Survival Guide

Working in the closet

As a 23 year-old male student, I, like the masses, have many hobbies; I adore reading, writing, clubbing and traveling – to name but a few. Maybe, if pushed, I’d single out writing as my preferred interest. Why? Well, you can use it as a tool to create narratives, aimlessly procrastinate or even vent your frustrations – and that’s exactly what I find myself doing right now. I find myself engulfed in a constant struggle in the workplace with my sexual orientation to the point where I often have an identity crisis – but not because I struggle to accept who I am, those days have long since passed – no, it’s because, in my experience, bigotry has been so prominent in wherever I’ve worked that I often just pretend I’m something I’m not, for an ‘easier’ life. It’s a sad reality, but it’s my reality nonetheless.
Let me be clear; I don’t go over to people and say; “hey, I’m Ger and I’m gay”. Why would anyone do that? I wouldn’t do it if I was heterosexual, nor will I do it because I’m homosexual. A person’s sexuality is but one facet of their being, and in most cases, it’s not a defining one. That’s not the issue.
The issue, rather, is when people simply assume you to be straight and proceed to go off on a homophobic rant and arrogantly assume you’ll agree. “I agree with them being together or whatever, but marrying, not a chance, it’s not natural”, “I must have missed the straight pride parade” or even “did you hear that X is gay? Steer clear of that guy”. Those are some of the milder, but still repulsive, comments that have been uttered to me in various part-time jobs I’ve had. Your opinion is yours, so please don’t assume that those around you will share your bigoted views; it’s insulting and deeply hurtful.
I don’t let these comments fly, not by a long shot. I actively debate the person making such derogatory remarks but nobody ever wins in these often heated exchanges. What often happens, though, is that the person who you’re debating starts to become suspicious of your ‘agenda’. A male person defending gay rights and women? Surely this person is gay himself. In my case they’d be correct, but I’m only one case. I never wanted the person I was debating to think I was gay, for two very different reasons; I knew they’d pull the ‘of course you’d think that’ card if they knew and, ultimately, I didn’t want people to also belittle me as they had so many others, simply because of my sexuality. If asked directly, I would never lie about it – even with the blatant workplace bigotry I had experienced, I’m proud of who I am, so there never came a time when I’d lie about my sexuality in work, or any place for that matter. That was until my last job when I did just that, and it was one of the darkest days of my life.
In this job, there had been so many examples of unapologetic bigotry that I, dare I say it, had started to become desensitised to it. I had become aware that the N word was frequently used by management. Then there were the times when visiting Muslims would be just as likely to ‘blow you up’ as buy anything. Or the notion that sharing a seat on a bus with a ‘fag’ is ‘sickening’. Also, let’s not forget the conversation I had with a certain someone who expressed favourable views towards the now 45th President Elect Donald Trump, as he would ‘put minorities in their rightful place’. Of course, there was also blatant sexism, against both genders, that permeated so visibly. That’s just a small appetizer of what materialised for me in that job. Having experienced all that and much more, I was a broken man who argued against bigotry less and less and ultimately, I was also a straight man, at least when in work.
After a particularly nasty disagreement with a co-worker, I was asked the question that I was dreading; ‘are you gay?’ I was stunned into silence for what seemed like minutes. What did that matter? Why did she ask me that? Yeah, and what of it? That’s what I should have said, but I didn’t. I said ‘no’ and we continued to discuss our differences with regards to same-sex marriage. However, unlike all those times previous when I had actively debated bigots, I did so this time with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Why oh why did I say no? I know why I did it, but still, I regret it to this day. It brought me back to my late teen years and all the apparent struggles I had endured with coming to terms with my sexuality. Those days have long since passed, so why did I do that? Did I really just reject who I am? Even many months after, I struggle to accept what I did. However, I also know that, if it were not for the poisonous bigoted atmosphere that existed in that job, I would never have denied who I was. I shouldn’t have wilted, but I almost exclusively blame the environment that I was working in for it.
If you’re working in an environment that, in some quarters, far from all of course, expresses deep resentment for your way of life, how would you combat it? I didn’t have an answer, and for that, I created my very own identity crisis. Everywhere apart from work I was Ger, a happy, vibrant 23 year old student who happened to be gay. Whereas in work, I was Ger, a not-so-happy 23 year old student who, when asked, wasn’t gay. I hated every minute of it.
As I conclude, these are merely my own experiences. I’m not for one second suggesting that instances of workplace bigotry such as my own are widespread, I’m simply stating that they were for me. Bigotry, of all kinds, exists throughout the globe, but just because it’s prevalent, doesn’t mean we must accept it.
A 2016 study performed by LGBTI Ireland found that almost three in four LGBT teenagers in Ireland have suicidal thoughts while one third have attempted suicide. This is a serious issue that needs addressing, and if my workplace experiences are anything to go by, we also need to stop bigotry beyond schools, as adults are just as likely to be cruel.