeopardy? Alienating my colleagues? Frightening parents? In these last three days of work there have been a hundred nuanced glances, tones of voice, word choices, conversations I can analyze, search, dissect for a hint, a breath of danger–
And when I get up tomorrow, should I do my hair differently? I was just swinging my presentation a little more to androgynous now that we’ve all been back at work a few days–should I go femme instead? Am I even capable of rationally analyzing my own presentation anymore?
I can’t live like this. I can’t teach like this. I won’t.
Yesterday I read through my performance review from last year, sat in astonished silence for a moment at the praise, signed off on it. I asked for, and got, a raise this spring. My boss went to bat for me last year to defend changes I’d made to my curriculum.
I have to believe I have merit. I have to believe that’s what’s important–that I am a good teacher, that I make a positive difference for my kids, and that that’s what matters. I can have all of that and still be fired. But I can’t live like that.