Relationships: Lesbians, Professionalism, and the “Dyke Effect”

Time to get back to the serious side with a little (hopefully discussion-starting) experience and food for thought. Warning, the language in this post may be inappropriate for small-minded thinkers or anyone with a PG filter.

But first, an image:

Now that I hopefully have your attention… Let’s look back 10 years, to the days of retail IT support for yours truly. In those days I was a naive 18ish and I worked with a primarily male staff. For some reason, workplaces tend to feel they have the right to know all about you–a not totally unheard of concept, since you tend to spend more waking hours with your coworkers than you do with your loved ones. I got hired on by referral from a (male) friend, who was alternately assumed to be my brother or my lover. Neither was true, naturally. So then when it got out that I wasn’t attached, a couple of the least attractive and lowest self esteem guys in the office decided to try to stake a claim.
Now, I wasn’t out yet–and this was part of my problem. But the jokes in the office started going around (and those jokes started even being cited to coworkers) that I was the “dykiest straight girl” anybody knew. Apparently my naturally trim figure fit some stereotype, or my lack of interest in coworkers. Go figure.
The bad part about this is that I played along with the game and heard myself telling the same jokes, as some kind of coping mechanism for the fact that I was afraid I’d be looked down on for fighting back against the idea that a woman who didn’t jump at every opportunity for a boyfriend, who was going to college and had big dreams, and who was working in IT, must be a lesbian.

That was a mouthful. Even through getting together with Jamie, the love of my life, and being promoted to a pseudo-lead position, I still felt the need to hide who I was. Which meant that somehow I wound up in a big pissing contest between the biggest loser on the team around which of us deserved the IT lead position more. Sales numbers were the final deciding factor, just in time for me to transfer with my bigoted boss to a new store closer to my home–I transferred because I didn’t know the new guy, and at least if my bigoted boss was a bigot, it was the evil I knew. When I transferred, I decided to be out and open for my own sake. This opened a new can of worms for me, as I experienced–for the first time–the effects of being “one of the guys.” Now, instead of criticizing my (perceived) mannishness, they were dragging me into pissing contests about who could do what, joking that I should move things (instead of the skinny guy with the same birthday), threatening people with my (perceived) violence. If someone got into an argument they’d call me over because they liked to see a small (I’m only 5’4″) “dyke” beat someone into submission.  I found myself in a new predicament, partly based on my misperception of the idea of feminism. Like many people, I’d been brainwashed to think feminist=man hater, and so I played along with the misogynistic joking, the flirting, the checking out of hot women like they were so many slabs of meat… But under it all there was always this clear assumption that even if I wasn’t out, they would all just know I was a lesbian because of…what? I’m trim and have a 4′ long braid. I wore glasses at the time. I wore a standard uniform that was too big because they didn’t make them in my size. Very lesbian of me. I’m in IT? I was a lead site tech at that time. I was going to school for psychology. Where does all of this equal dyke?

Oh, wait. It’s the woman in a man’s field, right?

Now, I understand the need for people to categorize things. And I like women too, so I can see how straight guys might get confused. I continued on to work as a field engineer, then briefly in helpdesk (the only job I’ve ever worked that was dominated by women, and were they mad about it), a remote systems engineer, and now an SA at R Company. And finally I get to a company where I am not basically the only woman. I feel like I can breathe a little. Some people I work with are actually surprised (not mean, just surprised) when I mention my wife in casual conversation. Like they didn’t automatically assume. Because we all know straight is the default, right? R Company even has a big GLBTA, so I feel like my rights are a little more secure.

But then the other day we’re talking about Game of Thrones at work, and I complain about the gore and the gratuitous abuse of women. And one of my male coworkers goes “Yeah, I know! But you’re one of the guys too, so you love the tits and blood as much as the rest of us.”

Dead silence.

And then it hits me. Why the hell do lesbians have to be “one of the guys?” Why does liking women automatically exclude us from being women? My wife is certainly more effeminate than I am–she owns heels, skirts, makeup. I like men’s clothes because the sizes make more sense and I look damn fine in an ascot.

But why does our culture have such an obsession with the absolutes of male and female? This moment I’m not experiencing the “dyke effect” because I am an engineer. All of a sudden it’s just because my cube mate knows I appreciate attractive women. And video games. So now I have to be OK with the objectification of the female body, and be comfortable with the blatant comments made (even by female coworkers) about stereotypical female behavior? Granted, Jamie and I kinda have a 50s relationship (I work, she stays home). Except we break all the rest of the stereotypes. She does most of the driving. I do most of the cooking. I tuck our daughter in at night. I love to read and she prefers movies.

I’m getting on a tangent here. I really just want to open discussion about what I am suddenly nicknaming the “dyke effect.” I feel that there is a scale, and the more points you hit on this stereotype scale, the more likely people are to make assumptions that you are really just a straight male stuck in a woman’s body. Clothing choices, hair styles, and professional career all hit these points. I also feel like a woman less within the “straight male” definition of attractiveness is more likely to be thrown into that category.

Weigh in, where have you observed this effect? And how can we change these perceptions?




4 thoughts on “Relationships: Lesbians, Professionalism, and the “Dyke Effect”

  1. Mike C. says:

    It’s hard to respect people as though everyone is an individual, and that everyone has traits that divide them from classification. That’s why there are labels, and that’s why we adhere to them. It’s very limiting. Even though the word ‘dyke’ gets used a lot here, if the word ‘lesbian’ was used instead, you find that the stereotypes remain either way. It’s every person’s goal to try to define classification: eliminate those limits, and even though things are always gonna be that way, you can take personal pride in knowing you go above and beyond what’s typically said about ‘you’ ‘your people’ and ‘your lifestyle.’ That’s what it means to be an individual.

  2. BtA says:

    Wow, complexities… as a fellow (?) female in IT, I’m glad I’m in IT now versus forty years ago, that’s for sure, the guys have had to at least straighten up a little. And I’m lucky that I work in State employment, because the IT guys here are either the worst of the bunch and wash out fast or the best of the bunch, working at a salary 20K under what they could be making for the opportunity to work toward a community goal (in this case education). And it may also impact the mix that I do work in education and egalitarian education at that since I work for a community college system. And education in general is more female-dominated, and I myself am a very squishy obviously female and fairly feminine person, which can also be impacting the mix. All of that noted as potential reasons why my experience is very different (and possible leads to what might need to be fixed out in the ‘real world’), the only person I have ever heard make misogynistic troll comments was the one guy they introduced me to my first week on the job, who looked like a used car dealer from the 70’s and when he asked “What do you think of me, heh heh” I said “You come across like the kind of person who spends every night out drinking in disco bars looking for women” and the whole floor male and female both started laughing because they mocked him for having exactly that personality. I do work Help Desk, as does my partner Kathy, at a second tier level – but so do a substantial number of men who work at each of our college systems, and I find that male and female staff in IT at our schools both treat me with a great deal of deference for my system-wide knowledge and appreciation for my help with complex issues. The only people who don’t treat me with respect and camaraderie in our joint mission to help the students are actually a small subset of faculty who do this to everyone, male or female, who lacks a Ph.D. And, after being stuck at a dead end for job growth for some years, my new male senior manager is actively fighting the budget wonks to help get funds for my partner and I both to have advanced training in the networks systems, unified communications and Exchange manager software we work with daily. My CIO, my Operations Manager, the head of our Project Management team, and the Business Intelligence supervisor are all women. All that noted, we do still have a majority of guys in the networks and exchange admin areas here, as well as in the DBA team and Business Intelligence, because that’s the vast majority of who is applying, and I know a lot of women have been filtered out of IT in general because of what goes on in the real world. I’m glad to say that I feel like I actually have a chance to learn something that could let me move up 20K in my salary under my new male senior manager, whereas my female direct supervisor did her best to keep me in a box for a decade. But from what I hear from others that still isn’t normal in the ‘real world.’ So yes, I think it’s different here, and I think there are a lot of factors that play into that, and maybe some of them ought to be retrofitted for the real world.

  3. Pink says:

    I imagine that for many people, there are two ways of interacting with other people. Either as a comrade and competitor, or as the subject of sexual interest. Even when women are not specifically the target of a man’s romantic intentions, men (let’s use the general here to be simple) treat women differently from other men.

    So when you come out as a lesbian, and a less effeminate one at that, you must be placed in the category of “male like me”. When our social dealings are trapped in a gender binary, what other category is there? It seems that your workplaces are still discovering the range of people and the endless possibilities of interacting with them. It’s a lot more complicated than simply having two ways to talk to people.

  4. Allie says:

    Came here to comment on categories and labels and it appears the rest of the comments already include something along those lines. It’s human to categorize!

    Instead, I will say, Yay for manhater does not equal feminist. That bothers the crap out of me. I think the movement has started to turn away from that, but it’s still prevalent. I think inequality in the work place is wrong and should be changed, but let’s not hate all men for being sloven womanizing pigs. I think someone else also said respect the individual.

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