Sexual identity and work: Why we need exposure and education

exposure and education are critical for accepting different races, genders, and sexual orientations

For me, work was one of the most challenging spaces to navigate sharing pieces of my sexual identity. I’ve worked in places with wildly different cultures, from ones that actively discuss and champion religious, sexual, and political differences, to ones that are very much “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

From startups to small businesses to universities, each workplace varied in some of the ways you might expect (and some you wouldn’t). One of the most interesting revelations was that the cultures I expected to be the most inclusive often…weren’t.

As an employee, freelancer, and volunteer, I’ve freelanced in highly conservative workplaces that didn’t bat an eye when I let slip that my partner was a woman. I’ve worked with people my father’s age that attend church every week and have no gay friends who are supportive of my relationship. On the flip side, I’ve worked in places that boast their diverse and inclusive culture, yet became uncomfortable when I speak about my girlfriend. I’ve volunteered with young people who clam up when I talk about my female partner. And I’ve spent time at places that fall somewhere in between.

If anything, these differences in reactions heightened my fear of talking about my personal life, at least when it came to the gender of my partner. It didn’t get easier to be “myself” at each new workplace. If anything, it became more difficult. There was no consistency in reactions. I had no way to predict how a boss or colleague might react. So every time I was introduced to a new professional space, I could feel myself tense emotionally, knowing I would either choose courage or cowardice, and roll the dice on the outcome.

I felt like I was left with a single choice: come out, and hope that the person on the receiving end was open-minded, or keep it to myself, feeling begrudgingly safe but disrespecting myself and my partner.

Of course, it’s not my job to manage someone else’s feelings. If I take a job somewhere and they feel uncomfortable around a gay person, that really isn’t any of my business.

Except that…it is. If my boss feels uncomfortable around me, this can have a real and profound impact on my experience working there. Consider the following situations with a manager.

  1. My manager feels uncomfortable and starts avoiding personal conversation, until we speak about nothing outside of work.

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Sure — but small talk and personal details are how we bond to each other. Emotional support is how we feel comfortable and confident voicing our opinions in the workplace. It’s a big part of enjoying our work and staying at a company for the long haul.

If my manager feels too anxious or uncomfortable talking to me, an emotional chasm will grow. I’ll watch them get closer to my colleagues as they become more distant from me. They begin to question my motivations and my decisions. In extreme cases, this could lead to a complete breakdown of trust, and the workplace may become untenable, leading to a bitter exit.

2. My manager overcompensates and makes uncomfortable or out-of-touch statements, wearing me down emotionally.

Maybe they’re uncomfortable around me but don’t want to make it obvious. Worse, maybe they really want to convince me that they “love the gays!”

At first, this usually starts off rather innocently, too. They’ll overhear a conversation between queer coworkers and jump in, making a queer joke or jab (“Are you gay or something?”) that they’ve heard one of us say before. It’s uncomfortable but…fine.

Because they’re in a position of power, though, we often fail to speak up and let them know that what they’re doing is kind of weird. So this behaviour grows. Eventually, they don’t need another queer person in the room as a safety net. Now they’re making their own gay jokes, ones they invented themself, and it’s awkward. All I can do is try not to blush with shame, and duck my head behind my laptop to scribble what happened on Whatsapp to friends while I shudder and shake my head.

This is a weird case because it doesn’t make the workplace untenable. The person doing the behaviour, in my experience, isn’t unkind or discriminatory. They simply haven’t been taught proper etiquette in this realm, and are awkwardly learning how to socialize at 25, 35, or 55. Over time, though, it can wear down LGBT+ employees, making them feel emotionally exhausted and apathetic.

3. My manager steps up to champion LGBT+ externally, but doesn’t actually broach the topic with me.

This is a weird one. In this instance, my manager learns that I or a colleague aren’t straight and go about trying to show the world how open-minded they are. They change their Twitter icon to a rainbow logo. The reshare a post on LinkedIn about diversity. They update the Careers page with a photo of a sexually and racially diverse group of employees.

Yet, throughout all of this, they often engage in some of the behaviours above. They refer to my partner as my friend (when they refer to her at all). They make uncomfortable comments. And they seek absolutely no education or training on how they should behave.

I’m happy to say that most of my workplace experiences have been positive. Often, I’m more uncomfortable than my boss or colleagues. And (speaking specifically about Western culture here), as representation on TV increases, politicians openly declare their LGBT+ status, and LGBT+ activism gains steam, I think that some of these issues will go away (albeit very slowly).

While I believe we all have control over how we act and react to people who aren’t like us, I think a lot of us need a little help.

A big part of how we see and interact with the world comes from two key elements: exposure and education. And these things need to be combined.

If you went to university for four years, then went and got a job in your field, did you feel perfectly prepared? If you were anything like me, getting a job after a 4-year theoretical education was completely overwhelming. It felt like school didn’t prepare me at all. But, over time, what I’d learned at school and what I experienced at work became more connected, and my understanding of science, writing, and the world felt more…whole.

This combination of education and experience, or exposure, is critical. If the presence of openly gay individuals in workplaces is increasing, all we’re doing is exposing each other to more LGBT+ people. We need to educate everyone so we can learn how to navigate something that’s new for a lot of us.

I have never worked somewhere with LGBT+ (or racial, or gender) education. And I didn’t learn it in school, either. While I’m sure it happens at some workplaces, I’m left to wonder: where are most of us expected to learn it? Even lessons and simulations as simple as,

  • What kinds of questions are OK to ask?
  • What kinds of jokes can I make?
  • What words or actions are discriminatory?

Could make a critical difference in how we interact with each other.

So what is the real problem? I think it’s that, for whatever reason, we don’t have the tools to interact with people who aren’t like us. And often, we’re afraid to ask questions, and we’re afraid to speak.

I don’t think this fear of speaking or asking questions — this “LGBT+ anxiety” — is limited to sexual orientation, either. I think we’re also afraid to ask difficult questions about race. We’re afraid to offend women or people of color or people who are non-binary by saying the wrong thing. We’re afraid to ask people why they don’t drink if we know they aren’t religious. And this anxiety is really sad, because we aren’t having conversations, and we’re limiting the depths of relationships we could have.

As much as it’s not my job to take on someone else’s fear or judgment around LGBT+, it’s also not my job to educate them. But if it’s not my job, then whose is it? Is it my company’s job? The government’s? Is it up to non-profits or advocacy groups?

If one thing is clear, it’s that education needs to take place. Exposure isn’t enough. Without it, exposure will at best lead to uncomfortable working relationships. At worst, it will breed hate.

Lover of books (mostly fantasy/sci-fi), piano, running, and learning new things. Mostly writing about tech &LGBT+ stuff.

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