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Gays in the Workplace
Lesbians and gays often tell me things like, “I could never come out at work. I could get fired or blocked from promotions,” or “I don’t dare bring my partner to company events, because my superiors and co-workers would never accept it. So we adjust, and I just go alone.” These individuals tell me that this kind of evasion doesn’t affect their personal lives or their relationships.
There are plenty of situations where people cannot - and should not - come out of the closet because they could lose their job or limit their advancement in a company. But still, there are hidden psychological consequences as well as harsh impacts on personal relationships. Even though reasons may be sound and legitimate and individuals truly must stay closeted to keep their job and be in line for promotions, many will still suffer from what I call covert sexual harassment (or CSH for short).
Ordinary sexual harassment arises whenever unwelcome conduct, based on a person’s gender and sexual orientation, affects that person's job. Specifically, in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) definition, it involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a suggestive nature. If they’re closeted at work, gays and lesbians may have a mirror-image dilemma. If someone of the opposite gender flirts with them, they may feel compelled to flirt back in order to pass as heterosexual. To maintain their cover, they might even allow sexual banter to go on and not discourage rumors that they have their eye on some co-worker of the opposite gender.
Every time someone makes a homophobic joke at work and gay and lesbian individuals say nothing about it, whenever a coworker says, “that is so gay” and no one calls him on it, and at every company picnic where others are bringing their spouses and partners and lesbians and gays aren’t, some form of CSH is experienced by the lesbian and/or gay employee.
A few definitions and how they apply:
In sexualized environments, obscenities and sexual joking are common. So are explicit graffiti and making fun of “butch females” and “effeminate guys.” Such behaviors and verbalizations needn’t be aimed at anyone in particular, but they necessarily create an offensive psychological environment that can make gays and lesbians feel harassed.
Sexual harassment is inherent in heterocentric environments. Heterosexism is the umbrella for the cultural victimization that gays and lesbians suffer having to “play straight” every day at work or anywhere else. It’s generally understood in terms of how it denies rights to lesbians and gays on a social and political level: The focus is on inhumanity and the effects of bigotry and ignorance on lesbians and gays.
The profound assault on gays’ and lesbians’ sexuality becomes worse when they cannot do anything about it - or when they can do something, and fail to do so. This kind of painful frustration affects their psychological identity and relationships. This is where CSH comes in.
Overt sexual harassment involves “affectionate” touching, fondling, and direct talk about anyone’s body and/or sexual behavior with anyone when that person clearly feels uncomfortable and doesn’t welcome such advances. Covert sexual harassment is more subtle and indirect, including inappropriate behavior such as sexual hugs, stares and “ogling,” inappropriate comments about someone’s body, as well as verbal denigration, from negative statements about not being a “real man” right up to homophobic name-calling.
CSH involves bullying through humiliation, slurs, and anti-gay sexual jokes, attacks that can be carried out directly or indirectly. In other words, CSH is the expression of “mainstream” society’s demand that everyone should be - or should pretend to be - heterosexual. Heterosexism justifies homophobia to dismiss and degrade the feelings and behaviors of those who are not heterosexual.
From childhood, gays and lesbians grow so used to CSH that we learn to hide and modify the aspects of ourselves that our peers discourage and we don’t see the negative effects. If we cannot be out in our workplace, we simply dismiss it as the norm, as something that doesn’t affect us personally. But this denial and concealment compromises - and often vandalizes - our identities and relationships. Oppressive negative statements make us deny our identity for fear of retribution, leading to an experience of profound disempowerment by doing nothing about it.
Homophobia and heterosexism, being inherent to CSH, have devastating, complicated psychosexual consequences. The guilt and shame they cause can run as deep as it does in those who have been sexually abused. CSH weighs heavily on our self-esteem, how we perform at work, how we relate to co-workers and how we feel about ourselves in and outside of the workplace.
Even if your partner understands why he or she can’t come to company functions, what statement is that making about your relationship - that it’s second-class, unworthy, somehow inferior, or diminished. This message psychologically stresses the relationship whether you are conscious of it or not.
Then, you may well ask, “What should we do? Certainly we can’t come out and risk our financial livelihoods!”
I agree, and can suggest a few things you, as a lesbian or gay individual, can to do to empower yourself and avoid covert sexual harassment:
1. Make sure that you could really be fired or blocked from work advances at work. Very many times, people buy into the standard myth and believe prejudice to be still alive and well - when in fact, it’s quite safe to be out and open.
2. Don’t use opposite-gender pronouns when referring to your partners, or worse, substitute “Jane” for “John.” Believe it or not, people still do this today to disguise that they are in a lesbian or gay relationship. Instead, just say use the neutral plural “they” or “them.” (I know, it sounds like you are a polygamist!) But at least you are not lying.
3. Talk with your partner about the effects on your relationship of being able to appear as a couple at each other’s workplace. Acknowledge that yes, while at work it makes sense and is safer to stay in the closet, that suppressed negative energy of concealment hiding will damage your relationship.
4. Don’t bring some opposite-gendered friend to office parties as a “beard” or cover. That will only worsen the negative messages you are getting - and giving - to yourself and your relationship. Go alone.
5. Correct people when they use offensive homophobic language, tell jokes about lesbians and gays and make remarks like “that is so gay.” Inform them that you don’t like to hear those things.
I know, you might think I’m talking about the 1970s or even the ’80s, but such incidents are still going on in the workplace. It sounds radical and extreme, to label it as sexual harassment, but I strongly believe that’s what it is. Unless it’s called by its proper name, the victims of CHS can’t recover from its negative effects or resist its influence in the future.