Yesterday there was a potluck lunch for my team at work. I forgot about it, so I didn’t bring anything. I shrugged and figured I’d grab lunch somewhere else. And then it got weird.
My supervisor asked if I brought something for the potluck. I told her I forgot. She said that’s okay, but I was still coming, right? I told her I wouldn’t feel comfortable about it. If you show up at a potluck without a dish you’re treating it like a catered event, I said.
For about the next hour one person after another stopped by asking if I was going to the potluck. It got so routine that the woman sitting in the cube in front of mine began bemusedly fielding the questions about my attendance on my behalf – “He says he can’t go to the potluck because he forgot to bring something.” (re: the pronouns – remember I’m still not “out” at work – D) The entreaties for me to attend continued anyway.
Then, after most people had already gone to the potluck, the team manager walked by and asked if I was coming. I said, no, I forgot to bring a dish. He then put on the biggest sales pitch of all – it’s a team event, there’s plenty of food, I really ought to come, people will want to see me there. As I was arguing back against this I started to realize I was resisting way more than I could explain rationally.
After he walked away I got to thinking about why I was being so resistant to attending a simple potluck after so many personal entreaties. There were others who forgot to bring something, and they were all attending anyway. Why was I acting so weird about it?
The first reason that came to mind was the old standby – I feel uncomfortable socializing in crowds as a guy anymore. This one is true, but it’s also one I conquer routinely in my work environment. That’s the price you pay when you choose to come out at work many months after you come out in your personal life. I’ve been living with it adequately enough for a while now. There was no way this could be the only reason I was making a minor scene over not attending the potluck. So I thought more deeply about it.
It occurred to me that I have a longstanding problem putting myself into a position of indebtedness toward anyone else, and that this tendency has been amplified quite a bit in my work environment. I grant favors freely, but I almost never accept them myself. In my personal life if I’ve ever allowed you to do me a favor it means that I expect to be able to repay it soon, and that I feel close enough to you to express at least a hint of vulnerability. That latter factor doesn’t come into play at work.
At work I feel like I have to display almost super-human levels of self-sufficiency. I expect myself to set the examples, and never to be seen as tagging along behind. Whenever someone asks “can you do me a favor,” my answer is always “yes.” But I never assume my doing favors for someone else allows me to ask the same of them. I always praise the contributions of others, but rarely allow similar praise for my own contributions. In this way I have attempted to build an unassailable image as someone who asks for nothing, does anything asked, and does it well. Based on the feedback from my official reviews, I’ve been doing this with some success.
This is probably the area where my “transition anxiety” morphs into “super-productivity” at work most clearly. I have a sense that once I come out all bets are off, all debts will be called in, and if I’ve left even a hint of a reason to fire me it will be exploited. This may sound rational based on a host of “bad work transition” stories out there, but I think I take it to extremes beyond basic rationality.
Which brings us back to the potluck. I realized my panic over attending was based on the sense that I would appear less-than-super and somewhat vulnerable. I would be putting myself in the position of a supplicant, begging forgiveness for not having made a contribution to the meal we were all going to share. It fought against all the instincts I’d been honing in machine-like fashion over the past couple of years.
But then I thought about something else. “Super-humans” set themselves apart from basic human relationships, and these relationships are important. Setting yourself apart like that can lead to having tons of acquaintances, but no real friends. Can you make a true friend without acknowledging some vulnerability in yourself? I’ve never found it possible.
And then I realized I’m going to need something even more than a spotless, blameless, and hyper-productive reputation in order to make it through my work transition. I’m going to need friends. The more, the better. No one is going to see me post-transition as super and flawless anyway. But there is a fighting chance some of them just might see me as a friend and help me make it through.
So I went to the potluck. And it was good. And not a soul in the room other than myself realized my transition in the workplace had just begun.