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Out of Sorts

This phrase, “out of sorts”, originates from manual type-setting. A “sort” is one of the molded-lead letters or characters that a typesetter would insert into the machine to be coated in ink and pressed against paper. To be “out of sorts” means you have run out of a particular letter or character. Not the end of the world, but not convenient or productive.

And this is me right now.

The following thought occurs to me – it is not my original thought, but I am pleased to have it drawn to my attention from time to time. Particularly at times like this. “Out” lesbians are, by definition, non-conformists*. We have had practice, at a deep level, at breaking the most basic of societal norms. Try coming out to your mother who is expecting a son-in-law and grandchildren whose cheeks she can pinch, or your boyfriend who is expecting marriage, and suddenly living outside the rules in other ways seems less of a problem. We tend to live on the outside, looking in.

Next, try being a lesbian who also identifies as feminist who also identifies as an entrepreneur. See, in
my apparently twisted mind, I believe women’s empowerment and freedom is rooted in economic stability. If a woman can, independently, earn enough to support herself, then she gets to make her own choices,
including choosing where and with whom to live (if anyone). I thought, again in my twisted way, that being independent and stable – and helping others to become so as well – was A Good Thing.

As it turns out, it is a lonely thing. There are a handful of people who “get it”  and a lot of funny and, frankly, deeply disapproving looks from people who are more rule-bound than me, from feminists, from socialists, from capitalists, from straight suburban women, and from the birkenstock lesbians who think I should be less independent and more of a communal team player. Why not use my skills to “better humanity”, they ask?

Well, I kinda thought I was helping as an instructor @ a college. I also think simply not being a burden on
the system, or my family, or another person, is somewhat of a statement. I remember, about 10 years ago, attending a trade show with a group of employees of the program I managed. The program was sponsored by Industry Canada, private businesses and the college that I am currently employed by. This program had two objectives:

a) Hire and train college/university students and recent graduates to help small and medium-sized businesses get on the Internet (we hired and launched 210 student advisors in the 3.5 years I was there);

b) Get as many small and medium sized businesses on the Internet as possible (our office hooked up over 3500 businesses in 3.5 years)

So, there I was at this trade show, with about 10 awkward, geeky but nicely dressed young people. About half of them had English as a first language. The rest were terrified to speak with any business owners,
one-on-one. I had trained them and coached them but now it was up to them.

That same day, a handful of my “friends” were coming to the show for their own reasons. These were people who had heard me describe my job, but had really no clue what I did. They dropped by our display area to find a bunch of busy young people engaging with very keen business people. As I was chatting with my friends, and standing back and keeping an eye on things, the students kept coming over – one by one – and waving appointment cards at me, smiling, and saying “I did it!” Some of them hugged me. After a few of these, one of my “friends” looked at me, quizzically, and said, “Venus, they really love you!” Myfriend was clearly shocked. She thought my job title was “Project Manager”, which she interpreted as “slave-driver capitalist pig”, I think. I was angry at her level of surprise, and at her clear assumptions about my vocation at the time.

The truth is that I’ve attempted to apply my business and technology skills in non-profit situations and it has been disasterous. A culture clash of the highest order. I guess I apply the same twisted thinking to non-profits as I do to women: economic stability = freedom and choice.  I find the kind of good management that leads to economic stability in non-profits to be sorely lacking, and I have found my attempts to encourage it to be soundly re-buffed. I concede that my attempts may have been insensitive
to the vastly different “culture” but, in truth, it is the “let’s just feel good about what we are doing” mentality that breeds a lack of attention to fiscal health.  I have found out that a single individual cannot change group mind-set.

Q: How many people does it take to change a group dynamic?
A: Most of the power-brokers, and they have to want to change.

There is a Rita Mae Brown quote that I’m particularly fond of … The problem with conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself. The dilemma of the non-conformist is the lack of a specific peer group. We can be chameleons and assume a pleasing demeanor that gets us through various situations – but the feeling of truly fitting in is so rare.  I remember this from high school, in a way, when I was in two bands (concert and stage/jazz), drama club, editing the school newspaper, in a choir, playing softball and hockey, teaching music and generally trying to get decent grades. Not enough of a jock to feel included in the horseplay, not geeky enough to pass with the pocket-pen protector crowd, not an academic high-achiever, not fully an artsy person. Not completely fitting any mold.

Last week, a techie guy was at my place solving several pressing computer issues for me. He did a great
job – and he kept eying my Spanish flamenco guitar on its stand near the computer. I noticed how his nails were trimmed and I said, “Do you play classical guitar?” and he said, “Yes, and I’d LOVE to try your
guitar.” He was a wonderful player. I could have listened to him all day. He finally confessed that he has his own recording studio and actually trained as an audio technician before becoming a computer
geek. He showed me his website for his studio and it is very impressive. Next, he noted the framed photo of Joni Mitchell on the wall and asked about it, too. Turns out he is also a professional photographer … and I thought “Eureka! … Another one!” Jack of all trades, master of none! Except – he actually seems to be master of all, which is quite amazing.

Thus, at the moment, I am “out of sorts”. Out of energy for being the various people I’m supposed to be
in order to have some semblance of a peer group at all. I’m sure I’ll gather my sorts back up again and trundle back out into the world and find ways to fit in. But it feels hard right now, like I’ve been doing
it for too long.

*By stating this, I do not mean to imply that lesbians are the only folks to qualify as non-conformists. This just happens to be my version.

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