Being Gay at Work – Issue 43
There has been no shortage of bad news e mails arriving these days from my old stomping ground the US of A, the topics have been cheery subjects like: illness, divorce, layoffs, salary reductions and work hours being cut back. Between what I read in the newspaper and what I hear from friends, one might conclude Armageddon was most definitely on the doorstep. This is why it was such a pleasant surprise to find an e mail in my in box from a friend in New York with the subject heading – ‘good news’.
This ray of sunshine was the announcement that my friend had gotten engaged, the news spread faster than swine flu panic. This is understandable; after all we have been starved of anything happy to talk about for quite some time so the logical human response is to jump on good news with the fervor of a nerd at a video game launch. And face it, recession or not, getting married is a big deal. What followed was a barrage of e-mails exploring all aspects of the nuptials: who would be in the wedding, who would be the ‘old hag of honor’ and were rainbow bridesmaids gowns so outdated that they might be back in again?
Our friend used to live in Seattle and has only recently relocated to New York. So having time on our side, those of us further west were able to iron out most of the details of the wedding before our soon to be married friend got up in the morning. Never mind that those directly involved were not part of the planning, with such a draught of happiness, why spoil an afternoon of good fun? By the time he read his e – mails the next morning, almost all of the details were resolved, with one exception. Where would the wedding take place? You might think that was simple, but in this case it’s a bit of a challenge, because my friend, who is a man, is marrying another man. One friend hit the nail on the head when she said, dude you can’t get married, you’re gay.
Sadly this is true, there are only four states in the US where gay marriage is legal and New York, while being exciting, diverse and one of the more liberal states is not one of them. My friends won’t get any joy going home to Seattle to get married either, Washington State also prohibits gay marriage. What a shock that one of the states they can get married in is Iowa, yes Midwestern, cornfields, superman Iowa is a state that has legalized gay marriage! This knowledge threatens my long held belief that the United States would be a far better place if you cut the middle out and pushed the two ends together, keep Hawaii and give the great state of Alaska to Sarah and Todd with an enthuastic endorsement to succeed from the nation.
Here in Australia we consider ourselves to be much more progressive, but unfortunately this country also does not allow same-sex couples to marry. In fact, Australia will not even recognize the marriage of gay couples legally married in other countries that do, such as Canada, Spain and South Africa. To our credit you may have seen the new ads in the paper from Centrelink indicating that from 1 July 2009 changes to legislation will mean that customers who are in a same-sex de facto relationship will be recognised as partnered for Centrelink and Family Assistance Office purposes.
The interesting juxtaposition of this activity was that it coincided with celebrating the marriages of two Geyer people, Lianne in Sydney and Tim in Melbourne. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the same celebrations at work would be occurring for my friends in New York. Would they have champagne in the office and pitch in for a gift? The short answer is no, my friend’s partner said “when I came to work last Friday with my ring on, I was curious if people would notice. I saw eyes float to my ring finger, but not a question was asked. It’s a bit awkward…..I feel a bit dishonest keeping it from people, but it’s so politically loaded that I’ve shied away from telling anyone unless asked – and no one has asked.” Not only did his co- workers not ask, he also had to experience the celebration for a straight coworker who got engaged a few days later.
Unlike my friend, who is an architect, his partner works in the financial services industry which is normally thought to be a bastion of good old boy behaviors’ and attitudes. It was surprising to learn that the financial sector has moved out in front of many other professions when it comes to embracing gay workers. In fact many financial organizations are now listed among the top gay employers including Lloyds and Goldman Sachs. It really shouldn’t be such a big AH HA, any organization with a brain is not going to turn away talented people because of their sex, colour, religion or sexual orientation.
Especially if they want to employ the best and brightest, which despite the recession is still a concern for most companies. To date I have not been exposed to any organization we have done briefing work for who cite hiring straight mediocre people as one of their key business drivers. Also when it comes to work, there are real benefits to hiring gay workers. This is a generalization I know, but gay employees are highly educated, career focused and, not all but many, do not have children at home who impact their ability to travel or work longer hours and face it they usually dress well and give a stuff what they look like.
Despite these benefits, we still need laws that prevent employers from discriminating against gay workers and even though they exist, laws and behaviors are two different things. Changing human behaviour and beliefs in the workplace can be great challenge. The result is that for many people in Australia, it’s not so fun to be gay at work. At least that is what Paul Willis has found; he is a contract lecturer in the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Tasmania. He has recently submitted his PhD thesis which examines the social and organisational practices through which young queer people (18-26 years) are both included and excluded within Australian workplaces. He also discusses the politics of negotiating queer sexualities in workplace.
Willis’ studies found male participants often felt detached from highly masculinised environments and in some cases were subject to extreme hostility. One poor guy had to deal with a boss who told him he had to sit in a ‘gay chair’ while everyone else sat in ‘straight chairs’. That was mild compared to those that were interrogated about their sexual practices, or called names. It is hard to imagine the pain one would experience having to work with people who call you f – ing faggot under their breath, how would that impact your productivity and motivation?
In preparation for this article I have talked to many gay friends to learn more about their experience with ‘being gay at work’. It was not uncommon for them to keep their personal life to themselves. I wish everyone lived by these rules, I am reminded of a guy I used to work with in Chicago who frequently shared his bedroom antics with us, being a rather plump guy it wasn’t a pretty image and definitely not an appropriate work conversation. Most people, gay and straight, prefer to keep the more personal aspects of their lives to themselves. As one said “it is not like I run around the office in rainbow tights these days, but everyone who knows anything about me knows that I live with my partner.”
On the other hand, there were many stories about gay people being caught off guard, assuming everyone in the office knew they were gay only to be questioned about the wife and kids. Mr. Rainbow tights was asked at the company Christmas party why he didn’t bring his girlfriend with him, the person who asked the question had worked closely with the guy for six years and didn’t know he was gay! I remember having to inform the daughter of another colleague that Mr. Rainbow tights was not worthy of her romantic pursuit a few years prior. I guess he had people fooled.
This is why poor ‘gaydar’ can create problems. When the typical Joe cannot recognize the telltale signs that someone is gay: eloquent, well dressed, flawless hair, never a shirt untucked or fly down, there is bound to be problems as demonstrated by this story. “I was in a client meeting with a lady (still a client by the way) who each week was telling me a little more about her life and one day from under the table I felt her foot rising up the inside of my legs – I didn’t know what to do so spontaneously with two hands grabbed her ankle and quickly stood up, basically almost pulling her off the seat – I said to her (actually it was a desperate please don’t touch me plea) I bat for the other team – we had a great laugh and now would say she’s a great friend.”
Humour aside, almost all of the people I spoke to could recall times in their careers when they felt discriminated against for being gay. From not being included in a business trip to being asked not to attend a meeting for fear they might be perceived differently than a straight employee. One in the legal profession went as far as to wear a wedding band to court, because it was believed that gay attorneys are perceived differently than straight ones by juries.
Some simply have a gut feeling that being gay might be detrimental to their future in less obvious or overt ways. A good example is a friend who is an executive of a multinational company. The challenge came not from the company she works for, but the country she was relocated to. The company can move her and organise her work visa, but they cannot do the same for her same sex partner. Studies done on corporate relocations indicate a major success factor is the employee’s spouse liking the new place.
When I was in the US last August I was at a party attended by many gay couples, quite a few of them had children. I spent time talking with one couple who were selected by the birth mother to be the parents of her child, their daughter is now about 7 years old. As one of her doting fathers twisted her hair around his fingers, he explained that since they have had their daughter they now have to do four loads of washing per week: whites, darks, coloured and pink. They told me about the new house they are building and how they had honeymooned in Australia. They were a normal happy family.
Two weeks after the party one of the guys was walking the dog and was struck by a car and killed in a hit and run accident. Beyond the complete sorrow that I felt from learning that someone in their prime had lost their life, was the added sorrow that came with the recognition that this family will most likely not be entitled to the same benefits any other grieving family would. Insurance payouts, a leave of absence from work, or a break on income tax; in the eyes of the law this family is not a real family.
Things are slowly changing, one person said “In all honesty my sexuality is not part of my job however I do like to build a relationship with clients and I think / believe a big part of that relationship is being honest and transparent – I am fortunate that works for me.” This is true, while we don’t need to know everything about our co- workers knowing a bit helps us to bond as a team and a culture. Companies that support people being themselves, whether that is straight, gay, Muslim or Buddhist, will be the ones who get the most from their people. At times like these when organizations are struggling to get the most out of their resources, this acceptance is even more critical.
This months podcast features an interview with Michael Lamb of Cushman Wakefield in New York
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