working out

It’s been a very strange morning here at the office. By 10:00 I’d already been involved in two personal conversations–including one with my boss–about homosexuality.

My closet having been blown wide open when I started coming out in 1980 to my friends and family, the final splinters from the closet door were swept away in 1992 when I finally officially came out to my parents. I’ve always been out in the workplace, too, even spearheading efforts to add sexual orientation to my previous employers’ antidiscrimination policies, to gain domestic partner benefits, and to organize company- and industry-wide queer employee groups.

So the past eleven months at the Department of State have been oddly and somewhat distressingly–albeit inadvertently–like going back into a closet of sorts. I’ve been told that State may be the most progressive federal agency on glbt issues, yet I feel a greater sense of disapprobation here for those who are openly gay and less self-disclosure from other queer employees than anywhere else I’ve worked; it’s been almost completely a non-issue in all of my other employment over the past 19 years. Granted, staff here seem less likely to engage in any kind of personal sharing or making personal connections than anywhere I’ve worked before. With a few notable exceptions, mostly among the contract staff, I’ve noticed very little socialization among employees.

So, back to the issue at hand. One of the contractors I oversee is lesbian, and she and I do tend to share more personal information with one another; she’s also probably the most visibly out person here at the Institute, often talking about her partner or mentioning that she is gay within minutes of meeting someone else, sometimes in ways that seem even to me more gratuitious than relevant. In this regard, too, I’ve noticed that other staff tend to talk disparagingly about this aspect of her communication, and they focus on what they describe as “wearing her sexuality on her sleeve.” More accurately, though, I think that she’s just more informal and less careful about her conversation more generally; she often blurts out things about a wide range of issues and people without thinking of the context or the level of appropriateness, not just about her or others’ sexual orientation, though that’s what many of my straight colleagues seem to focus on. I, on the other hand, have been less forthcoming about my personal life since coming to work here, not because I’ve made a deliberate decision to withhold information, but primarily just because I really haven’t had much of a personal life to share during the time I’ve been employed here. I’ve been single and haven’t even dated much, and largely have been wrapped up in a variety of concerns–my dad’s health, problems with my condo and my car, etc.–that haven’t left much time or energy for a social life. At the same time, I haven’t become particularly close to anyone here, with the exception of one colleague, so my sexual orientation has remained largely unspoken and uncommented upon.

Yesterday, though, in a meeting with the contractor and my immediate supervisor, the latter made a complimentary comment about the support I’ve been giving her in organizing and managing some projects, and the contractor quipped, “Well, we knew we needed a gay man for the job.” Though I suspected my supervisor knew that I’m gay, we’d never personally spoken about it. There was a short awkward pause in the conversation, but then we went back to the topic and moved on. I was amused more than anything else, and after the meeting was over didn’t even think about it again.

My boss, though, apparently was disturbed by it, and she came to me today to tell me that she planned to speak to the contractor about it, and that it had potentially created a “hostile work environment” that could set the stage for a complaint, by me, of sexual harrassment. While I agreed in theory that the comment had been potentially inappropriate, and it was a little frustrating to hear that the contractor, without first asking or telling me, had outed me to my supervisor months ago when my supervisor first returned to the job after a year’s sabbatical, I suggested that she take the approach not of focusing specifically on the comment about my being gay, which in and of itself I found neither offensive nor threatening, but about the contractor’s tendency more generally to speak without thinking or being aware of the environment and context for her remarks.

This led to a conversation about where people draw the lines of their own comfort level, and I pointed out that while my boss defines the contractor’s references to her partner as “giving too much detail about her personal life,” she herself has shared a great level of detail about her own marriage, divorce and new relationship with her opposite-sex partner, to whom she’s not married. All in all, it was a positive conversation; sometimes I’m amazed at the comfortable relationship I have with my boss, and our ability to be completely blunt and honest with each other, given that before she came back I’d heard comments about her previous behavior that left me feeling anxious about working with her.

After this conversation, one of my other contract staff came to speak to me, and she wanted to share some personal health-related issues that were having a bearing on her emotional state and, by extension, on her work performance. In the context of recognizing that she and I are developing a personal relationship as well as a professional one, and her burgeoning friendship with the lesbian contractor as well, I ended up outing myself again, as a natural part of the conversation. She already had guessed as much, but told me that she assumed that I was closeted here, which was a strange and discomforting thing to hear. But it opened another door to developing some social relationships here, and we’ve already begun to make plans to start having lunch together more often.

So while at eleven months into the job it’s taken significantly longer than usual to reach a comfort level I’ve usually taken for granted, at least it does look like I may finally be finding some additional personal connections here that may help make the workday a little more engaging.