Every month, Motley publishes a spill-your-guts confession. This month, our first confession is a thoughtful reflection on what it’s like not being out in your workplace.
The summer before last, I got a job at a manufacturing company. I didn’t have any specialised skills; I was packaging boxes filled with products. I just wanted to make some money over the summer, mainly to pay for a new computer. As it was the first “real” job I had ever had, I was looking forward to getting started. If nothing else, it was something to do for a few months.
On my first day at work, I spent a few hours packing, then went into the break room. I was happy to see that nobody seemed to take themselves too seriously. There was a fairly relaxed atmosphere, and I felt at ease, at least as much as you can on your first day. People chatted about ordinary things, conversations that I was able to contribute to – Love Island, the Chernobyl TV Series, UFC, things like that. There was one guy in particular, though, who was a bit too comfortable with the people around him. John told a lot of jokes, but most had an offensive twang to them. Normally I wouldn’t mind too much if someone made an offhand comment once or twice, where they don’t really understand why it might be hurtful. Nobody is perfect. But this guy seemed to be different. If he wasn’t comparing the skin colour of a Love Island contestant to a cocoa percentage of chocolate, he was probably trying to decide which of the girls in the admin office was the biggest ride. One comment that particularly stuck with me was that he saw one of the other guys coming out of the “gay” bathroom – apparently, the bathroom to your left as you come upstairs, rather than the one on the right. There were no other differences. One was just the “gay” bathroom, the other was the straight.
When I went home that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about that simple sentence. It seemed like something a twelve-year-old would have said about someone else in school. But John was twenty-eight, a fully grown adult for many years. I couldn’t understand what the point was of saying something like that, or why it was funny. I decided to just ignore it as I headed in for day two.
But that wasn’t the only thing said in that break room that really made an impact on me. Somehow, more comments like that one seemed to work their way into John’s conversation, almost by magic. When the talk moved to electric vehicles, he said that he wouldn’t want to drive one of those “faggy cars”. I was also there when he said he would hate to have a gay person working with him.
If only he knew.
I have known that I’m gay for many years. In that time, the vast majority of people that I’ve met have been supportive, or at least haven’t suggested that there’s anything wrong with being gay. Although my process of coming out to people wasn’t simple, that support made it a hundred times easier than it could have been. Looking back, I suppose that’s why these things hit so hard. It was the first time that I really saw that, despite everything that has happened in the last few years in Ireland, there are still people who would prefer if homosexuality didn’t exist.
John wasn’t even the worst. While he didn’t seem to think that gay people deserved respect, there were others in the company who showed outright hatred for the idea of homosexuality. One of these men, Bert, was older, in his forties. One day, as usual, we were talking about what happened on Love Island last night – who had recoupled with who, and who had kissed who. Your normal Love Island fare. Bert had something new to contribute to the conversation: “There’s boys kissing on it now. Disgusting.” He was talking about the fact that Curtis had given a quick peck on the lips to Tommy Fury on the show. Sometimes people don’t understand the effect that such a small phrase can have. I felt my blood pressure spike a little bit. I’m not sure whether it was out of fear or indignation. That wasn’t an enjoyable lunch break.
Now, I don’t go around shouting from the rooftops that I’m gay. It would be as ridiculous as going around telling everyone that you’re straight; there’s a time and place for these things. So before this, my sexuality had never felt like a big secret that I had to keep. But now that two of the people at the company had made their positions so clear, it felt like I had to tiptoe around them. And I knew that they weren’t the only ones who felt that way. Paradoxically, it’s never hard to keep a secret until it feels like a secret. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, increasing the chance that I’d eventually drop the facade. There were many moments where I wanted to say “I’m gay. Do you not want me working here?” to John or Bert. But I asked myself, “what would happen if they knew?” They had seemed so normal when I first met them. All in all, outing myself was too risky, and since I was only going to be there for two months, I decided that it wasn’t worth rocking the boat.
It may sound like my experience at the company was a bad one. For every ardent homophobe, though, there are also people who accept who you are. One day, a coworker (who was closer to my own age, but worked there permanently) asked me for my opinion on a girl he had seen that weekend (in terms of looks). For whatever reason, I let the truth slip out – a risk, but he had never said anything against gay people. Although he was a bit taken aback, he later said “We’re not all like him, OK?”, talking about John. And just as John’s remarks had affected me deeply, that small comment, that little show of support, meant a lot to me too. It highlighted the difference that being supportive can make.