I work as a manager at a Fortune 10 company, and enjoy both the company and the people I work with. I wouldn't say that I've developed many close friendships with co-workers, but I have some friends and a lot of amicable relationships with people in the office.
One woman that I chat with fairly frequently is (to my mind) obviously gay, though she seems to be making some kind of effort to conceal it when we talk. When referring to her home life, she'll frequently make use of an indefinite "we," has once dropped the word "partner" when describing her life mate, and becomes obviously uncomfortable when someone hears her get a personal call from what I can only identify as a consistent female voice.
Of course, the company has a nondiscrimination policy, and from my personal views I have absolutely no problems with anyone's preference. I'd like for this co-worker of mine to feel comfortable talking about her home life if she feels like it, but haven't figured out a way to make it obvious that I'm supportive.
Is this something I should be direct about, in the sense of just saying that I both personally and professionally support gay lifestyles, or should I just let her establish her own boundaries even though it seems to me that her desire to conceal makes her uncomfortable? I have no desire to "out" anyone, but I like for the people I enjoy to feel like they can talk to me honestly.
Treading Lightly in the Social Underbrush
Dear Treading Lightly,
Imagine how it might feel if someone at work, someone with a fairly high rank with whom you have casual and pleasant conversations at your desk from time to time, were one day to lean down to you and say, in a lowered voice, apparently with the kindest of intentions, "I know we haven't talked about this before, but I just wanted to say, in case you thought it might be some kind of problem here, I can tell you're Jewish, and ... that's no problem!"
If you were Jewish you might feel a certain way. If you were not Jewish you might feel a certain way. Neither of those ways would be particularly good.
So I think you are right to let her establish and maintain her own boundaries. To raise the issue in any way strikes me as unwise.
Even outside the workplace, even if you were not a manager, I simply think that issues of "otherness" are unfathomable.
I have my ideas about why this is. But as one who is anything other than "other" -- a straight, white, middle-aged male American -- I would be of course on shaky ground in trying describe how it feels to be a lesbian, or, more precisely, a woman whom others take to be a lesbian, in a Fortune 10 workplace. That is a world beyond my experience.
While I do not have the direct experience, I do have powers of empathic imagination. So I will say this: It is my personal belief, based on experience and long thought, that if you are Asian or black or gay or disabled or any other of the multifarious American others, your life must be different in one particular way from the life of a person whom others automatically view as "normal." The difference is that you don't get your social identity handed to you at birth and reconfirmed throughout your life in everyday encounters. On the contrary, you have to struggle to assemble the face you present to the world. You have to struggle to learn just what aspects of that face the world will accept and what aspects it will shun. It gets tiring and frustrating.
If you, my friend, are like me in appearance, that is, an ordinary-looking white male American of average height and build, then you are in fact among an extraordinary elite of men, granted, by dint of history, an astounding array of opportunities, from the ability to go shopping without being followed to the ability to walk into a mortgage broker and be greeted with an automatic smile to being treated as innocent until proven guilty by traffic cops.
This is a case in point: You have determined, based on your observation, that this person is different. You believe that it's OK for this person to be different. That alone -- the power to decree that it's OK -- is an act of enormous unspoken privilege. There's no way for you and me to escape this. We wield enormous power because we are perceived to belong.
I'm not saying we should feel shame or step aside so that others can take our places. Nor am I saying that history provides an excuse for the inexcusable. I'm simply saying we have a responsibility, as thinking, feeling people, to deeply consider this fact of otherness that describes reality for so many people. For me personally, from that deep consideration, certain advisory postures flow: Caution, for one. Patience. Humility. The never-ending chores of the moral imagination.
All we can do is, as you suggest, tread lightly. Try to pretend that you didn't just win the lottery. Bear your good fortune quietly. Let others control the boundaries of their own existence. Because you and I, my friend, if we try to get over, we're just impostors in the land of the other.
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What? You want more?