Harmonopoly 26: My Queerness, Employment, and SCOTUS

I just came out at work and I don't want to...go back in?

This is my favorite work outfit right now. I would like to keep wearing it.

CW: details of the SCOTUS cases below (homophobia, transphobia)- feel free to skip if you don’t want to read this today.

So, this week the Supreme Court entertained arguments about whether somebody can fire me because I am queer. This actually is not the first time my personhood or autonomy is going to be a subject of legal debate-- shoutout to my fellow owners of uteri --but it is the first time it is happening specifically because of my outwardly expressed sexual orientation. Obviously, this sucks. But I think the timing of this particular event has put me in a unique position to talk about exactly why it sucks, so here we go:

A little over a year ago, I would not have had to worry about this Supreme Court case at all. I would have been angry about it, sure, and I would have helped protest it, but I would have approached that activism with the comfort of knowing that I would ultimately be shielded from the outcome. I was married to a man. I was pretty much in the closet. I was also miserable and in deep denial, but in the eyes of society, I was straight enough not to discomfort other straight people. I made a decision early on in life not to explore my sexuality or outwardly express it in any way because I thought it would make my life easier if I didn’t.

That did not work out.

I am going to state this as plainly as I can, because you need to understand what’s at stake: being in the closet makes me want to be dead, and being outside of the closet makes me want to keep being alive. You cannot frame asking someone to hide who they are as a choice; or if you do, you must admit that it’s a choice that drives people into death and despair, and you are OK with their pain and misery as long as you are not inconvenienced as a result. 

If you do not agree with my assessment of those who would ask LGBTQ people to hide who they are in their everyday life, I encourage you to learn more about Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman who was fired from Harris Funeral Home for disclosing her gender identity to her employer. She had to choose between death and honesty; she chose honesty, and she lost her job. Her employer’s response to her coming out was so heartless and cruel it’s almost hard to believe: he was afraid that grieving families would not know what to do if a transgender person greeted them at the door of a funeral home, so it was easier to just fire her. 

Or consider Gerald Bostock, a man who worked for Clayton County for ten years as an employee who dedicated his professional career to matching kids in the juvenile court system with supportive adult volunteers. He joined a gay softball league, and invited some of his teammates to volunteer with his program. Instead of rewarding him for his initiative and dedication to helping kids out, Clayton County fired him for “conduct unbecoming an employee”. This decision cost Bostock his health insurance as he was recovering from cancer, but hey, why not endanger the life of someone who was only trying to help vulnerable children? Good call, Clayton County!

What cowardly assholes these bosses and decision-makers are! In a just society people would be throwing rotten food at them in the street. Instead, the Supreme Court is giving a veneer of respectability to their prejudice against their LGBTQ employees by pretending there might be some merit to it. Super-cool, great job everyone.

(I may sound flippant here, but I am crying as I write this. Just so you know.)

I feel a little awkward speaking out, because I am such a baby queer I haven’t even made it all the way through The L-Word yet. I’m still an expat in the world of sexual orientation: no longer personally identified with my presumed place of origin, but still trying to find a place that actually feels like home. By being able to express myself and explore what it means to be queer, I have been able to actually make sense of myself, and move towards a way of living that is both authentic and joyous in a way I did not have access to before. 

And yet, I’m also 35 years old: old enough to have an established professional history and over a decade of experience in my chosen field. I was lucky (I guess?) that I got unceremoniously laid off by my previous employer while I was in the process of coming out; I arrived at my new job as a fully-formed baby gay, a queer Athena whose divine charge is to manage a payroll.

As a result, I am still delighted by the novelty of being able to be out at work. When I chat with my coworkers about dating and relationships (a very common thing to discuss, straight folks-- how often do you bring up your husband/wife/kids in the course of a day?), I talk about whomever I’ve been seeing with their appropriate, preferred pronouns. When coworkers ask what I did over the weekend, it usually involves a queer networking or social event, and I talk about it in the same way they talk about taking their kids to soccer games: just a normal part of life. My work uniform now includes fun loafers and a selection of seasonal bowties. I’m not being queer AT my co-workers, but I am out, and it would take a great deal of effort for them not to notice that.

Nothing else about me has changed. I am not a worse employee. My masters degree was not revoked when I came out of the closet. My years of experience in my chosen field were not somehow invalidated. I did not become less clever, less helpful, or less dedicated to my work. The ONLY thing that has changed is that I now express my gender and sexuality in a way that feels natural and makes me happy. 

And for that reason, and that reason alone, the Supreme Court is about to give a big ol’ green light to anyone who wants to fire me if I make them feel weird about who I am.

The thing that scares me about this whole SCOTUS deal is that I know exactly the work required of me to go back in the closet, because I was already in there for so long. I could start wearing more feminine clothes and makeup again, if I had to duck gossip and prying eyes. I could stop opening up to my coworkers and telling them about my life, letting our coffee breaks lapse into odd silences and holing up at my desk during birthday parties. I could feign interest. I could lie.  I could socially isolate myself and live with the anxiety that ensued if I slipped up and gave some piece of myself away. I have passed for straight in a workplace before, and I could do it again if I had to.

But I should not have to! I did not realize how much of myself I was holding back, and how I was suffering for it, until I came out. I refuse to invalidate the painful journey it has taken me to arrive where I am at today. I am not going back in the closet for anybody, and that includes any future employer who has a problem with me.

I currently work somewhere that has protections in place for LGBTQ employees, and a culture that encourages openness and diversity. I know that I am fortunate to be here (and I sought out employment here because of that, truth be told), but it is unlikely I will keep this exact job from now until the day I retire. Do I have to choose between trying to keep this job forever, or having to closet myself if I find an opportunity at an organization that is uncomfortable with my sexuality? What if I want to live in a city where employment protections for people like me don’t exist, or what if I get hired somewhere that seems great from the outside and then I learn, whoopsie-daisy, my boss is a homophobe? It isn’t fair that anybody’s gender or sexual orientation is a matter of discussion in the workplace, but that’s reality. We already know that unconscious bias is a thing, and we already live in a country where there are precious few remaining protections for people who are terminated from jobs unfairly. What is the purpose of taking one more of those protections away? Who does it serve?

(I mean, we know who it serves.)

And for those who say this should be a matter left up to individual businesses or the states in which they reside: no, dipshit, it should not. Believing that a person’s rights should depend on their zip code or employer is antithetical to the concept of citizenship. It’s also bigoted and gross, and if you’re OK with it, you’re on the wrong side of history. Full stop.

If you’re one of the people who support businesses that fire LGBTQ people for being who they are, you can bring whatever legal hair-splitting bullshit you want to the table of that debate. It doesn’t matter. You’re asking people to stay in the closet because you think LGBTQ people are gross and unacceptable and should be hidden from society. You’re OK with Aimee Stephens losing her job because she was brave enough to walk away from death and be honest with the people in her life. Just admit it.  And be ashamed of yourself.

It also is a sad truth that much of the damage is already done; win or lose, this case made it to the highest court in the land. Your LGBTQ friends and family have already been inundated by sound bites and articles and all kinds of media nonsense where old white men in suits are debating their humanity for ratings and clicks. We’ve already seen the thousands of people in this country who are delighted to see our rights trampled, and the thousands more who are willing to go along with all this bullshit as long as it doesn’t rock their particular boat. It’s worth noting that the move to ensure that LGBTQ people lose workplace protections serves no policy or judicial goal whatsoever: it’s just spite. It’s just a show of power meant to make your LGBTQ friends and family feel a little less safe. But as we all know by now, the cruelty is the point

I wish I could deliver a pithy ending to this newsletter. Something encouraging about contacting your reps, or some damning burn to Kavanaugh that would double as a solid tweet. But I can’t do that. I’m just too rattled by how arbitrary and stupid it is that there are so many people in this country who could see the things I have done to make myself a whole, real person and conclude that I don’t deserve to have a job. To say nothing of my LGBTQ friends and family who have been living with this oppressive fear for much longer, in far more difficult circumstances, the people who have already lost more to be themselves than I could ever imagine. I don’t have the right to tell their stories to you. I can only speak for myself, and the fear I am experiencing today. But lots of those folks are speaking out, and you should be listening to them too.

If you consider yourself a straight ally, and this inspires compassion or righteous anger in you, please act on it. And be kind to your LGBTQ friends and family this week, and anyone else you know who is affected by this ridiculous bullshit administration and their ridiculous bullshit campaign of hate and terror against vulnerable people. As the circle of safety draws tighter around us, things will get worse before they get better. All we can do is hope we last long enough to ride it out together.

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