Overheard At Work: “Tone Down the Gay”

Daily Prompt: Hear No Evil

Tell us about a conversation you couldn’t help but overhear and wish you hadn’t.

One day, I attended an early morning work meeting (this was awhile ago) and made casual conversation with the others in attendance by sharing an anecdote about the gas company waking Ledcat and me up super early one morning. I don’t even remember the story, but it was something about having 30 minutes of hot water for us both to get ready for work and no, they did not inform us ahead of time about this work, etc. Just a simple story about a work morning snarl. Chit-chat. I remember other women at the meeting shared similar stories about workpeople and so forth.

I drove back to my office and as I was getting settled, I overheard a coworker who had also been at that meeting. She was talking very very loudly for our offices so I listened to see what was going on. She was ranting about me telling that story. She was ranting to the clerical staff for the program we both worked in, someone with whom I needed to work on a daily basis. She was ranting about the fact that I used the term “my partner” in a story at work and how I shouldn’t “bring that” to the workplace.

That? That? That?

I sat in my chair in shock. I reviewed the story in my head and there was nothing work-inappropriate about it. It was a simple anecdote that could happen to any couple. I debated confronting her. But I reviewed who was present in the office – the clerical worker and another clerical worker who never rocked the boat. So I softly closed my door and put my  head down, hoping my boss would be back soon. She continued her tirade for a long stretch of time.

When they arrived, I asked for a private meeting and explained what happened, bursting into tears. As I talked with them, fury filled me – how dare she describe the person I loved as “that” – like Ledcat was an object, not a human being. Why did she even care? And why on earth would she do this in front of coworkers?

Someone else wasn't happy about this situation.
Someone else wasn’t happy about this situation.

My boss rationalized the entire scenario as a conflict between her “black religious” beliefs and my being gay. They suggested I “tone down the gay” by not sharing stories that might tap into people’s prejudice. Then my boss shared the story with other coworkers who came to assure me that said person was not homophobic. My boss did not investigate beyond asking her if she made the statements which she denied. She was asked to apologize – she offered me a non-apology for what I misunderstood when I was eavesdropping. Ha.

I knew that I was on my own in that minute. So I looked her dead in the eye and said “You should be aware that we work in the City of Pittsburgh so creating a hostile work environment based on my sexual orientation is illegal. You should also be aware that my partner is an attorney and if it ever happens again, the people asking questions won’t be our boss – they will be civil rights investigators. If it happens again, it will cost this company money in fines and I doubt they would like that.” She said yes, but she smirked because she knew she had won. She was actually surprised to find out my partner was an attorney. I was bluffing but not by that much.

Two nights later, Ledcat came to meet me at work and we deliberately introduced her to this woman.  Polite “You remember my partner, Laura?”  Nothing more intrusive than that. I had one picture of her on my desk, near my phone so it was barely visible to anyone but me. That’s it. I never work my rainbow pride sweater to work.  I did lobby for domestic partner benefits (successfully) and recruited LGBTQ volunteers in various capacities.

I wasn’t successful at toning down the gay. My office was trashed, someone broke into my mail and stole items donated to a children’s program, and eventually I received lesbian porn via company email. I reported everything and it was all pooh-poohed (except the porn.) I believe that the pooh-poohing is what put myself and another lesbian in the position of having to receive lesbian porn in our corporate email accounts.

Overhearing this conversation gave me an important head’s up, but it also destroyed my faith in my employer. I wasn’t a popular coworker because I came on like gangbusters with ideas and suggestions and the dreaded change. I was attuned to the racial tension in our office, but I was informed enough to resist blaming my black coworkers (or assuming that Christian black people hate gays universally.) I got along because I produced and that’s why I hired. But I never felt like anyone had my back. And I could see that most everyone shared that point of view.

We didn’t talk about workplace bullies back then, but she was one of a few who continued to bully me. And I blame my employer for rolling out the false “black Christianity v gay folks” explanation. I didn’t have a camera phone at the time to take a picture of the package that was almost savagely ripped apart to get to the contents. It was almost an act of violence and frustration and fear and anger. And no one took me seriously. The person I suspected did that ended up committing a very dangerous act that could have had tragic consequences.

People experience much worse in their work lives. I witnessed much worse being inflicted on other people. But every single employer I’ve had has allowed homophobia in the workplace to go unchallenged – to avoid offending someone be it clients, coworkers or donors. I certainly wish I hadn’t had to be part of conversations like “The word lesbian might offend our older donors so can you not use it? Leave that part of you at home like I leave my religion.”

Most of all, I wish I hadn’t overheard that one specific conversation because it shattered my illusion that people cared enough to intervene.

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