being a queer professional

Oi, this sounds bad. No, I’m not saying I’m a hooker or anything but rather that this post is about how I manage – or actually not manage – my queerness at work. The thing is, I don’t mind being out at work in general. Not everyone knows but mainly because it hasn’t come up yet and I’m not running around waving my rainbow flag all over the place. That’s just not how I roll but I promised myself I will always be honest when the topic arises because visibility matters and I don’t want to live in any closet anymore.

The other day, I landed in some kind of dilemma, or it is at least one for me, not so much anyone else as it mostly concerns how I feel about this. I also don’t have a real solution to this because…well, let me paint you a picture first, maybe that will help.

My job as an external HSE Engineer involves going into a whole lot of different companies on a daily basis. These companies are our clients and I am supposed to be their adviser when it comes to health and safety regulations. There is this one company, and I’ve been to it a few times already since we work for them. The head of said company is an older guy, he is generally nice but definitely older, like probably already in his 60s. So when we somehow landed on the topic of feminism and men holding doors open for women, I chickened out.

Now I have quite a lot of opinions on feminism in general, way more than I want to discuss at the end of a work day with a guy I only see a couple of times a year (at best). He suggested though that one day I will think differently and will want my husband to hold open the door for me, carry my things and remember my birthday and anniversaries. So in the matter of a few seconds I had to make a decision whether to say that I’m gay and thus will never end with a guy or just take a vague cop out. I opted for the cop out because it seemed best at the time though I kept feeling wrong afterwards, hence this post and a small Twitter feels vomit.

Because I made a pact with myself to be open about it. Fuck other peoples potential prejudices.

And I didn’t even know how he would react, I just assumed he could be homophobic. Maybe this was the smarter decision from a company standpoint because I don’t want to jeopardise my work relationship with the guy at all but I also can’t stop thinking about this.

Because, for me, personally, this was the wrong decision I made. I know that now. I wouldn’t be still turning these things over in my head if I had been 100% okay with what route I took. Naturally it is non of his beeswax if I’m gay or straight or like to have smutty phantasies about dinosaurs in my free time, so it shouldn’t matter so much what I did. Maybe I will get the chance one day to rectify this misstep, after I’ve gotten to know him better, I don’t know and it shouldn’t matter but it kind of does.

Sometimes these things just hit me, because this constant struggle of coming out is one that queer folks have to do over and over again because we live in a heteronormative society and people simply assume everyone is straight. I do it too, actually. I’m only at the beginning of my working life so far and this is not an issue exclusive to this part of my life but a thing to consider whenever I meet new people.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t have a solution for this. In hindsight I would do it differently because I had time to think it over and maybe next time I will react differently, I can’t say with certainty though. I guess, I have to learn to navigate these queer waters.

But it’s also slightly terrifying because you never truly know how anyone will react. And I should keep my private life separate from my professional life, at least the one I lead when I’m not at the office and am actually representing my own company. As I type this out though, it really sounds stupid to me.

I am not someone who holds back. I’m loud and obnoxious at times. I say too much and make sarcastic comments in the wrong moments. I am open and direct so keeping my sexual orientation to myself would mean, hiding a part of myself; really and truly not being genuine. This is who and how I am and I’m proud of the person I am. On most days, at least. There are people who are much better at compartmentalising and this is also not the solution for everybody but at the end of the day, you have to do what is right for you and not someone else.

Also, can I take a moment to point out some of there other things that bothered me with his “one day you will change your mind statement”?

I can very well get my own damn door, change my own tires etc.

Remembering your significant other’s birthday or your wedding anniversary is common decency and has nothing to do with whether you are in a hetero- or homosexual relationship.

And I will not necessarily change my mind on anything because I’m stubborn and headstrong!

I guess I got my answer after all. Sometimes the easy road is not the right one to take and I have to remember that for the next time. And the one after that. Thanks internet, for letting me ramble and figure my shit out by myself. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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  • Alex

    Great post. The coming-out part is something I obviously have no direct experience of, but as someone who also works with a lot of external clients I have had the dilemma of how much I want to talk about my personal life, and how much I want to challenge certain assumptions that they make. I am always shocked when people I don’t even know just casually ask when I’m going to tie the knot, or make comments about my ‘biological clock’, or say things like ‘when you have kids…’. But in a work environment, and especially when it’s customers who I need to keep happy, I very rarely call people on those comments and instead just politely smile and nod while secretly seething.

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Yes, no matter what the details, if you have a very client heavy work environment, you have to make all kinds of decisions about what to share and what not to.

      I hate the assumptions that everybody will eventually have kids because of the biological clock. And it is nobody’s deal aside from my own and my partner when and if I get married, damn it.

  • Clément Polge

    I have many thoughts about this, but obviously, my position is very different than yours…

    When I engage on social issues, I tend to REALLY engage, I don’t pull out easily (#classytweetaboutcontraceptionmethod), basically I only stop arguing when either of us changed our mind, or when I’ve stopped caring. The first one often arrive, but something I really really strongly believe something to be bullshit, and the other person really can’t understand, and I’ll often lose a LOT of respect for them, and I’ll usually don’t want to talk to them again. Like, at all.

    But obviously, this also drains a lot of energy, and sometimes, you just know the cause is lost before even starting. Like that old dude who will just hand-wave everything you can say because his mind is set. So most of the time, I just don’t engage, or at worst, I ask one question to confront that point of view, and I stop.

    But that’s also something I’m easily “allowed” to do, I kinda hate it when people throw “STRAIGHT WHITE BOY” at my face as a way to dismiss anything I can say, but at the same time, I have to realise that I don’t actually live most of these injustices, and that it’s really easy for me to not engage and just think “meh, it’s just another moron, and there’s no way i’ll change his mind”, and I’ll find that sad, and I’ll cut that person out of my life and/or keep a strictly “professional” relationship with him/her, and that’ll be it.

    But I can understand why you can’t do this, and I’m sad that you regret your decision, the point I’m awkwardly trying to make is that *it’s ok* to not engage, it’s ok to want some peace of mind rather than full-frontal assault, and it’s ok to want to keep your private life… Private.

    I’ll ask this though: had you indeed confronted him, he might have just reacted awkwardly/uncomfortably (from realising the stupidity of his assumption, not necessarily from homophobia), or he might have hand-waved it calling it a phase, and you wouldn’t really have been in a position to have an actual deep conversation with him, so would you really feel that much more comfortable had that happened ?

    My ultimate point, which I am VERY clumsily making, is that it seems to me that there are no right answer to your dilemma, that I hope you find peace with the choice you made this time, with the future choice you’ll have to make were this situation to present itself again, and that you shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself to defend and/or justify who you are.

    In the end, it’s about you, and the right choice should be the one that give you peace of mind.

    • Clément Polge

      Also I just stumbled onto that video about coming out in the workplace, and thought it was relevant to your post, so here’s the link :

      • Wilhelmina Upton

        The video was really heartbreaking but I could relate to it a lot.

        I wouldn’t have gone round to round with this man and I can’t tell how he would have reacted, maybe he would even have been cool with it but that’s the point. Just like you can’t directly tell I’m gay from looking at me, you can’t always spot the homophobes/not-homophobes. But for the sake of not potentially ruining a business relationship, I just didn’t say the right thing. I lied by omission to use Ellen Page’s words.

        I’m not really beating myself up, but this was also the first time this problem arose and I had to make a decision and I needed to ponder if I made the right call.

        Anyway, thanks for the long, thoughtful comment!

  • I detest the ‘one day your will change your mind’ shite- yeah, that might be true; but fucking one day is so far away that we don’t know what might happen: WE MIGHT NOT HAVE DOORS ANYMORE!

    {also, seriously, fuck off- feminism isn’t about people holding open doors or carrying my bags. my dad is old now, i carry bags and open doors.. that’s being a decent human being and not really about gender norms on femininity and masculinity.. ugh what a nonsensical argument. i hate it when it’s used as some sort of MAGIC! card)

    So, fuck ‘one day’. I actually think it’s a really disrespectful thing to say because it rubbishes the validity of what one is saying in the current moment and one’s current opinions; as though they hold no weight.

    I come up against the ‘one day’ bullshit a lot when doing youth rights work, and my usual response is ‘Haha. That may be so, but I’m fairly certain of how things are currently and I think it’s important to focus on that than try and predict the future’.

    On coming out as a professional- it’s not always easy for me (though perhaps easier than most given my work) to claim space with a ‘my sexuality is fluid’ or retort with a snap ‘Or maybe a woman’ or ‘if they afford LGBTQI couples the same rights as het couples, yeah.. maybe’ and depending on the context it can be dangerous and can threaten a lot of things that I don’t have protections for (legally or otherwise) so I think it really comes down to you and your own safety (and this in not just physically but emotionally, mentally- all of it) in a space.

    I think there is often a lot of expectation placed on queer communities and people to constantly be waving the rainbow flag, but sometimes it’s just not possible or isn’t safe; and I don’t see it as some kind of betrayal or as though I am obliged to educate or correct somebody. I honestly feel that it’s something that one must decide for themselves in that moment and make peace with it because it doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ queer if you don’t correct it every single bloody time someone makes an arse of themselves.

    If it continues to bother you, I would suggest having a simple but non-fussy comment that doesn’t escalate anything but sets things out quite clearly for everyone involved. Perhaps even a smiley, ‘or a lovely female partner-‘ and then continue the conversation. It inserts a correction and an implication but without the heat. If they do pursue it, you have every right to say ‘I’d rather not discuss my personal life’ and leave it at that.

    I know it can be a frustrating space and sometimes it feels as though it’s a betrayal to the ’cause’, but chin up- the ’cause’ is only as strong as its people, and its people are only strong when they are safe. So take care of yourself, and don’t beat yourself up for what is an uncomfortable (and unfair!) situation that someone else has created through a lack of their own reflexivity. It isn’t always your job to educate: sometimes it’s OK to let it go.

    Chin up. xxx

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Why thank you for this comment. You’re right, holding open a door or carrying someone’s stuff has nothing to do with gender roles but comes down to being a decent human being or not which is why I told my boss when we were talking about it earlier that same day, I didn’t even consider it an issue of feminism to carry my own stuff. That’s just bullshit.

      I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe in that situation and not like a bad queer either. It hit me on a more personal level because I don’t want to hide away from who I am and I don’t need to. It’s not so much about the cause but about being true to myself. I hate actually saying that I’m a lesbian (in German mostly) and thus always come out in a rather off hand remark. I find that way easier and not as “Waving my rainbow flag” type of thing. Just a personal choice like wearing Chucks instead of heels.

      • Clément Polge

        I remember reading once that there actually was a reason for this. It also said that it was considered polite for men to be on the lower point when taking the stairs (so, last if going up, first if going down). The reason is actually shoes: women sometimes wear heels, which makes them more likely to trip and fall, so you want the man (who usually have more classical shoes) to be able to catch her.

        I assume stuff-holding and door-opening are based on the same idea, carrying heavy stuff while in heel must kill your feet, and pushing or pulling a door usually requires some good footing.

        • Wilhelmina Upton

          But then again, not everyone wear heels. I don’t so these would not even apply to me. Why wear shoes you can’t walk in?! Fuck that.

          • Clément Polge

            Oh yeah definitely, I guess it’s just a case of “instead of checking someone’s shoes each time, just take the habit”.

            It’s coming from a good place, but it does get perverted to the “women be weak so us strong men must help them with physical stuff”, which is a shame.

          • Wilhelmina Upton

            Pretty much, yes. I mean, it is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t mean all we do must be carried out like that.