[Geek note: This blog idea came from a one word suggestion and it was impossible for me to block out the thought of Cersei Lannister]
Working for a major financial institution (one of the big 5), I have spent most of my career in a fairly conservative environment. Unlike most of my generation, I’ve been an employee of this one company for over 20 years. When I started in 1996, it was more conservative than it is now.
At 24, I was still struggling with how “out” I wanted to be. I had close gay friends and was out to my family. Most people knew me as a gay man. My roommate was gay. The line was still fuzzy in some places. For example, I didn’t share much of my dating life with my parents. For the most part, I was on a journey to accept myself.
Work was a completely different story. Being reliant on the bank for my survival, I was terrified to give any manager an excuse to discriminate against me or fire me (my worst nightmare). It was not legal for gay people to marry. It was legal for an employer to fire an employee for being gay….and that question has not yet been completely settled in the courts to this day. It was illegal to engage in homosexual sex in Georgia (overturned in 2003).
These facts caused enough fear and self-loathing in me that I decided to do what I had to in order to survive. My decision was not a completely conscious one but I had some level of awareness of the choices available to me. Many gay people chose not to hide and I give them credit and honor them for their bravery.
It was then that Work Mike was born. Work Mike used “she” or “they” pronouns to talk about people that he was dating. Conversations about family and romantic entanglements were kept to a minimum. Work Mike focused on the task at hand, being the best employee he could and making sure that everyone liked him (to a fault).
The amount of emotional and mental energy it took to be two different people is difficult to describe. At home and with friends, I could relax and be myself. It was like shedding an extra layer of skin, layer of pretense that I had to shoulder going to work. I dreaded small talk. I was terrified of questions like “Married?” Or “Got kids?” I sat through dinners and meetings and lunches with colleagues or executives, praying that the conversation would turn to work. I secretly hated the straight men with wedding bands and minivans at work. I envied their ability to be themselves, to casually complain about the next school fundraiser, to wallow in their self-assuredness.
My way of managing through this time was to seek out people at work that I could trust. I’d listen carefully for news of gay uncles, lesbian siblings or that bisexual college roommate. I paid close attention to tone, intonation and word choice. Invariably, I would feel safe enough to confess that I was gay. But those numbers were never large.
I’m grateful that today, my employer has made a concerted effort to make gay employees feel safe, welcomed and valued. I’ve evolved a bit and as I’ve gotten older, I also care less about what people think and have gained confidence in my ability to find other work, even if I was ever to be terminated.
It’s humorous now but I was deadly earnest then. I even went to confession once (I was raised devoutly Catholic), and asked for forgiveness for being gay. Father Ernie looked at me and said “I can’t absolve you for what you are.”
I hope I live up to what he was trying to tell me. I’ve come to love the person I’m becoming and I’ve given myself some of the forgiveness I was seeking in confession.
I’ve taken on the responsibility of supporting the LGBT employee resource group in the last year. We talk about issues that affect gay employees and bring LGBT employees and allies together. I’ve been moved at the number of times that someone has been willing to be vulnerable and tell me their story.
I’d like to create a space for employees to relax, be themselves and find the acceptance that has been so hard won for me.