Uncommon Wisdom

By Jeff Levy

Reprinted from In The Family Magazine, Volume 8, Number 4, Spring 2003, pp. 4-5.

Q: At work, a sales award was given to a heterosexual colleague even though I was the company's leader in sales this year. The annual award has always been based solely on sales numbers. I never came out at work, but everyone knows I'm queer. Would it be less emotionally draining to let it go, or to challenge the company's homophobia?

A: Challenging workplace discrimination is a difficult and, unfortunately, all-too-common situation. I often think that overt homophobia is easier to address than the more ubiquitous covert discrimination. I remember a few years ago being offered a job as Executive Director of a Chicago youth-serving agency. In the final negotiations for the position, I came out to the board (although they probably had figured it out from my resume, which all but announced me as "Jeff Levy the Queer"). They said they had "no problem with me being gay as long as I was discreet.'" I was put off by this vague directive. What did "discreet" mean? Not having a picture of my partner on my desk? Never telling anyone I was a gay man? Only coming out to staff but not clients? And who was to decide what "discreet" meant? I perceived it as a sword hanging over my head-at any time, the board could accuse me of not being "discreet." And why should I have to be discreet? What was wrong with being an openly gay executive director?

A part of me wanted to take the job and work from the inside to change the homophobia. Another part of me simply didn't want to give my energy to this fight, so the following day, I turned down the job, and was direct about my reasons for doing so. I reasoned that by being direct, in some way I was combatting their homophobia. Several days later, I received a letter in the mail from the Board of Directors stating: "This is to confirm that Jeff Levy was offered the position of Executive Director at XYZ agency and that he declined the position." Chicago has a non-discrimination clause that includes sexual orientation as a protected class. It was evident the letter was meant to avert legal action on my part. While the letter confirmed for me that I had made the correct choice in turning down the job, I struggled then, and still do, with whether I should have taken the job and tried to change the culture of homophobia at that agency.

Homophobia and heterosexism in the workplace can be even more difficult to assess and address when it is covert. This is especially true in circumstances when we are not "out," but believe that everyone knows that we are queer. There is no "right way" to handle these situations, but there are a few helpful questions you can ask yourself to guide your own process. I have borrowed and modified a process developed by researcher and social worker Gerald (Gary) Mallon, which he created to help LGBT youth assess the appropriateness of disclosing queer status to family members.

Assess your prior experiences with homophobia and their influence on homocentrism. One of the more challenging aspects of the decision-making process in this instance involves a careful and introspective look at how homophobia has had an impact in the past. To what extent does our own homocentris - our vulnerability to see all responses to us as related to being queer-- influence how we see the world's reactions. It's virtually impossible to be queer and not be influenced by homophobia--from family, friends, teachers, and employers. This, in turn, influences how we see ourselves, how we engage in relationships and how we see the world. Unfortunately, it may also make us vulnerable to prematurely evaluate someone's response to us as based on our queer status, rather than other aspects of who we are. While in this case, it seems clear that the award was denied based on being queer, there might be other explanations. Was the management given the correct and most up to date sales numbers before giving the award? Was there a simple misunderstanding that had nothing to do with sexual orientation discrimination? Ruling out these other factors means taking a nondefensive stance, at first, with regard to the perceived injustice. How easy or hard is that to do? I am also curious about why the individual is not out at work. Is this because of messages from the workplace itself? Is it based on past experiences in employment or elsewhere? Or perhaps is it some combination of these? In order to be clear about confronting homophobic reactions, it's important to be clear about the origin of our own responses.

Assess boundaries, rules, and norms of the workplace.Before making any decision about challenging the company's homophobia, take a look at the company's flexibility and/or rigidity in general. Is the environment a safe place for people who are different in other ways--race, religion, gender, ethnicity? Is the company sensitive and responsive to these differences in others? Do you know others who have expressed and/or manifest their difference and felt support? Are there other queer employees at the company who are out? How have they been received?

Assess your relationship with others in the company.Take time to think about your relationship with both colleagues and superiors in the company. Is there anyone in the company to whom you have disclosed information about yourself and your opinions? How were those disclosures handled? Are there people in the company with whom you've developed a more trusting relationship than others? What kind of decision-making power do these people yield?

Assess your own expectations around challenging the company's homophobia.If you will be operating with the expectation that by challenging the company you will somehow change the organization's culture, create a climate of freedom and acceptance for current and future queer employees, and in the process reclaim the sales award, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. If, on the other hand, you feel that you need to speak out only for yourself; that your silence resonates too strongly with other situations in your life in which you have experienced shame and/or the effects of stigma; and if speaking out is more important than any of the consequences that come as a result, you may be more able to deal with both positive and negative consequences that arise. Being clear about what you hope to achieve may help you make an educated decision about whether or not to challenge the company's homophobia. If you do decide to challenge the company, being clear with the company about what you want from them may also help you achieve some of your expectations.

Prepare for the challenge.If you decide to challenge what you perceive to be homophobia in the company, take time to prepare yourself for possible responses. Predict the worse possible outcome, the best possible outcome, and the most likely outcome (based on your experience with the company). Plan courses of action if any of these predicted responses occur. It may also be helpful to think about how you would challenge the company. Would this occur in writing? Would you do it in person? Would you do it alone? With someone? With others who have experienced discrimination or prejudicial treatment? It might also be helpful to role play possible scenarios in order to be more fully emotionally prepared for a range of responses.

Develop a system of supports following the challenge.If a challenge occurs, it will be important to line up a network of supports following the actual meeting/challenge with the company. Perhaps there are employees at the company who are willing to make themselves available following your discussions with company management. Or, it might make more sense to share with friends your intentions, and make plans to meet with them following your meetings with the company. Having a trusted person or group of people with whom to share your emotional reactions is important.

There is no cookie-cutter response for how we can best respond to real or perceived homophobia. While some might say it is important to actively fight all instances of homophobia and heterosexism without regard to the consequences, this is not possible in all circumstances. Sometimes safety, concerns about self-preservation, concerns about job stability or reputation, and/or making decisions about which battles are best to address and when to address them, make it impossible to fight every time. The most important thing you can do is assess the risks and benefits and, whatever your decision, enlist a solid foundation.