Sending The Wrong Signal

This post will violate one of the cardinal safe practices of life in the internet age, I am going to write about where I work. The media is full of stories about people getting into trouble for doing exactly that, but I believe there is a difference between “telling tales out of school” and commenting on the legitimate effect corporate policy has on the lives of LGBT people. Sorry Mom.

For the past half decade I was the project manager for a small design firm that I co-owned with my partners. One of the many upsides of being a queer small business owner, is that the issues of sexual orientation & gender identity discrimination in the workplace loose much of their personal immediacy.

I have certainly faced harassment and discrimination at work in the past. After college, while waiting for our now ex-husband to graduate from university, both myself and my partner (we were in a polyamoros marriage for just over eight years) worked for a local Jiffy Lube franchise to pay the bills. We each endured significant, daily, and at times violent harassment at our respective stores because of who we were. We were grateful to leave such things behind when we founded our little company.

Now, like many business owners faced with a troubled economy and/or familial strife we have had to shutter our company and seek gainful employment in the broader world. To keep the electricity on, I recently accepted a position as a junior sales consultant at a successful import car dealership on the coast of New Hampshire. For this essay we can call my dealership OBM.

Before I write another word I want to be completely clear that I have not received an iota of harassment at OBM due to my queerness. No one has used gay slurs in my presence, and my supervisor did not bat an eye at the mention of my “partner” or “boyfriend.” And yet, I do not feel safe or secure at work. The awareness that as far as OBM policy is concerned, I am a second class citizen, is never far from my mind.

Our employee handbook and training covers discrimination and harassment extensively, hardly surprising in an industry focused on customer interaction after all. OBM levies steep penalties up to and including summary termination for any harassment or discrimination on the basis of the standard categories: race, religion, sex, disability status, etc. Sexual orientation and gender identity/presentation are not protected under OBM policy. The anti-workplace discrimination video all employees have to watch only featured one portrayal of a gay person, and that was as the stereotypical predator who wouldn’t take “no” as an answer from a heterosexual co-worker.

New Hampshire is a gay marriage state, so presumably health benefits are available to married gays and lesbians. With repeal looking horrifyingly likely in the upcoming legislative term however, I would be extremely surprised if OBM was to offer health benefits to same-sex partners without a state mandate.

If I have never been harassed at work, why then does this lack of protection concern me? For the simple reason that I am always aware that I can be at any time. My employer has made the decision that I as a queer/LGBT person am not someone worthy of protection in the workplace. The argument could be made that I am theoretically afforded some limited protections by the state’s non-discrimination law as it applies to employment. However, this position has two flaws. The first is that the law’s scope is more limited than one might imagine. The second is that if state legal protection really is all that one needs, why then does OBM have a policy to cover any categories of identity, as all of the ones named in OBM’s guidelines are also covered under state law.

I am not so naïve as to think that having sexual orientation and gender identity/presentation in my employer’s anti-harassment policy would provide me any real protection or recourse if I was being harassed at work. However, I do think that not including those categories sends the clear message to OBM employees that the company has no direct objection to the harassment of their queer colleagues. This disregard by the corporate management in itself creates a state of heightened tension in the work environment, even in the absence of any conflict with my coworkers.

I think of myself as a queer activist. In fact, I have taught classes on queer/LGBT activism in the past. This situation at OBM has me deeply conflicted. With no recourse against discrimination or harassment, it would be difficult for me to bring the issue up, particularly in a field that still has a reputation for machismo. Moreover I am still in my probationary period, and rocking the boat so-to-speak could reduce my chances of being retained at the end of my probation. I feel a deeply rooted struggle between my desire to fight for my right to work in a workplace free from fear, and my desire to keep my creditors at bay.

In truth, I would be somewhat surprised to find that OBM’s owners and management have any serious anti-LGBT bias. This situation feels more like one of benign neglect than outright discrimination. Perhaps OBM has not had many openly non-heterosexual employees in its many years of operation.

As I continue to learn the ropes in my new job, I am not going to stop being who I am. I will not switch my pronouns, or pretend to be single when I am not, or police my mannerisms anymore than I would in any other professional environment. I hope that over time my concerns will prove unfounded, and my queerness will continue to be a non-issue with my supervisors, coworkers, and customers. However, even if my none of my concerns manifest, the criticism remains a valid one. In a workplace that allows anti-LGBT harassment, even should it never occur, an LGBT person can never be truly equal to their fellows.

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