Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Homophobia at Work

Last week at work I was a witness to an example of how homophobia is often boiling under the surface, even in settings where sexuality has no real place (thus proving that sexuality is a component of any human gathering). In this case, the incident occurred in a meeting room with ten people.

The scenario:
One man, let's call him Rick, was trying to get his laptop connected to a faulty projector. In order to get it to work, he had to push on the cable, but couldn't do so while also operating a mouse.

The second man, alias Bob, decided to lend a hand and hold the cable so Rick could do his presentation. This was a considerate and helpful gesture. However, this meant that Bob's hand was positioned in very close proximity to Rick's hand on his mouse. Instead of simply holding the cable silently and letting Rick proceed, Bob felt the need to make a proclamation, lest anyone think he was holding Rick's hand.

The pronouncement:
"I'm not gay."

The result:
Mild laughter, twittering.

Bob is not a malicious person at heart, and on the surface, this is not the worst bit of gay bashing one could encounter. However, the implication of saying "I'm not gay" with no provocation is that there is something HORRIBLE about even being considered gay. In fact, it's so horrible and embarrassing to be gay that he needed to immediately tell the world he was straight, even in a moment when NO ONE else in the room was likely to be even thinking about his sexual orientation.

This just shows how insidious homophobia is, and how it's a social infection that people resort to so reflexively that it takes enormous effort to even become aware of. These attitudes are adopted early in life and emerge again and again, unless awareness is achieved.

The bottom line:
Words matter. Who's to say who in the room was gay? And how would it have made him feel? And even if no one in the room was gay, it still reaffirms the received notion that homosexuality is to be shunned at all costs--a message that gets repeated in the schoolyard and in boardrooms.

As a lesbian, I was offended by the devaluation of being gay. (Although this kind of homophobia manifests differently for gay men and lesbians--the typical unwanted straight male response to lesbianism is generally leering interest.) I understand that gay male homophobia is more apparent and even dangerous, and I believe it's sometimes harder to be a gay male in our culture than a lesbian. (I'll leave the topic of lesbian invisibility for another post.)

A gay male friend of mine who has been out of the closet for a good 20 years recently told me that he doesn't find any real benefit to being out in the workplace anymore, and has chosen to largely re-closet himself professionally. This broke my heart. It's 2008. Why are gay people still the last socially acceptable group to openly ostracize?

Homophobia is real. Please don't pass it on.


shantielise said...

I think the most appropriate response one can offer when straight people say this is, "So?"

You gonna post the Ellen video?

Major Generalist said...

Ellen video posted!

I'm pondering your comment about what to say. It seems so feeble to just say, "So?" especially when such an event takes place in a meeting room of ten people. However, it does make the point that a) being gay shouldn't matter and b) doesn't dwell on the scenario--it keeps things moving along.

Another option would be to publicly say, "*I* am gay" in response. But, outing oneself in such an instance sets up a very combative dynamic and would only serve to make everyone that much more uncomfortable.

I'm really not sure what the best response it. Well, the best response would be something humorous that would tweak the offender and make him seem chided in a way that everyone could laugh along with, non-derisively. Unfortunately, nothing in that vein comes to mind.

I'm sorry to say that I said nothing at all because I was caught off-guard that such a thing would come up. :(

Lori said...

I would always talk to the person, but not in a group setting. Giving someone respect by taking them aside and dealing with these types of things privately usually helps everyone in the end. The person confronted is usually horrified and must look their behavior/beliefs. Major Generalist could then walk away feeling better too - the situation was dealt with care, and it didn't turn everything into a joke to keep things light, and it wasn't aimed to embarrass anyone. It is never too late to say anything.

And just put it out there so it doesn't happen again from that person

Major Generalist said...

Lori, your answer is clearly a fantastic approach. I would totally agree that not making a public spectacle out of it is probably the best thing. And speaking to someone privately makes it personal in a good way--it's respectful, as you pointed out, and the one offended can demonstrate how it personaly affected them.

The problem with pulling someone aside gets dicey when the offending person is a major officer of the company who by far outranks me. This is where things get political and potentially difficult. Then again, I suppose it could be done in such a way that wouldn't necessarily endanger one's employement. And ultimately there are laws in this state that offer protection. Still, it's not an easy thing. Hmmm.

Heather Fink said...

I know what you mean! I feel like I heard this kind of stuff when I am visiting home/suburbia, or at work - because in my social life people know better - but a work environment is such a mix of ages and people whose social norms are old fashioned - and old fashioned norms are pretty homophobic. I also agree it's not mean spirited, just really narrow viewed and just plain silly when people feel the need to declare "I'm not gay!"

shantielise said...

I still stand by, "So?" especially in a fast-pace work environment and if you don't want to make a big stink, for whatever reason. I don't think it's feeble. It's all in the tone of voice and expression.

Major Generalist said...

That's true. I just wish I would have said something.

shantielise said...

we've all had those moments where we wish we had said something. a similar situation will likely come up again, so you'll have your chance.

JP said...

I have to say I'm not surprised by this - thing is, guys do a lot of weird stuff to protect their "man act." Crappy thing to have to deal with at work though.

Major Generalist said...

JP--I think you're bringing up a good point that I didn't really address in my post: the social pressure that men face to "fit in," which means displaying a certain brand of "manliness." That really kind of sucks. There is so much pressure for men to restrict their emotions (i.e., no crying!) and curtail really being themselves. It's definitely hard to be a man in our culture given all of the social pressure to restrict oneself to fitting certain stereotypes of masculinity (such as being "alpha"). I have a lot of empathy for men. People saying homophobic things are as much the victims as they are the victimizers, although I do believe it's our role to try to understand how negative social dynamics work, and to try to rise above it. That's the only way change happens.

Thanks for your post.

Anonymous said...

This happens all the time, and it's really frustrating. When it gets really annoying I just tend to change jobs. After a while it becomes pretty painful to be in large social settings, especially with straight males. I wonder if there's any job that's immune to that sort of underhanded talk.

Major Generalist said...

Thanks for your post, Anonymous. I'm on a different job now, and I just overheard 5 minutes ago MORE homophobic talk (a joke was made about Spider Man taking it up the ass as a part of an alternative lifestyle). It seems to happen daily here. I'm kind of amazed that straight men still have so much interest in this topic--I would say that they're even obsessed with it given the amount of talk I hear. It's unclear to me why it's such a threat or so interesting.

I do think things are improving overall, but I still think it will take years for this crap to pass.

Our best solution is to be out of the closet and visible so that maybe people will think twice when they start saying things and make the connection that they're actually talking about you or me.