Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

More Pride Musings: Out in the Workplace

One of the notable things about entering a new workplace environment for the first time in nearly 20 years is that this time around the "out in the workplace" issue never even crossed my mind. Ok, a quarter of the folks in my office worked with me at SGI so in a practical sense the issue was moot, but it's more than that. It's that in many places, Minneapolis among them, this just doesn't seem to be the issue it once was. I don't even remember when I first might have mentioned something gay to my new co-workers -- while this is something that in decades past would have seemed a milestone and an awkward moment. Heck, at this point when I take my leave on Friday afternoon the folks who are still around look up from their monitors and say, "Heading out for 3-for-1s at the Eagle?"

Hmmm...perhaps this isn't necessarily progress.

What I mean by the "out in the workplace" issue is this: I can't really be comfortable in an environment where people don't know (or from whom it must be kept secret) that I am gay. Until relatively recently (and still in many places), the default assumption is that everybody is straight. So it feels fraudulent not to be out, in a way that affects your social comfort level which in turn affects your work environment. But what does being out have to do with your job per se? And how do you reach the comfortable point of outness? Back when I was new to the workplace, anybody saying or indicating anything at all about their homosexuality was accused of "making a point of it" or "forcing the issue". Necessary as it may be, you don't really *want* to make others uncomfortable, at least not as the main goal.

In general that whole paragraph I just wrote seems at least 20 years out of date.

I thought I was out at my first real job out of college, at Wang, but in retrospect I was simply not closeted. By that I mean that it was possible for somebody in my own department not to know that I was gay. In 2000 I took a trip east and met up with some of the folks I'd worked with at Wang in 1980-1983, all of whom seemed extremely happy to see me (as was I to see them). One of my co-workers said she hadn't known that I was gay, when something about this came up. This surprised the other people in the room, but it proves my point.

From Wang I went to Teradyne, recruited by a gay friend, and I think I sort of kept this status quo at first. But then came the big change, the point of no return, the key to outing myself comfortably: I helped start a gay and lesbian community band, and I threw myself into the national organization of gay and lesbian bands.

In those years, there was a band conference every six months, during which you met in a member city for meetings and workshops and a big concert. I pretty much used all of my vacation time to attend these conferences, as I'd stay around the city for a few days afterwards. At the conferences, I lived in this rarefied world where everybody was gay or lesbian, where the default assumption is same-sex orientation. This is a heady feeling, and when you return you don't immediately readjust your mindset. So I'd come back and it seemed completely easy and natural to talk about where I'd been and why -- particularly if a co-worker asked me about my vacation.

When you tell somebody you play in a gay and lesbian band, they can take the conversation wherever their comfort level permits without it being explicitly about you. I would get comments like, "Oh, I didn't know you played in a gay band" (you can easily translate that, right?). Or we could talk about the subject of community in general. Or music. It just made things easier. And then there's no going back.

By the time I moved to Minnesota, my involvement with the bands would even come up in job interviews -- it was key to why I had moved to Minnesota, and at that point I was President of the Freedom Band and on the Board of Directors of a national musical organization and putting out a monthly newsletter -- there were definitely things that fell into the category of direct answers to some of the interview questions I got. But it was not about me, per se, as about the sorts of experiences I had with these organizations. It certainly didn't seem to affect my chances of getting a job -- the interview where this came up the most was for the job I eventually got at Cray.

I do remember, when I was still very new on contract at Cray, coming in on a weekend evening. (I was hired on contract because of a pending deadline for which they needed a lot of work done quickly, so weekend work was necessary.) I was wearing my Big Fag t-shirt for some reason, which I didn't bother to change because I was certain nobody else would be there. I walked down the hallway to my office when somebody surprised me by coming out of hers, somebody I might have thought would not necessarily be comfortable with a "Big Fag" t-shirt. She looked at me, burst into laughter, and said, "Couldn't find a smaller font size?"

I think that was my first real understanding that the world had changed since I came out in 1974.

As I got to know my co-workers at Cray I would invite them to my band concerts. It seemed completely natural to do so. At Cray I got to sit on the Diversity Council as the token homosexual, at least until higherups in the company were willing to be out. (The Council was meant to be management only.) Then SGI bought us, with it's own gay/lesbian employee organization with its own web page. And in time this all seemed less and less of an issue.

I'm eliding quite a bit here. Certainly when I first got to Cray there were employees who would not be part of an internal gay/lesbian employee mailing list for fear of being outed. It hasn't exactly been a straight line of progress. And I'm sure that things are different in some industries than in mine. But with each passing year it gets harder and harder to remember a time when it felt like a big deal to be out at work.

My gosh, I was just remembering: Sometime around 1981 or 1982 the article in the Boston Globe the day after Boston Pride included a quote from me (as a random interviewee, but I had actually prepared a sound bite). I remember going to work at Wang on Monday, nervous about who might have seen it. But then somebody who rode in my van pool referred to me as "Steve Levine, 25, of Cambridge" -- how I had been identified in the article, incorrectly as "Steve", which was part of the joke he was making -- and he laughed and I laughed and I started to lose my paranoia.

Wow, it was a different landscape.
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