For some people, it is a non-issue that is given nary a thought. For others it is something that strikes fear in their eyes as a water-cooler conversation moves away from work and someone brings up what you did on the weekend: afraid you might mix up your pronouns when you’re trying to play it straight. No matter how you slice it, being gay in a corporate environment is an complicated experience to navigate.
I should point out that I work for a large company with a fairly conservative culture and I really enjoy what I do. It is a very well-respected company in many circles for the work that it does and for the benefits it provides to its employees- but it is also a company where the majority of the workforce is much older than you’d find in a lot of smaller companies. Most of the people I work with have been with the company anywhere from 15-40 years, so you could say that there are some generational/cultural fractures that could pop up. Picture a sea of late 80s turquoise cubicles, and a big office complex in the ‘burbs. In two words: Office Space (great movie by the way). I push TPS reports for a living ;)
As someone who likes to sit back and analyze situations before fully engaging myself, I’ve had to do a lot of that in the last three-or-so years in order to figure out what the appropriate behaviour is for being a gay man in a fairly conservative office culture. In most cases, its better to do your work, get the right people to notice it, but simultaneously blend and fit in well with your fellow workmates. Nails that pop up can be hammered down quite quickly or removed altogether. Basically you’ve got to play the game a bit: be yourself but not too “out there”, but this game is a very long one and you must never under any circumstances burn any bridges along the way.
Don’t get me wrong here, I am definitely able to act myself at work, and thankfully live in a place where you can’t be fired for being gay. I’m out to everyone that I have a more personal relationship with at work (ie. we talk about what we did on the weekend, plans during the week, ANTM- you know, the usual). But, it’s the people that have control over my career- those in the many layers of upper management- that I have trouble being open and honest with, mainly because they control whether or not I’ll get that promotion, or that pay raise. Plus, I don’t really interact with them much (mainly because I don’t have a lot in common with 50 something married “company men”), so they have a very narrow view of who I actually am, and when we do interact, I find myself getting worked up inside about it- avoiding personal topics when they come up even though I know I should be better than that and proceed to feel like shit afterward. They are intimidating people and I think I let that get to me.
The fact of the matter is that I want to be judged based on my performance and work ethic- not on my sexuality. This manifests itself into not speaking about my personal life with certain individuals in positions of power at work and ultimately never giving those people a chance to make a judgment in the first place. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s the way I’ve dealt with it. I don’t like it, but it’s just me trying to get ahead. It’s not like I have any role models at my company: I don’t know anyone visibly “out” high up the chain where I work- well, actually that’s not true, I know some people that are gay, but they aren’t overly candid about it. Sure, they managed to climb the corporate ladder, but they had to fly under the radar to do so. I mean, I don’t work for a lifestyle magazine or a hip ad agency downtown where it’s an asset to be gay. In most of corporate North America it’s not exactly “trendy” to be gay.
I started thinking about this because I had to confront it head on the other day. I was recently photographed at a local charity event with my boyfriend Kevin. It was clearly a gay-themed event, organized by the gays, for the gays and their friends. We had a fabulous time! Anyway, I found out on the weekend that our photo had ended up in a major newspaper that covered the details of the event. At first I was all: “Pssh, look at me in the newspaper, what a great photo of us,” all smug-like. Then, I read the caption and it noted the company that I work for and I started to get nervous because I was wondering if I had broken some policy of falsely representing the company at a gay event or something… not that I was actively representing the company, but being there and the reporter noting my workplace in the caption night have been bad enough. Note to all: I worry a LOT. The next day I arrived at work and my manager’s manager came up to me and proceeded to congratulate me and ask me how the event was. I was so relieved… but then he started asking about the guy next to me in the photo- Kevin- and I began to feel really uncomfortable broaching the subject with him, and tried to quickly change the topic. As soon as he left I felt really ashamed of my behaviour and lack of balls. Why did I have to worry like that and get so worked up about it? I shouldn’t have to feel like that: like I could possibly offend someone at my company by them finding out that I attended a gay event on my own time, and then not feeling comfortable enough to talk to one of my manager’s about my boyfriend and my life.
The whole situation really left me feeling embarrassed and angry at myself and forced me to question why I would act that way. I let myself down and I let Kevin down too. We both talked about it later that night and it affected us both quite deeply. I even wrote this post and questioned releasing it because of my embarrassment. I know there are a multitude of personal reasons why I let those few people that can potentially affect my career have that chilling of an effect on me, and those are mine to deal with. And, I’ve realized I have to deal with them because I consider myself a very self-confident man who is comfortable with his identity and sexuality and discuss it with ease with 99% of the world. By not feeling comfortable discussing my personal life and my boyfriend- even if it’s with just that 1%- essentially communicates to them that I’m not okay with the topic, and by extension myself, and that’s just plain wrong.
This experience has really taught me that personal integrity and self-worth are so much more important than what one or two people may think of you. Your work will speak for itself. If there are no gay role models or mentors in your office, then someone’s got to step up to the plate sometime, right (hint hint)? And, while it’s definitely a bit scary, I think I’m okay with that, and ready for that challenge. So, for me personally, I know that the next time that I get the opportunity to share my personal life with that same manager again, I will be completely candid and honest.
I don’t know, does anyone else have any insight to this issue? All homos have to deal with their identity at work somehow; I’d be interested to hear other people’s stories.