Being Out At Work – Or Not, The Hidden Psychological Consequences

Should I Come Out At The Office?

Friends 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.

I disagree.

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 (I personally am an out and homosexual at work, but the environment allows for it). 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 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 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.

Are you struggling with any kind of difficulties regarding your sexual orientation at work? Write in to Gossip Guy at gossipguy@bell.net and share your story.

 Gossip Guy, you know you love me! -xoxo

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Balancing Work & Life

Are you making time for the important things?

You’ve probably heard the saying that no one looks back on his deathbed and wishes he had spent more time at the office. Trouble is, that’s not necessarily the way your supervisor looks at things.

In today’s competitive work environment, some people work 50 hours a week or more and still feel like slackers.  This is true whether economic times are good or bad.  In bad times we feel driven to work hard to avoid being laid off; in good times, the drive is to succeed and get ahead.

Are you working to live or living to work?

That question can be particularly important for gay men and women, who often channel extra energy into their careers. Success on the job can be particularly important for us – a way to demonstrate our worth in a world that’s often homophobic. It’s not unusual for people who feel part of a minority to feel additional pressure to prove themselves good enough. Putting in extra hours at the office can also be a way some people try to overcome self-doubt.

How do you know if work is taking over your life? Sometimes the answer is obvious: you feel irritable, burned out and unhappy, or you find yourself spending Sunday dreading the thought of Monday morning. Or worse: you’re in the office on Sunday! If you haven’t had a vacation in a year or two, you’re probably out of balance. If you’re putting in such long hours that you’ve given up dating in favor of a quick hook-up over the internet, that’s probably a clue as well.

Changing the situation means coming to grips with a difficult truth: the person in charge of your life is you. Having a slave driver for a boss doesn’t change the equation. We’re talking about your life here. So how do you go about creating more balance?

Take stock of your life, no excuses allowed. If work is taking too big a chunk out of your life, what other parts are getting short-changed? Notice if your relationships are suffering. Sometimes work creates a convenient excuse for avoiding intimacy.

Decide what success looks like for you. Too many of us think of getting ahead only in terms of job advancement or making more money. What else do you value: friends, a partner, music, doing something creative, traveling or enjoying your home life? If you value something but spend little time pursuing that pleasure, you’re life is going to be out of whack.

Learn to compartmentalize. Giving 100% on the job is fine, but when you leave your work place, let it go. Spending a lot of time thinking about work when you’re on your own time – answering email, checking voicemail, texting – means you’re not getting the sort of downtime necessary to avoid burn out.

Fight perfectionism.  Wanting to excel is fine, but the perfectionist loses perspective and needs to do everything, well, perfectly, even if the task at hand isn’t all that important.  Sometimes “good enough” can liberate you to spend energy and time on what you truly value rather than wasting time on stuff that is ultimately not all that important.

Learn to say no. You’re not Superman; stop acting like him. Taking on an endless supply of new projects when you can’t adequately deal with what’s already on your plate may make you feel like a great employee, but you’re letting yourself down.

Reserve time in your schedule for people and events that are important to you. Whether it’s working out, rehearsing with the Gay Men’s Chorus or making dinner for your partner, your life is going to be richer if you make time for what’s important for you.

Consider the place of beauty in your life.  Do you make time to listen to music, create or enjoy art, dance, cook or otherwise do something just because it attracts and stimulates your senses?  What kind of a life will you have if all your efforts are only utilitarian?

Still have a problem? Consider a job change. Changing to a new line of work may seem drastic, but not enjoying your life is actually a much bigger deal.  If you can’t make a change right now, start planning for a change for the not-too-distant future. It’s up to you to decide what’s most important in your world.

Are you a workaholic struggling with balancing your work and personal life? Do you feel like you can’t make time for yourself? Write in to Gossip Guy at gossipguy@bell.net and share your story.

 Gossip Guy, you know you love me! -xoxo