I had to walk away from my office this morning because the comments my coworkers were spouting about gun rights and homosexuality were too much for me. I’m seriously thinking about whether I can go back to work or not. I’m gay and everyone I work with knows it, but they forget my status when they’re making jokes about gay people. I normally just keep my mouth shut.
What straight people don’t understand is that a gay bar is a refuge for us, a place where we can go and not be judged or fear we have a target on our back. When you enter a gay bar, even one not in your own town, you’re welcomed as if you’re family. For me, it’s wasn’t just “some people” murdered, it was my brothers and sisters. If I’d lived in Orlando, it could easily have been me.
So while I’ve always put up with the gay insults, I can’t right now. But I’m afraid that if I bring this to management’s attention I’ll be marginalized for stifling others’ free speech or, worse, restricted from talking about my lifestyle. What do I do?
The terror attack against gays and Latinos is a national tragedy that many of us found ourselves needing to talk about with our work families. It hits you personally in a way that presents you and others in your workplace with a turning point. You may need a couple of days away from your workplace to be able to process what happened without hearing others’ commentary. Talking aids the grieving process but only if it doesn’t make you feel categorized as “other.”
Perhaps because it’s an election year and both Trump and Clinton have turned this tragedy into talking points, the discussion in many workplaces has become incredibly polarized. Some employers have shut down all political discussion. This tragedy, however, like Sept. 11, 2001, supersedes normal workplace protocol.
Can you bring yourself to share your views without anger? If so, perhaps it’s time to stop biting your tongue. When you let others insult your identity group in your presence, you miss the opportunity to educate them so that they can realize the “others” they’re talking about are real people, including ones they know and like.
This only works, of course, if you can do so without causing yourself more pain or escalating the conversation. You can also ask your coworkers to stop insultingly discussing gay people in front of you. When they do so repeatedly, they create a hostile environment for you.
Your management or HR personnel also need to intervene. The jokes you’ve endured aren’t “free speech” but may constitute illegal discrimination, as sexual orientation and gender identity are categories protected in Anchorage workplaces. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your lifestyle. Like each of your coworkers, you’re allowed to do so within limits.
©Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.