She was a participant in a diversity class, and the topic of sexual orientation in the workplace had just been raised. As a workplace diversity educator, her statement was one that I’d heard many times before. She didn’t have anything against gay people, she said, but why did they have to bring such a private thing into the workspace? Isn’t it possible, she wondered, to show up, do the job, and wait until quitting time to be gay?
It was tempting for me, someone who has been openly gay in the workplace for over a decade now, to respond with, “well, I don’t know … couldn’t you just show up, do your job, and wait until quitting time to be straight?” But she wouldn’t have understood. To her, and to most of America, being straight isn’t sexual; it’s normal. Being gay, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. And it is different, I suppose. But not entirely.
And so, in situations like this, I tend to take a couple of steps back and approach the situation with perhaps more gentleness than necessary. While it might be oddly comforting and infinitely more satisfying to simply tell this woman how ignorant she is and how bigoted she sounds, my goal in teaching these courses is not to emerge victorious, but to create change.
“Let’s say that it’s your first day on the job,” I propose. “And let’s say that it’s very important to you that no one at your new workplace knows for a fact that you are heterosexual.”
And she looks a little confused. Why on earth, she must be wondering, would she want to do that? And her reaction is telling. Some of the more progressive thinkers in the class give her a knowing smile – pointed, but not condescending.
“Just play along,” I say. “You don’t want anyone at your new office to know, for a fact, that you’re straight.” There’s a slight pause, to let the concept sink in. “What do you have to do differently?” I ask. “What steps must you take to ensure that your secret is safe?” And now, she suspects where I’m headed with this, but is still silent. So I make a gesture, opening the question to the entire class.
And the answers come quickly. “You couldn’t discuss your husband or wife,” one participant offers. “If anyone asks what you did over the weekend,” another replies, you’d have to talk around the fact that your spouse even exists.”
“You couldn’t even talk about your kids,” a young woman in front offers. There’s actually some resistance to this point, as many in the class correctly point out that lots of people, straight and gay, are raising children these days. “Yes,” she offers, “but as soon as you open that door and start talking about your family, it would be really hard not to acknowledge your co-parent at some point. I think it would be better to just leave all that stuff at the door, so you’re a professional and nothing more.”
“What else,” I ask. You couldn’t take personal calls at work. You’d have to take your wedding ring off. (“And how does your spouse feel about that?” I ask. And the class acknowledges that, even knowing the reasons why, that would be a particularly painful negotiation to conduct.)
One gentleman in the back of the class offers, “you’d have to ‘gay it up’ a little.” People laugh, but I pursue the comment. I ask the man what he means. “Well,” he says, “if I didn’t want people to know I was straight, I’d want to throw them off track a little, you know … act sort of gay.” Even if that’s not who you really are, I ask. Yes, he replies, even then.
Finally, the young woman in front speaks up again. “You’d have to find one or two people at work that you really trust,” she says. “That way, you could tell them and at least feel like someone at work has your back.”
“But this is a big secret,” I note, “and once it’s out, it’s out. I mean, that’s some pretty good gossip right there. So first of all, how could you be sure that these one or two people are absolutely trustworthy? And even if they are, is it really fair to them, burdening them with this secret of yours?”
“Well,” she says, “I mean … well … it wouldn’t be easy, I guess.”
“So,” I say, “this is now your life at work; this is your reality. Are you happy? Do you like your job?” There are no words, but several people are shaking their heads from side to side. “Do you like the people you work with?” Again, no one speaks, but there are more than one shrugging of the shoulders, as if to say that there’s no liking or disliking anyone that you never really get to know. “Now let’s say you’ve been at this job for a year, and your first performance review is happening. Your boss likes your work, but tells you that you’re going to need to do a better job of networking. ‘Building relationships,’ she’ll say, ‘is really important at this company, and people don’t really feel like they know you. Just open up a little,’ she says. What do you say?” And again, there is silence.
“I quit,” says the gentleman in the back. And people laugh. But my attention has now turned back to the woman who raised this issue to begin with. She’s not laughing. And I think, maybe, that now she gets it.
This essay also appears at Pam's House Blend and the blog The Human Race Horses.