Active Voice: Giving An Unexpected Answer To An Unexpected Question
by P. Kristen Enos
(Originally posted Sep 3, ’09. All rights reserved. Do not post or excerpt without permission.)
The last day of August marked my official seventeenth anniversary as an employee of my company. I joke with friends that it’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had, including a two year “dating” period of being a temp before being hired permanently.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been doing the exact same work thing for seventeen years. Far from it. I’ve been part of several different departments and several different work teams. And of course, that means several different supervisors and peers over the years, some of them who have become good friends over time.
In the early years of my employment, I made a conscious effort to come out to every supervisor within the first few days of reassignment. My reasoning and motivation was simple: fair treatment and support should a homophobic moment with a coworker arise.
At a previous company, I had a part time job where about fifteen of us sat in a large room and processed papers the entire time. Of course, when you’re in that environment, conversation happens and a radio was constantly playing to provide background music. Back then, while being a college student, I kept quiet about myself for the most part because I do believe in appropriate work conversation vs. private conversation.
One night, a newer employee responded to something that was said on the radio that was gay related, and started to go on a homophobic rant. I naturally got tangled up in his tirade, but never fully coming out in the conversation. I basically made the impression that this kind of conversation was not appropriate in a very diverse work group.
Two things came out of that incident.
I was so personally livid, that I pulled my supervisor off to the side and came out to her, since she had just witnessed this whole exchange. I simply stated that should this conversation come up again and it turns much more homophobic, I will have no problems speaking to defend my right and respect as a member of the working team. I basically put her in a position by telling her that if she did not support me in those moments, then I have no problems going to HR should the need arise.
Of course, she responded that she would make sure that such discussions would be dealt with, and that I could count on her as support on all matters, gay or otherwise, that may affect my productivity and comfort as an employee. Not that I really gave her a choice in the matter, but it was nice to be given that confirmation.
Later that day, the guy who started the rant apparently realized he went too far, and really took my comments to heart. He actually apologized to me and we hadn’t had a problem since. This was in the early ‘90s, back when protection for employment in the work place for being gay was new and very controversial.
With that incident as a model, when I was hired to my current company (seventeen years ago), I made a point of having coming out discussions with all of my supervisors. And I’ve always had the positive response that I have come to expect with people who should be professional in their roles.
I eventually became a little lax about having such supervisor conversations since sexual orientation protection in the workplace was far more recognized, and I ended up working within the same group of people for years. Still, it’s nice to still be able to be comfortable with my coworkers in social settings, so I expected gossip to take care of any coming out moments. If they didn’t already know – of which there were very few.
So then about four years ago, my company had a major reorganization. Not only new supervisor and teammates, but adding the component of people working not only in different cities but states as well. Suddenly I had a co-workers who were located up north in the state of Washington while a group of us remained in Southern California. Because I had worked with a handful of them on previous projects over the years and gone on business trips, the gay thing had come up.
It was a little personally awkward for me because I was so out of practice with coming out, because everyone in my life knew. And some people would say, they’re co-workers, why bother and isn’t it inappropriate for the workplace? To me it’s an issue of fairness and honesty in friendships. Just like if you have lunch with co-workers and they talk about their personal lives, it should be the same for someone like me. It wasn’t a case that I felt I needed to come out to people, I just wanted to if I felt like someone was going to evolve into a true friend. And meanwhile, nobody blinked an eye while they openly celebrated (heterosexual) engagements, weddings and birth of children.
Problem was that at that time I didn’t really have any good topics or opportunities to bring up my lesbianism in the various lunches and dinners I had when I did business trips up north. I didn’t have a significant other to talk about, nor any personal projects or organizations to create conversational opportunities. (I wouldn’t be surprised that to this day that some co-workers think I’m closeted because I honestly don’t go out of my way to bring up the gay thing.)
In the mean time, I got to know my new teammates’ personal info fairly well, either through direct or indirect office conversation.
The particular instance I’m leading up to happened when my supervisor at the time, Anne, was having challenges with her husband and two sons being home sick while she was trying to be virtual caregiver from the office. I don’t recall how I actually knew about that because I don’t really chit chat with her about that kind of stuff. I think someone must have made a comment in passing since we had discussed how many people were sick with the latest cold that was going around.
Later that day, I was on the phone with another co-worker from the Seattle office when an instant message window suddenly popped up in my computer screen.
I personally don’t like instant messaging as a tool, but I’ve grown accustomed to using it with remote co-workers in a highly dynamic environment. It’s very handy when people are on conference calls most of the day and you just need a quick answer to a question or problem you’re researching.
This time the message was from Seattle co-worker Brad, who was very well known for not being… accurate about whom he tries to starts instant chats with. At the time, what I knew of him was that he was a self-professed farm boy with traditional Catholic family values. Otherwise, he was a pretty friendly and fun guy with a good sense of humor.
His instant message was very simple: “How are your men? They feeling better?”
I was in mid-sentence to my co-worker on the phone when I read that and immediately burst out laughing. She naturally wanted to know what I was laughing about.
Well, at that point, I considered too much information as very appropriate response. I read his instant message to her and mentioned that since I was lesbian and I thought it was hilarious. She responded with “Oh.”
And so I immediately typed an IM response: “Hi, Brad, I believe this message is for someone else because I’m a single lesbian without children.”
No response. For at least five minutes.
Finally, he responded: “You’re right, I meant this for Anne. Thanks!”
And I closed the chat window thinking that exchange was over.
I decided to leave the subject at that, with both Brad and the co-worker on the phone.
Eventually, the gay thing did come up again, especially since Brad and I had gone on a business trip together and had opportunities to talk a little more freely about personal subjects. And it helped that I knew Brad was into “casual information sharing” so I’m sure he discussed me with other co-workers up there, (and I had eventually found out that was true.) We’re now able to laugh about all sorts of things to this day. I got “Twilight” stuff from the San Diego Comic Con for this daughter, and he knows about my lesbian writing projects.
It wasn’t until last year or so that the subject of the instant message exchange actually came up in front of Brad and Anne when I was in a trip to the Seattle office. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the first things Brad did to my instant message response was print it out and walked to Anne’s cube. He wordlessly handed the paper to her and let her read it for herself.
I honestly don’t think she knew about my lesbianism before that moment but Anne admitted that she laughed so hard that she had her head on her desk for several minutes. And then she promptly called other people over to share it with them.