Out @ Work

Two weeks ago I was asked to sit on a panel of employed LGBTQ folks for two sections of an organizational diversity class (MGMT 412) here at the University. Barb Wrigley, one of the best ladies on the planet and also one of my adopted mamas, nominated me to take her place on the panel due to a scheduling conflict. I accepted and the class meets this afternoon. I've labored over my "10-15 minute presentation" not only because I've never really given a presentation about being out at work before, but because I want to make sure I provide valuable information to the students in both sections of the class while also making my story personal. 

I've decided to post my speech, of sorts, here on my blog because there is significant value in speaking out, writing all of these things down has helped me see how much I've grown over the past 16 years, and because I realized I haven't necessarily had it easy over the years. It was actually shocking to reveal to myself that I've faced a lot of stuff at work that I never reported. If my story touches the students in the classes today at all, or if somehow inspires a young person to speak up at work in the face of bullying or harassment, then I've done my job. Thanks to Barb, again, for recommending me. Your vote of confidence means more than you could possibly imagine! 

Hi. My name is Meaghan and I’m 31 years old. I was born and raised in the DC Metro area, I graduated from Fairfax County Public Schools in 1997 after attending Catholic school for a number of years, I have two loving parents who have been married my whole life (and then some), and I have a younger brother who is gay. I came out when I was 22 by virtue of being in a romantic relationship with a woman, but I didn’t tell my family or many of my friends. My brother came out when he was 15 and I felt like I couldn’t possibly be gay, too. So I wrestled with it for a few years, went to lesbian bars, scrutinized my attractions and decided that since I moved on from my first relationship with a woman to a completely new relationship with a different woman, that I was in fact a lesbian. Science! I made a formal announcement to my family and many of my friends when I was 23, and it took many years for my parents to accept me fully. I also lost a few friends for reasons that were never clarified.

As time passed, the way I understood my sexuality evolved quite a bit thanks to an expanding group of friends and a little therapy thrown in, too. In speaking to family and friends who knew me in the past I grew to realize that the only person who had no idea I was gay was…me. I migrated from a lesbian identity to labeling myself as queer because it has a number of implications. I believe gender exists on a spectrum; that is to say I believe that gender is not fixed or polarized, man or woman, male or female. I feel it limits me to say that I can and will only love women romantically; it’s also not true, for me, to say that. If you dive far enough into the LGBTQ world, you’ll find an endless array of labels and identifications that people embrace based on who they are, who they like, what they believe and what they enjoy. I find that calling myself queer permits me the flexibility to grow and change over time in lock step with how I grow and change intellectually, politically and spiritually. Who I am and what I am have never been choices. The words I have used to identify myself culturally and socially have always been a choice, however.

I’ve been employed full or part time for 16 years. Many of those years were spent working as a clerk and as a manager in various retail stores; Barnes & Noble, Borders, Trader Joe’s and Pier 1. There is a certain security in working retail if you are LGBTQ identified. By limiting my choice of employers to those with focused and enforceable anti-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation (and sometimes gender identity) as well as an industry that focuses on short, impersonal connections with external customers, I felt comfortable and safe. When I worked retail, I was young, as were my colleagues; if there were religious or cultural objections to my identity, I rarely heard them. My priorities at that point in my life weren’t whether I had access to domestic partner benefits or my tax filing status. Interestingly enough, however, I left Borders because I felt unsafe and unprotected because of my sexual identity. A senior manager, who was a lesbian, found out that I was dating a woman and cornered me in a back room to ask me inappropriate and invasive questions about my relationship.

At Trader Joe’s, which is (like most) a male-dominated company, I faced significantly more harassment than I had at any point previously. The job involved heavy lifting and it was expected, by colleagues and managers, that I prove myself by being physically able to lug boxes and operate equipment without the help of men. When it was revealed that I was a lesbian, a number of my male colleagues made comments about me being a “dyke” and noted that I was capable of handling the “manly” tasks around the store. Heterosexual men, peers and subordinates, were interested in conversing with me about sexually explicit topics about women, because they felt we had a common bond. They also made references to converting me “back” to heterosexuality, as if that’s possible. One of my subordinates went so far as to pick me up, which is a noble feat, and make sexually explicit motions with his body before releasing me. I think it’s very important to clarify that these things didn’t just happen to me because I’m a queer woman. They happened to me because I’m a woman; things like this happen to women, regardless of their sexual identity, every day in the workplace.

Trader Joe’s, however, was entirely progressive. Started in California, run by a hippie, and owned by a flamboyant and strange German recluse, they provided domestic partner benefits equal to those for heterosexual married partners and they had a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy. In fact, I remember my store manager returning from a human resources retreat and telling me that when a heterosexual manager asked the head of HR why domestic partner benefits were only available to same-sex couples, the head of HR replied, “everyone else has the choice to get married.” Trader Joe’s was a simultaneously validating and demeaning workplace. And in the end, not a great fit for me.

I’ve worked at Mason for close to six years and despite being employed by a politically and socially conservative state government, I have felt mostly welcome and protected as an employee here. I have remained significantly more closeted than I was in previous jobs, however. Shortly after I started I attended a Safe Zone training and continue to display my workshop button at my desk in full view of my colleagues and superiors; the frustrating part is that the majority of my coworkers have no idea what it means, nor would they be moved to participate in a workshop like Safe Zone unless required. I honestly believe that diversity training isn’t a priority of the leadership in the Commonwealth of Virginia, at least over the next few years, so it’s unlikely that many of my colleagues will ever participate.

Being queer at work here at Mason hasn’t been without its struggles. I always have to weigh the pros and cons of coming out to each person with whom I interact, which often highlights the fact that I’m pretty invisible. I’ve had a coworker tell me I’m going to hell and that I’m a sinner, using their religion as validation. I’ve been invited to a number of heterosexual wedding showers in the workplace, which I feel is universally inappropriate. There is little regard for the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia would not recognize my marriage, or any contractual relationship mimicking a marriage, were I to go through with the license/ceremony. I also would never feel comfortable publicizing my hypothetical nuptials to my workplace as a whole for fear of being ostracized or of retribution, whereas heterosexual peers can easily reap the social and material benefits. If I mention my partner to coworkers, they assume I mean boyfriend or husband. Some coworkers continue to call my partner my roommate, even though I’ve explained on numerous occasions that we have a one-bedroom apartment. Do they think we have bunkbeds?

I’ve had to come out to my bosses and let them know that if my partner were to become ill, I would appreciate their understanding when I use personal leave, even though there would be no question if any of my heterosexual coworkers needed to use leave to care for their wives or husbands. I cannot add my partner to my health insurance plan. I could move back into DC and get legally married but I would lose recognition of that status every time my metro train arrives in Rosslyn. In order to create a safe space where I can “work” without fear or discomfort, I started an independent craft business four years ago and started a blog tailored to my personal interests. I’ve cultivated a community of colleagues who appreciate and accept me because of who I am, which balances out the more complex identity control I employ during my traditional 40-hour work week.

I am fortunate to have a partner who understands and who has walked a similar road in life. I’m blessed to have parents who love and accept me. I have a gay brother who is well aware of all the complexities that our lives present. I’m lucky to have straight and gay friends who support me through thick and thin. I’m lucky to have a boss who accepts and appreciates me because I bring a diverse perspective to my office and to the field of libraries in general. There are times when I wonder where I’d be if I didn’t have to “struggle” with my identity, if I didn’t have to jump through hoops and find solace and acceptance in niche communities outside the mainstream. Coming out wouldn’t have been such a fight if being LGBTQ wasn’t such an abhorrent identity in the eyes of the community in which I grew up and in which I continue to live. Despite almost ten years of being out and visible, I still have to contend with people seeking proof, both publicly and professionally, of my queer identity as though it’s a choice I make when I wake up each morning. The only choice I make daily is the choice to not closet myself, to be out even when it’s the hardest and most unsafe decision I could make.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Meaghan,

    I remember you talking about the panel during work this past week and I just finished reading this post. You are a very elegant writer and I feel quite thankful to have been hired into GMU if only because I met you. For you to discuss your experiences and start a dialogue with students is amazing.

    I hope you are having a great weekend and that accupunk went well! Unfortunately, I didn't see your CAPS finger on Comcast Sportsnet on Friday night. :(

    -Lindsay

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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.