GAY ISSUES IN THE WORKPLACE
Author of On Being Gay
The godfather of gay diversity training"
The New York Times
What gay people want and need
The cost of anti-gay behavior
How to respond to people who quote the Bible
Making allies of heterosexual coworkers
ONE OF THE symbols gay people use to identify themselves to one another and to heterosexual people is the rainbow flag. The flag sometimes hangs in front of a home or appears as a bumper sticker. With bold stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, the rainbow flag proclaims the multidimensional aspects of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. We are gay and black, gay and white, gay and yellow, red, and brown. We are gay and poor, gay and wealthy, gay and fundamentalist, gay and atheist, gay and Republican, gay and Democrat. We are physically challenged, we are young, we are parents and grandparents, we are in nursing homes, we are in the classroom, military, priesthood, locker room, and halls of Congress. We are everywhere---always have been and always will be.
Because we come from such diverse backgrounds, we have different advantages and disadvantages, different skills, different goals, and different values from each other. No one speaks for all of us. The one thing we share in common is our oppression, and even that can be affected by our diversity.
As an example, I consider myself well off. I wasn't always, but I feel I am now. I celebrate who and what I am. I have a lifetime partner with whom I share the bounties of love. I am well paid for what I do. I have a family and a close group of friends who love me. That doesn't mean that I don't face harassment and discrimination because I am gay. I have been screamed at by teenagers in passing cars and by drunken college students out of apartment windows. Flamer and fagot have been thrown at me, along with occasional death threats, obscene phone calls, and pieces of hate mail. But I can handle those today. I wasn't always able to, but I can now.
My life has been a journey from self-loathing to self-affirmation.
I tell people that I am a gay man, I am telling them who I am,
I have been through, how I survived, where I am now, and not what
I do. When people say, "Why do you have to tell us you are gay? We
tell you what we do in bed," it is clear that they do not understand.
The ups and downs of my journey as a frightened, closeted young gay man were influenced by the other factors that made me unique. I grew up in an Irish Catholic household as the middle child of seven. I am the product of sixteen years of parochial education. I aspired to be a saint and was considered by many observers to be "the best little boy in the world." My sense of self, of my lovability, of my chances to survive were influenced by factors that may have been different for my lesbian, gay, and bisexual friends. Yet all of us were alike in that all of us had a secret we were afraid to tell. Keeping this secret is the loneliest and unhappiest of struggles. It separates us from the human family. We wanted and needed to be able to say we were gay.
What is it a man or woman is telling us when they say they are a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person, and why might they feel the need to tell us?
Several years ago, a Catholic theologian asked me, "What's the worst thing about being gay?" A friend of mine chimed in, "It can be forgetting how horrible it was growing up! "
We are talking about children having an awareness of being "different," growing up in a culture that refers to their feelings as "sick," "disgusting," and "immoral." The real horror of being gay is growing up with a secret you don't understand and are afraid to share with anyone for fear thatthey won't love you anymore.
Sometimes, when speaking with a gay audience, I'll say, "For those of us who were aware of our sexual feelings at an early age, wasn't it almost as if this spaceship came down and placed us in our homes as babies? We always knew we were different and we thought we were the only ones. We learned to speak 'heterosexual' in order to survive. We laughed at the sexual jokes, pretended we were interested in our dates, lied our way through questions about our feelings, and prayed that one day we would get it; one day we would feel what our heterosexual parents and siblings felt." Heads throughout the audience nod in agreement.
"When the gay movement happened," I continue, "we left our houses and gathered together in shock and excitement. Finally, here was someone who spoke my language. Here were people who understood my isolation and loneliness. "
The "horror" of being gay is the horror of having a secret you don't understand. How many of us, gay or straight, had a book on homosexuality in our family library? How many of us had a book on homosexuality in our high school library, or had a pamphlet on being gay in the rack outside the guidance counselor's office, or had anyone to talk to or see as a role model? No hands go up when I ask these questions. So how were any of us supposed to understand the secret?
Gay kids wonder, "What does this mean? Why do I feel like this? Did God make a mistake? Did I do something wrong? Will it pass? Can I cure myself? Will Mom and Dad hate me? If I marry the right person, will I be okay? Will I ever be happy? Can I have children? Where will I work?"
Not knowing as a child what your feelings mean can create a terrible burden to carry alone. Fearing the ramifications if anyone finds out your secret can take a terrible toll: "Sissy, fairy, pansy, homo, punk, queen, dyke, lezzie, faggot, fruit, queer. "
The Bush Administration's Department of Health and Human Services received a report on teenage suicide that said that of all completed teenage suicides, 30 percent were gay related. It has been estimated that 1,500 gay teenagers kill themselves every year in the United States. For these kids, being gay was a secret they didn't understand and were afraid to share with anyone for fear that that person wouldn't love them anymore.
I remember as a kid, sitting alone with my private fears that I was bad because of my sexual feelings. Mom came up and said with concern, "Honey, are you okay? You look a little down in the dumps." I, like most every gay person I have ever met, said, "I'm fine." I knew that if I didn't say I'm fine," Mom would want to know why I wasn't fine. I couldn't tell her because I was afraid if I did she wouldn't love me anymore. For that reason, gay kids who are punched on the playground or teased in the locker room generally don't tell their teachers, parents, or brothers and sisters it happened. Gay and lesbian college kids who are in the closet but who are nevertheless being harassed often don't tell their residence advisor that someone is calling them on the phone at three in the morning, screaming "faggot" or "dyke," and hanging up or pounding on their door and then disappearing in a gale of laughter. "If I tell," these students think, "everyone will then know for sure. Maybe it will pass if I keep my mouth shut." For that same reason, closeted gay and lesbian employees who are subjected to cruel jokes or bigoted statements generally don't say anything but, "I'm fine."
Clearly, many people experience discrimination throughout their lives. Black, yellow, red, and brown children are called terrible names. They are teased and bullied. Such treatment hurts them badly. But black, yellow, red, and brown kids, unless adopted, generally have black, yellow, red, or brown parents who also have been called the same terrible names. Their parents have been teased and bullied too. My parents may have been teased as children, but not for being gay. Like the parents of most gay people, my parents were heterosexual and presumed I was, too.
Because of this, we never talked about homosexuality in my house. My parents never said to me, "Honey, when you are called 'queer' or 'faggot,' when you are threatened or receive an obscene phone call, come home to us because we love gay people in this house." They didn't say this becausethey didn't know. I knew they didn't know and rightly or wrongly presumed they wouldn't want to know.
"What might it be like to grow up living with such fear and self-doubt?" I ask participants in my workshop. What would it be like to be thirteen years old, sitting next to your dad in the car. The disc jockey on the radio tells a fag joke. You look over, see that your dad is laughing, and you say to yourself, "I will never tell him." This is not because Dad is a bad person. He wouldn't laugh if he knew you were gay. He is laughing because he assumes that you, like him, are heterosexual. You fear that if he finds out you're gay, he would think that you're a bad person. You believe this because he laughed at that fag joke.
Imagine being a fifteen-year-old girl who has always felt strongly attracted to other women. Who are your role models? Who can you look at in the movies or on television and say, "Hey, I'll make it. I'll be okay. Look at so-and-so. They are doing just fine."
When I was a kid, the only gay person I ever saw on television was interviewed behind a screen. He was just a shadow whose voice was changed to protect him and his name was in quote marks to let us know it was a make-believe name. That's how we interview mafia hit men and drug dealers today. That was my role model.
My parents said later that they knew gay people. They didn't want us, as children, to meet them for fear that it would influence our sexual development. They did what they thought was best, but in the meantime, I was feeling all alone.
So imagine that you are a fifteen-year-old girl. You think you are a lesbian but also want to have children. You see that Oprah Winfrey is going to have a show on lesbian mothers one afternoon. God bless Oprah! All day long, all you can think about is watching that show. When you get home from school, you turn on the television, hope that no one walks into the room, and you watch and listen more closely than you have ever watched anything in your life. But then Mom walks in. She listens for a minute, walks over to the TV, turns it off, and says, "Honey, I don't want you listening to this." And you say to yourself, "I will never tell Mom my secret," not because Mom is a bad person but because Mom thinks these lesbian women are bad.
Fearing the loss of love of your parents because of who you are can be a powerful influence in one's life. You find yourself not trusting their affection because you fear it is conditional. I was a super achiever. I won awards and high praise. I was an altar boy, patrol boy, senior-class president, but no matter what I achieved, I doubted I would be loved if anyone found out my secret. "I'm so proud of you," I would hear from parent, grandparent, teacher, or priest and I would say to myself, as most every gay person I know did, "You wouldn't be if you knew."
When I graduated from high school, the faculty unanimously voted me the John Stewart Christian Leadership .award for "high school scholarship and leadership" and placed my name on a large plaque outside of the principal's office. I was said to be a young man worthy of emulation. I doubted then whether they would have offered such an honor had they known about my secret. Eight years later, I came out publicly. I finally got up the nerve, after drinking a bottle of paint thinner in a failed suicide attempt, to tell people that l was gay. A short while later, I was told that my name had been taken off the high school plaque.
Many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people fear that if they come out of the closet, the same thing will happen to them. They fear that no one will understand what it is they are saying or why it is they are saying they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They fear that this lack of understanding will prompt rejection. For them, the horror of being gay continues to be having a secret they are afraid to share for fear that people won't love (and/or respect) them anymore. Some of us who have come out--as my friend told the theologian--forget how horrible it was. We can forget what people who are in the closet are going through.
I believe that when heterosexual people understand in their hearts the journey that gay people must make, it is far easier for most to empathize with the coming-out process. That is why I offer as part of my training an opportunity to spend a few minutes imagining what it would feel like to grow up with a secret you cannot tell the people you love.
Besides sharing with people my personal story of growing up gay, I
my audience through a guided fantasy. I ask them to imagine a world
different than our own, a world that may not make a lot of sense but
if inhabited for a moment, will help us understand why I might need to
tell people that I am a gay person and help us understand what it is I
am saying when I say that I am gay.
Imagine, if you would, being adopted by a gay couple .as a baby. Suspending any judgments or questions about how and why, imagine your feelings if your primary caregivers were either two lesbian women or two gay men. Pick one or the other couple and get in touch with your feelings.
These people love you very much and are proud of you. You love them too and want them to be proud. These men or women nursed you when you were very sick, walked you to your first day of school, taught you to read, bought you your first bicycle. What would that be like?
What would it feel like if these gay people had other children, too--children who identified themselves as gay? Your older brother has a boyfriend with whom he holds hands. You have seen your older sister kiss her same-sex date. What would that feel like?
And what would it feel like if all others thought you were gay, too? Not only do they think you are gay, they expect you to be gay. In a variety of ways, they let you know that if you .want to make them proud, if you want to make them happy, if you want to be always welcomed, you will one day bring home someone of the same sex. They are counting on you to be gay. How do you feel and who do you tell how you feel?
Let's leave the house. You are fourteen years old and heading to your first day of high school. Remember that day? You are sitting next to your best friend on the bus. The bus driver has a song on the radio and all of the kids are singing the words to the song. You know the words and you are singing at the top of your lungs, "I'm gay. I'm gay. I'm gay!"
Without figuring out how and why it would work, how .would it feel to be fourteen years old, sitting next to your best friend who is gay and who thinks you are too, singing a gay song the gay bus driver has turned up loud on the gay radio station? How would it feel if every song you ever heard was written by one gay person to another? What if every book you .ever read, every movie you ever saw, every billboard you ever passed featured the beauty and joy of gay love? How do you feel and who do you tell how you feel?
Now, not everyone is a healthy, happy homosexual. There .are people who are thought to be sexually obsessed with people of the other sex. The very thought could make you sick. These people are technically called heterosexuals, but most folks refer to them as "breeders." "Make love not breeder babies," the bumper sticker says. Once, when a local group of breeders tried to get legislation passed so they would not lose their jobs or apartments for being straight, you actually saw a sign that read: "Kill a breeder for Christ."
In seventh grade your best friend whispered in your ear that "God would vomit in the presence of breeders." That same year, someone wrote in Magic Marker on the john wall, "Kelly is a breeder," and no one sat with Kelly all week in the school cafeteria. In eighth grade, the boy suspected of being a breeder was teased incessantly and was always the first one hit in the head with the dodge ball during gym. The girl suspected of being a breeder had her locker trashed on a regular basis. How do you feel and who do you tell how you feel?
Your homeroom teacher is gay. The principal is gay. Your guidance counselor is gay, and the librarian is gay. Everyone thinks you are, too.
On Tuesday night of your first week of school, you are called to the phone at home. If you are a man, Bob is on the phone for you. Bob is a sophomore on the wrestling team and on student council. He wants to take you to the school's first dance of the year on Friday. At the end of the conversation, after you tell Bob yes, he says to you that he thinks you are cute.
If you are a woman, come to the phone and talk to Susan. She is the pretty girl who sits next to you in math class, the one who has been smiling at you for two days. Susan says her older sister will drive the two of you to the dance. You say yes. Susan is thrilled.
The gym is filled with same-sex couples. Initially it is easy because the music is fast. But now it's slow. Slow dance after slow dance has you in Bob's fifteen-year-old arms if you are a man or in Susan's fourteen-year-old arms if you are a woman. He or she is holding you tight, nuzzling your neck, whispering in your ear, "Are you having fun?"
Now you are at the front door. Your anxious but excited date takes you into his or her arms, pulls you close, and kisses you firmly on the lips. You walk inside. Your gay family is waiting up for you. "Sweetheart," they say, "you look like a million bucks. Tell us all about it. Did you have fun?" How do you feel and who do you tell how you feel?
Every day it's the same. To be popular you better have a steady boyfriend if you are a man or a steady girlfriend if you are a woman. Pass them love notes in class; put their name in a big heart on your notebook; go out on dates to gay movies, gay restaurants, gay parties; kiss them; tell them you love them. But what do you feel and who do you talk to? Do you think there might be a book on being a breeder in the high school library? And if there is, do you have the courage to take it off the shelf, hand it to the gay librarian, pull out that little index card in the back, write your name on it and risk that for the next four years someone will walk through the halls saying, "Guess who checked out the breeder book!"
You go to college, hoping things will be different. Please let it be different. In college there is a group of breeders just like you who are brazen enough to have weekly meetings in the student union. But everyone makes fun of them. No one wants to share a room with them. No one wants to sit with them in the cafeteria or have them in their social groups. Some people actually get up and move if a breeder sits next to them in class. The posters announcing their meetings are .defaced or torn down. So keep on your mask. Stay in the closet. Date someone of the same sex. You are now expected to wet kiss. You are now having gay sex. Such pressure to conform. How do you feel? Who can you tell?
As a senior you are walking down the street and at the gay newsstand on the corner you see a gay man pointing and laughing at something. He is pointing and laughing at a tiny stack of newspapers that say Heterosexual News. There are people with the same sick secret you have who are organized enough to put out a newspaper, and this man is laughing at it. When he moves on, you reach down, grab the breeder newspaper, grab two gay magazines to hide it, put down more money than the three of them cost, don't look the man behind the counter in the eye, don't wait for your change, hurry home to your room, lock the door, think of a hiding ;place for this piece of trash because if your roommate discovers it you are out on your ear, and read about yourself for the very first time. Read each word carefully.
On page 6 you see an advertisement for a bar located in your college town that caters to people just like you. Every night of the week when you are with gay friends pretending o be gay yourself, heterosexual men and women are gathering in this bar. You decide you have to see for yourself. Not once have you ever met another heterosexual person. Whatwill they be like?
You sneak away from your gay friends and go to the bar. you enter nervously and order a quick drink. Then another. Then another. Fortified enough to look around the room, you see men dancing with women. Men and women are laughing and talking and holding hands and putting their arms around each other. Initially it scares you, but strangely enough you feel at home.
The attractive person of the other sex who has been smiling at you from the other side of the bar finally gets up the nerve to walk over and introduce him - or herself to you, and offers to buy you a drink. You talk nervously at first and then with excitement. You say it is your first trip into a bar like this. "Is it safe?"
"The police used to raid it and take us all down to the station every so often, but they leave us alone pretty much now," he or she explains. "Would you like to dance?"
The next day your gay friends say, "Boy, are you in a good mood. Where were you last night?" All day long, all you can think about is the bar, your new friend, and how comfortable you felt being surrounded by people just like you. You return over and over. You spend a lot of wonderful time with your new friend--with your new love. You can't stand to be apart from your friend. You want to introduce him or her to your gay friends and to your gay family, but you are afraid. You don't want to lose your family or friends, but you don't want to lose your new love, either. Keep your secret.
Eventually, the two of you get an apartment together. It has to be a two-bedroom apartment because the gay landlord would never rent a one-bedroom apartment to a man and a woman. That would be sick and disgusting. Besides, how would you ever be able to entertain your gay friends and gay family? So you stretch your dollars and rent a two-bedroom apartment. You put your possessions in one bedroom and your lover puts his or her things in the other, and you close the shades at night and hide your breeder books and newspapers when you leave for work because you can't risk losing this honeymoon heaven you have found for yourself.
No one at work knows about your friend--not your boss, not your office mate. His or her picture is not on your desk. You don't call each other at work. You attend office social functions alone or you bring a gay date. You panic when people start talking about holiday or weekend plans, when they attempt to fix you up with their gay brother or lesbian sister, or when someone tells a breeder joke.
It's okay. You can survive it, you think. You're fine. It isn't fun, but it's tolerable. And then one day you are walking home and a stranger asks you how your friend is doing. "Did your friend make it?" they ask. "How horrible it must be." You sense tragedy. No one called you. How could they? You insisted that your lover not carry your name in his or her wallet. What if the wallet was stolen? People would find out.
Finally you find your friend on the other side of a plate-glass window in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital. With eyes swollen shut, he or she fights for life alone because no one told you. Your first impulse is to rush in, take his or her hand, kiss it gently, and say, "I'm sorry. No one told me. I'm here. Hang in there. I love you," but you quickly remind yourself that the gay doctors and gay nurses who are attempting to bring back out of critical condition the love of your life presume they are working on a homosexual. What would their reaction be, you wonder, if they knew that this person is a breeder? How would that affect them? Should you do anything that would reveal the secret?
Do you go into the intensive-care unit, or do you sit outside and
In either case, can you call your gay boss or your gay office mate and
come out at that time? Can you tell them you won't be into work the
day and why? Can you .ask that someone come down and sit with you? How
do you feel and who do you tell how you feel?
Alone? Frightened? Angry? Hurt? Alienated? Those are some .of the words heterosexual people come up with to describe how they felt going through the fantasy. Those are good words, and there are others, that help describe what it is like growing up with a secret you do not understand and are afraid to tell anyone for fear that you won't be loved or respected anymore. Thought gay people are all unique, those words are our common denominators. Those are the words we often use with another to talk about what it was like for us to grow up, lesbian, and bisexual.
The guided fantasy helps capture some of the feelings, but there is
more to consider in a discussion of who gay people are and why they
out. There are facts and they also enable most people to better
and respond to a discussion of gay issues in the workplace.
What It Means to Be Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual
Each workday morning, Kathleen and Karen leave the home they share as partners in life and head to their jobs in the same corporation. Kathleen is a confident, outspoken leader ,of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual employee support group. Karen is in the closet.
Occasionally, Kathleen has to listen to anonymous obscene messages on her office answering machine that intend to threaten her because of her involvement with the gay ,group. Karen never receives such calls, but she does hear fag and dyke jokes from co-workers who think she is heterosexual.
Kathleen is angered by the phone calls but knows how to address them through the company's diversity management and security offices. Karen is hurt, angered, and intimidated by the anti-gay humor and feels she can do nothing but stew or report the horror to Kathleen at home at night.
Karen dreads going to work in the morning. Kathleen looks forward to it, because she feels she has a "family" at work in her gay support group. She says that coming out to her co-workers removed daily stress from her life and allows her to focus her energy on her work. She feels energized.
Kathleen sometimes gets impatient with Karen. She feels that Karen s dread of her co-workers' homophobia could be remedied but Karen's coming out. Then people would never tell her anti-gay jokes. Then she could relax about having Kathleen's picture on her desk. Then she could make and take personal phone calls in front of her office mate, casually discuss weekend plans, attend on-site meetings of the gay employee support group, and never again suffer in silence.
But Karen is afraid that being open about her sexual orientation will mean more hostility. She wants to be like Kathleen--so proud, so in control, so free--but she fears that coming out will mean limited career opportunity.
Kathleen and Karen are the real names of real people. They work in corporate America and they present us with a model for further discussing gay issues in the workplace. By defining terms and offering insights, we can learn to put Kathleen and Karen and the millions of homosexual Americans like them into better perspective.
First, what is a homosexual person? A homosexual person is one whose primary feelings of sexual attraction are for people of the same gender. Easy enough. But do you have to act on those feelings in order to be gay? Do gay people wish they were the other sex? Are gay people attracted to everyone of their gender? Do you choose to be gay? Can you change your feelings? Are gay people the same as transvestites or transsexuals?
From the perspective of a gay person, these questions can feel tedious and demeaning. From the perspective of an educator who works primarily with heterosexuals who have never had the opportunity to discuss this issue, the questions are real and relevant. So let's start at the beginning.
It's helpful to first make distinctions between biological sex, gender identity, gender role, and sexual orientation.
Our biological sex is the gender (male or female) with which we are
born. It is determined by our chromosomes (XX for females and XY for
It is influenced by our hormones estrogen and progesterone for females
and testosterone for females), and it is evidenced by our genitals
clitoris, and vagina for females and penis and testicles for males).
a quick look, the doctor or midwife is usually able to say with ease,
a girl" or "It's a boy." People do not choose for themselves at birth
biological sex. Our biological sex is not influenced by the culture.
there are some rare exceptions, we are either male or female. Our
sex is what we are.
Gender identity is how we perceive and what we call ourselves. Am I a boy or a girl? Am I a man or a woman? For .most of us, the answer is clear and easy, although we may disagree about what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman." People who work in the field of child development tell us that our gender identity is set for us between 18 months to three years of age. This is true for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
A person whose gender identity is different than his or her
sex is said to have gender-identity conflict or gender
one knows for sure why this happens, and there are perhaps multiple
varying from person to person. A person with such a lack of comfort
his or her biological sex is referred to as a transsexual. Some
have surgery to alter their genitals to inform to their gender
Many people confuse gender identity (how we perceive ourselves) with
orientation (our feelings of sexual attraction). They are two separate
issues. Studies show, in fact, that the majority of the post-operative
transsexuals are heterosexual in their sexual orientation. (See Chapter
Seven for further discussion about transsexualism.)
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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander