Being Out in Cubicle Land

cubicle

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.  

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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.

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  • Don

    I gave this a lot of thought awhile ago, and I decided to treat it as a non-issue. I don’t advertise at work, but if someone not in my close circle of friends asks what I did on the weekend, I might give a general answer (I went to a club with friends), then if they ask for specifics, I’ll answer them without evasion (which club? Well, we checked out Celebs, then headed over to the Odyssey). This is no different than how I responded when I was going out dancing at straight clubs. However, I’m lucky enough to work for an office with a number of openly gay employees.

    I might treat the issue differently if I was in your position. But in general, I feel that I hid for far too long, and just don’t want to hide anymore, while at the same time trying to keep in mind that my sexuality should be the least interesting thing about me.

    With that said, I’m still finding there are times where my kneejerk reaction is to be evasive. When I give into this, I’m always disappointed with myself and ask, “damnit, why did I do that??” The most recent example of that was a few months ago, I ran into someone I was aquainted with, and casually folded the x-west I was carrying so the cover wasn’t visible before he could see it. Old habits die hard.

  • Hey Stephen,

    Great article – very honest. I’ve gone through that at every place I’ve worked at. I generally didn’t tell anyone about my personal life unless they asked me a specific question. I find that things get easier when you know that people know, because then there is nothing to hide anymore and you can just be your wonderful self. And, for many people you may be the only gay person they’ve known, so they are likely to embrace it! “Oh, i have a gay friend at work names Stephen – he’s great!” You know?

    So, I wouldn’t be to hard on yourself. We’ve all been there, and regretting not saying something. It’s all part of the journey.

    Congrats!

  • Dan

    Awesome post Stephen. Don’t feel ashamed, everyone is going to react differently when presented with that situation and I think your initial reaction could have been a LOT worse.

    Working for a company with a similar structure and setting, including those individuals who have worked there for decades, I know exactly how you feel. Earlier this week I had taken my lunch, acutally leftovers that Joel had prepared, and ended up being asked to sit and eat with all of the senior executives in my department that day. I didn’t think anything of pulling out my lunch. After I had spread it out on the plate, everyone commented on how awesome it looked and asked if I had made it myself. I had to decide in that moment how I wanted to respond (and only had two seonds before I started to look crazy not answering). I choked out that my boyfriend Joel had made it, and then proceeded to dig in without looking around. With 80% of the table being men, I figured it would have been extremely awkward, and maybe a few guys getting up to leave. A second didn’t pass before one of the men responded, “he’s a keeper!”

    For the rest of the lunch I felt a wave of relieve fall off my shoulders. It made me think, I was more worried to expose myself and my lifestyle, but in all honesty, I just wasn’t giving them the credit they all deserved.

    Just try to keep in mind that there is likely a good number of people that you work with that have someone in their lives that has come out to them before your inter-office announcement, possibly even one of their own children. And you said it best, it’s time that we start having examples in the workplace. I congratulate you on taking the first step, even if you see it in a different light!

  • Matt

    Hey Stephen!

    Thanks so much for the post, I have to say that it’s very reassuring to hear that other people in the same position as me (in terms of coming out in my teens, always being open and not hiding who I am) still struggle with this from time to time.

    I’m very lucky in that I haven’t ever worked in an environment where being gay would or even could be an issue. At present in fact I work for a young company and my nick name is ‘Barrie-gay!’ (a very intelligent twist on the actual pronunciation of my sur name Barrié). But this isn’t to say that I don’t struggle with that 1% of the time you mentioned.

    I ran into one of these instances quite recently actually – at the gym. As you do, I’ve made a few gym friends over the months. The relationship begins with a polite head nod, and progresses to a communicative relationship usually by asking if they mind you rotating in during busy periods or perhaps asking for a spot. Anyway, I’m friendly with a few guys there, and last week I was chatting to one of them, and this ‘fit girl’ walks in. He checks her out and starts asking me what I think! (how on earth could he be so far off the mark you ask? yeah I don’t know myself!!!) I’m like ‘Ya…she’s pretty…’ and he starts with the ‘wouldn’t you just love to ____ her’ etc etc….and instead of correcting him, I simply nod agreement and try and change the subject. I walked away with a similar feeling you described. Well, disappointment more than anything. Why didn’t I correct him? Why did I allow the gym environment, where testosterone is rife and we all tend to ‘butch up’ a bit, why did I allow it to get the better of me and force me to actually pretend to be someone I’m not? I was disappointed in myself as well, but we all have these instances and I just hope that next time it happens I too will take a leap of faith and give the other person more credit than I have done in the past. Because in a way it is just as judgemental for us to assume someone will react negatively as it would be for them to actually judge us themselves.

    So don’t be too hard on yourself. I realize my post veers a bit away from the ‘work environment’ angle of your article, but I just wanted to point out that whether in work, at the gym, on a team or even while on holiday we are all faced with this issue and it’s important to know that we are all in the same boat. The question of why we still feel we have to hide from time to time in this day and age can be saved for another article I suppose! Thanks for the great article though!

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