Reductions & Assumptions: Homophobia & Homogenising at Work

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In the wake of Orlando, I can’t bring myself to write another post about another atrocity. It’s all just too awful, too heart-breaking, and I have to ask myself: am I any more qualified than anyone else to make sense of what boils down to mystifying hatred that we’ll never fully understand? No, I’m not.

And, when it boils down to it, I am mystified, totally mystified, just as I am always mystified by pre-packaged forms of hatred like racism and homophobia.   

When it comes to the latter, however, and particularly in relation to homophobia at work, I feel I am, as a gay man, pretty well qualified to speak out on this subject.

Not that I feel I have experienced much homophobia in my working life, but then, and this is the thing really, how, unless baldly overt, would I know?

I always assume people will assume I’m gay. People tend to. And, in that, they make a lot of other assumptions too.

Reflecting on this, I would say, on the whole, my ‘otherness’ has been more of an asset than a hinderance – but even this, on reflection, is a little problematic.

It undoubtedly helped in securing my teen and uni jobs in designer clothes stores (where it was a given I could sell to men and women – which I did, and rather well if I do say so myself).

As I started my career in advertising, as a creative, again, I think others took my sexuality to validate my creativity in some way. I had more licence, somehow, to be ‘other’ – a little more eccentric, a little more dramatic; a lot more outspoken.

I remember a client (a straight, middle-aged, though admittedly rather ‘metrosexual’, man) saying to me, very early on in my career, that it was a tremendous advantage being a gay man in business as men wouldn’t be threatened by me, and women would, generally, want to like me and confide in me.

What’s interesting is that none of the above assessments actually had anything to do with me and my personality.

Somehow, my preferences in the bedroom created a shortcut for other people to project a personality onto me, happily one with many positive attributes but, nevertheless, one where I, Matthew the person, not Matthew the gay man, didn’t really feature (I’d like to think there is a little more to me than just my sexuality, even if I am subconsciously thinking about it every six seconds or whatever it is).

I have no idea whether men I have worked with have felt threatened by me or not. I have no idea whether the fact that I am a gay man has made more women warm to me than had I been a straight one.

What I do know, though, is that people have definitely made an awful lot of assumptions about me over the years based on my sexuality rather than my personality, and the most common assumption, and sometimes the most difficult one, is that I’ll be a people pleaser.

A lot of gay men are people pleasers. It’s understandable. Growing up with a sense of the rejection and hostility you might face should you fully reveal who you are, it’s logical a lot of gay men go to great lengths to make themselves palatable to others.

Often, at work, this means being the life and soul of the office. I have a good example of this that perfectly illustrates such expectations from others.

Years ago, I was in an internal meeting at the agency I was working in, and this (straight) guy, about the same age as me and new to the company, asked me, apropos nothing at all, if I was gay:

“So Matt, are you gay?”

I don’t know what I was more taken aback by, the contraction of my name (if I introduced myself to you as Matthew, that’s the way I’d like to be addressed) or this very public investigation into my sex life.

And so I, rather coolly, replied, “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, oh,” this guy says, feeling now he has made a faux pas and that others in the room are looking at him rather unkindly, “it’s just that,” he says as way of explanation, “where I worked before there were a lot of gay guys and we, you know, had a lot of banter and stuff.”

I got what he was saying. I’d seen what he was saying. A lot of gay men at work earn their popularity through endless compliments, telling salacious tales of the weekend’s exploits and trading gossip. Nothing wrong in that. All great fun. But it can end up meaning being taken less seriously as a result and, at work, I’ve always wanted what I think to be taken seriously, so have very deliberately avoided building this kind of rapport with my colleagues.

(Besides which, just because people are laughing along with you doesn’t mean they’re not judging you too).

You can really sense the disappointment though, when someone thinks you’re going to be camping it up rather than clamping down on what needs to get done; when you’re not as gay, in the traditional sense of the word, as they’d like you to be.

You couldn’t call it homophobia. It’s not that. The people who do this are anything but homophobic, and trying to prove it. It is, however, a kind of homo-homogenising and, in some environments, it can induce people to stay in the closet as much as the fear of distain, disapproval or even the mystery of that hatred.

Don’t assume you know me because you know I’m gay. In all honesty, that gives you as little insight as to who I am as knowing I’m a Scorpio, a Tiger or an ENTJ.

As with so much around diversity issues, people are well-intentioned, but a little thoughtless, too.

As I once explained to a former colleague who’d used the word gay as an adjective, an out and proud man like me (with a scorpion’s sting and a tiger’s claws) can more than handle that being said, but, that early twenty-something guy or girl sitting across from you who’s yet to come out might inwardly wince at hearing that, might inwardly feel a little more isolated and, most important of all, less inclined to point out you’re being a little thoughtless in what you say, if not outrightly offensive.

And it’s those little conversations, those little pointers, that help so much in clarifying people’s understanding of one another; that help in uniting, rather than dividing, us. 

In fact, throughout my entire career, I can only think of one overt instance of homophobia that I’ve experienced, and I was so shocked by it I didn’t say anything at all at the time.

This wasn’t that long ago, and I’d been headhunted for a very senior agency role, and was attending a panel interview. We were talking about various clients I’d worked with, when a guy on the panel asked me, “And are there any clients where your creative camp hasn’t gone down so well?”

I understood the question. It goes back to my point earlier about, as a gay man, perhaps not being taken as seriously as one might be, but, in light of the evidence in front of him (I’ve worked with some pretty ‘macho’ organisations in my time – the police, the prison service, automotives, banking, law, tech and engineering firms) it was a really insulting question.

Perhaps just a thoughtless one. Perhaps if he’s reading this he’ll feel a little better informed now as to why that was so inappropriate.

And my final point on the same strand of thought: in my twenty years of work, no one has ever invited me to play golf. I can’t play golf; I don’t want to go and play golf; but it would have been nice, just once, if someone hadn’t assumed that was the case.

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