‘The Room Shakes With the Weight of My Bitter Laughter’: On Homophobia in the Workplace

Two queer journalists discuss bearing the burden of educating their co-workers and dealing with discrimination.

Erica Lenti is a writer from Toronto who has been published in Reader’s Digest,...

Megan is the assistant editor at Reader’s Digest....

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Megan Jones: Hi, Erica. The emoji selection on G-chat is weak. They don’t even have a rainbow emoji.

Erica Lenti: Wait, really? Google needs to step up its game.

MJ: How are we supposed to have a conversation about being queer in the workplace without a rainbow emoji? This is 1984-style silencing.

EL: It’s disgusting. It’s discrimination.

MJ: The New Newspeak. Google Emoji.

EL: Your 1984 references are my life right now. You know that is my favourite novel, right?

MJ: 1) I actually had no idea. 2) Thanks for validating my terrible Orwell jokes so early in the morning. They should probably be illegal.

Seriously though. This conversation all started with some very salient points from you.

EL: I said this on Twitter, and I’ll say it again: at every place I’ve worked in journalism in the past, I have heard one or two casually homophobic comments hurled in my direction (from colleagues who have all been straight).

Plainly, it sucks. I’ve loved many of my colleagues, and I’ve enjoyed most of my time in those environments. But then one or two people make things uncomfortable. Have you ever experienced casual homophobia in your workplace?

MJ: This is hard for me to answer. Prior to this year, I’d never been fully “out” in any workplace (journalism-related or otherwise). And that decision was definitely informed by fear. You still really don’t know how people are going to react. When people have said homophobic things to me outside the workplace I’ve wanted to throw up in their pockets or set their shoes on fire and neither of those are very healthy feelings to harbour towards your coworkers. So normally I’ve opted to play it safe and keep my personal life more or less personal.

That said, the Internet exists and I love talking about my big gay identity online (clearly) so sometimes people figure it out. And sometimes those people are rude. Like, when I was working a service job, one guy showed me naked pics of his girlfriend. Just cas., pulled them up on his phone. He somehow thought I’d be interested in that because I was “kind of gay.” So that was…um, nasty. 

EL: So wait, he just whipped out his iPhone and was like, “Look at my naked girlfriend?” Who does that? (I wholeheartedly support you vomiting in his pockets.)

MJ: Yeah, I think the idea for him was that because I date men and women I was some sort of Hypersexual Unicorn Being who’d be interested in the intimate details of their sex life. 

EL: And I think that raises an important point: People seem to think that because it’s 2016 and gay marriage has been legal in Canada for a dozen years and became legal across the U.S. last year means that homophobia has completely been eradicated. But then we have these subtle, uncomfortable experiences that prove otherwise. 

MJ: Exactly. I think homophobia in workplaces especially is more insidious these days. Maybe people believe that the absence of hateful words or blatant discrimination automatically means you have a queer-positive work environment?

EL: I’m sure for cis and straight people that’s probably true. But, at least for me, it’s worse to experience this kind of casual homophobia. It’s harder for people around me, who haven’t experienced it, to fully understand how hurtful and dumb it is.

I’ve never had some idiot colleague pull out his phone and show me naked pictures of his significant other. But I have had people think that it’s okay, say, to ask me about lesbian orgasms, or make jokes about my limited sexual experiences with men. That just makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to share my personal life with the people I have to see eight hours every day if this is how they talk to me.

MJ: Right. We’re lucky enough to live in a country and work in industries where calling someone a dyke is probably going to get you some real heat from HR (though, I mean, let’s check our privilege, I’m sure there are still a lot of workplaces in Canada where that’s not even true). Still, these smaller, stealthier things are definitely uncomfortable. I never reported Nudie-Pic Man. He wasn’t doing it on purpose to make me feel threatened. It was—here come some $10 words—a product of systemic homophobia. Though, in retrospect, I know that’s not an excuse. How have you reacted in these situations?

EL: Pretty much the same way: I’ve kept quiet—save for posts on social media that I eventually deleted because I was made to feel that I was shaming too many straight people who aren’t homophobes. I’ve been told HR is an option, but it’s not one I feel entirely comfortable with. And I think that’s a product of the society we’ve been raised in: Yes, we know we have options, but we’re socialized to push our discomfort aside and keep quiet.

There’s a great episode of the podcast StartUp, where the staff at Gimlet, which produces the show, discusses the diversity of their company. There’s a portion of the podcast that centres around being openly gay in the office, in which the host suggests it’s no longer a big deal to come out in workplace anymore, especially when you work in media. The only openly gay staffer completely disagrees with this. Often, word travels and people you aren’t out to end up finding out and passing judgment, and that can be incredibly problematic. Consider those who haven’t come out to their families, for instance. They definitely won’t want to go to HR about an instance of homophobia. 

MJ: HAHAHA. [The room shakes with the weight of my bitter laughter]. Coming out at work is EASY? Please. I think people forget that you’re never done coming out. 

EL: It’s true. There’s no signifier—at least one that isn’t a stereotype—that denotes that someone is queer. And that means constantly being forced to come out, over and over again. I’ve been bouncing around jobs for a little while now that I’m out of school, and I always have to casually drop lines like, “So this weekend, my girlfriend and I did this…”

When you started your new job a year ago, what was it like coming out? Did you ever have those awkward talks with your colleagues?

MJ: Oh-ho-ho. My current job is a blessing. The first day I got to work I was standing in the lunchroom with one of my new colleagues and she was like, “This weekend my wife and I…” and the sky opened up and praying hands emojis rained down upon me. My current workplace is, um, stacked with other queer people. Which means I walked into a situation where a) I had some pretty great mentors (some of whom are queer, others, straight) and b) a hell of a lot of work was done for me already.

EL: Okay, I know you’ve said this to me in the past as a joke, but sometimes I feel like it’s true: Super queer workplaces are the best. I mean, in my short time in journalism, the least judgmental environment I’ve worked in was at an LGBTQ publication, where almost all of the staffers were queer. I walked into the office on the first day of my internship there (I must have been 18) and one of my colleagues had a collage of naked men over his desk. It was beautiful. I felt so comfortable talking about my plans with my girlfriend because they were all in sync with my colleagues’ weekend plans with their partners. 

But certainly, the solution is not to congregate all of the queers in every industry and stick them into one workplace and be all, “Okay, now you have each other.”

MJ: ROUND UP THE GAYS. (Don’t do that.)

Yeah, it’s nice to feel mirrored and represented in your workplace, period (whether that be through orientation, race, ability, gender, etc.). But you’re right, we shouldn’t have to rely on that to feel comfortable or safe. Lately, people have been paying more attention to the lack of diversity in journalism. That’s a whole other series of discussions, but it does highlight an important reality: straight, white, cis dudes abound. And so we arrive at another $10 word: ALLYSHIP

Even in the absence of other queer people we need a sense of, “Ew, stop being a knob. Don’t talk to her about lesbian orgasms. Go to jail.”

EL: Yes, yes, yes. Making a comfortable, queer-positive workplace is not about stopping people from using derogatory terms. It’s so much more than that, and I think you’re right in suggesting that what every workplace needs is allyship.

What I’m curious to hear from you is: Whose job is it to educate the knobs? How do we get the ignorant colleagues to learn why they’re wrong or offensive, and build a better system of allies? 

MJ: NOT MY JOB. I AM A VERY BUSY MAN.

EL: Does that responsibility fall on queer people? I don’t necessarily think that, in addition to trying to excel at the tasks I’m given at work, I should also have to be a walking billboard for more inclusivity in the workplace. Does that make me part of the problem?

MJ: Maybe it’s a bit of both? You’re right, it’s not your job to go around transforming the outlooks of the employed masses. Everyone is an adult, so ultimately the onus should be on them to learn how not to be…the worst.

EL: I have a feeling some cishet readers might disagree with us. They might consider the onus to be on us because we’re the queer ones, the ones with the lived experiences and who have endured all of the bullshit, and therefore we’re the best source to teach people what’s right and what’s wrong. I think we have a bit of a responsibility here to explain that, no, you being a decent human being is not my responsibility. That’s all you, bud.

MJ: Well, okay, to a certain extent I do agree. Not so much that it’s our responsibility (it’s not), but in some situations explaining that lived experience might help. Like, if anyone were to clandestinely show me naked pics in a sweaty kitchen again, I would now say, “PLEASE remove that from beneath my gaze.” That said, not everyone is motivated by b l i n d  r a g e, and not everyone works in a space where they can feel safe reacting that way. So it can’t only be that, I get it.

We’re discounting here that a number of hetero people aren’t ignorant and knobby and actually do a pretty great job of creating queer-positive spaces a lot of the time. I think, ultimately, they as a mass have the most power. Responsibility should lie partly with them. It would be incredibly helpful if informed people could speak up when something gross happens. Ideally, queer people will feel safe speaking to their personal experience when they want to, and the rest of the time, everyone will keep each other in check?

EL: I know that, in my experience, I would have felt way better if I had a straight ally step in and say, “Whoa, that is gross, stop it.” I don’t think I do a good job of combatting homophobia when it’s directed at me. For instance, I had a colleague refer to me as “power dyke,” a reference to my personal Twitter bio. And on the inside, I was enraged that he thought it was totally okay for him to use those words with me. But externally, I sort of just laughed and shrugged it off because I felt intimidated and uncomfortable. The straight colleague of mine who also heard this didn’t say much of anything—we only later discussed it after I approached her about the situation. But in that moment, the problematic nature of the comment went unnoticed, and I silently raged in my head. Which is super unhealthy.

It just reinforces the importance of allies. Not every queer person, like you said, is going to be okay with confronting homophobia. Moreover, not every queer person is out, and perhaps confronting it isn’t an option for them. I guess that’s where I’m coming from when I say that every queer person can’t bear the responsibility of educating their coworkers. I think it’s unrealistic. Everyone deserves a safe space without having to confront the problem people.

Maybe I am pessimistic. I do agree that there are tons of straight people who are incredible and kind and supportive. But not every workplace has that, you know?

MJ: Wow, power dyke is so aspirational to me.

I wonder if sometimes in situations like the one you just described, people legitimately think that what they’re doing is okay, though?

EL: Oh, they totally do. I have an inkling many people don’t get the concept of a minority group reclaiming a term. If I can use it, so can they, is the predominant sense I get. 

Which sucks, because I’m sure they don’t mean to be assholes.

MJ: Okay, so how do we address that? MANDATORY READING LIST. Everyone follow five gays on Twitter. (I’m only half joking.)

EL: I don’t think that is a terrible idea. Actually, my dad, who works in construction, had to do sensitivity training, along with all the other straight dudes he works with. They got a bunch of literature, and had to complete quizzes with absurdly straightforward true and false answers. The questions were like, “Someone with a disability cannot have a fulfilling life” (seriously), or “I can’t discuss my life with my gay coworkers.” I think that the idea of sensitivity training is pretty cool, especially in a workplace like my dad’s where I’m sure homophobia and other -isms run rampant.

Maybe the onus is on our employers to be willing to go out and address all of this stuff. I’m not saying every workplace should put out these ridiculous true-and-false tests, but at the very least, there should be some sort of training or meetings or something that suggests, “Hey, you can’t be a jerk to the queer people here. Here’s stuff you should do and shouldn’t do to be a good ally.”

MJ: This sounds like a great business opportunity for us. 

EL: Training homophobes to treat their queer coworkers with respect? Megan and Erica’s Excellent Adventure starts now.

MJ: We could call ourselves Power Dykes™ and then immediately explain to people the nuances of reclamation.

EL: I’m in.

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