Then and Now

Building on my post from yesterday, “Being Gay in a Masculine Profession,” I was asked for advice about how to reveal one’s sexual orientation with co-workers who are in a job that is ordinarily considered hierarchical and where male bravado, dominance, and position in relationship to the perceived Alpha Male social norms of the working environment are the custom.

Tom, a motorcop, and Chad, his firefighter boyfriend, are in their mid-30s. They were introduced to me by a friend of mine who thought that since I am gay and am comfortable about being out at home and at work (heck, I’m married after all!) that I could give advice to these guys.

I began with “then and now.”

I know I sound like an old coot when I say, “back when I was their age…” but it is true. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you were gay, it was hard to be accepted by society at large, much less by male-dominated professions. People treated you differently. They thought that if they shook your hand that they would “catch AIDS,” or if not that, then you would certainly die of the disease. I can’t tell you how many people thought, “after all, it’s a gay disease; they get what they deserve.” I heard that over and over again — everywhere: TV, radio, newspapers, neighborhood and co-worker chit-chat.

Add on to that: hearing the hateful, hurtful, slurs such as “faggot, queer, and …” (other words I can’t write on a g-rated blog) by many, many people I worked with. I would hear these things all the time and think, “these people would beat me to a pulp if they knew I was gay.” I seriously worried for my life with some of those men. [Okay, I’m not a cop and don’t carry a gun. I was a weakling. It would not have been difficult for someone to hurt me if he struck me.]

And then one more big thing — in my 30s, I was a rising pro in my field, and about every two years, I would get a promotion. It seemed as if each new supervisor was retired from the military. All of these men continued to impose the bravado and pride of a military officer — which for many of the rest of us meant that we would be afraid that coming out to them would make our lives difficult at work, and perhaps stop the promotions. I felt that my career was in the balance — coming out could very well jeopardize my professional advancement.

These factors were the primary determinants for me to remain solidly in the closet. My family was afraid that I would get AIDS. Some of my co-workers were bigots. Supervisors were men who did not support same-sex anything — except perhaps watching football on TV together while drinking beer and smoking cigars.

That was my life from about the mid-70s to the mid-90s. They were two tough decades.

Contrast that with today:

  • It is quite common that you know someone (if not many people) who are gay. Or you find out that someone is gay and you say to youself, “no big deal” instead of “that fag is gonna die of AIDS.”
  • Just talking about homosexuality is a more common conversation than ever before. Some people may not like it, but you will find today that there is a large “push back” against those who espouse insulting and loathsome language from those who aren’t afraid to confront the hate, anger, lack of understanding and fear from the Bible-thumping Neanderthals.
  • Many public and private employers have non-discrimination policies in place, along with “cultural diversity training.” While most folks, myself included, find lectures about “cultural diversity” to be boring and borderline silly — the point is that once you hear it enough, some of it sinks in. So yeah, the culture of diversity where we live and work includes gay people. It’s now a “so what?” instead of an “oh my Gawd!”
  • The U.S. Federal Government as well as many public and private employers allow an employee to cover his/her same-sex partner with benefits, most importantly, health insurance. Not that long ago, the inclusion of same-sex partners for employee benefits was unheard of.
  • Social networking influences people far more than we think it does. When we see our friends be friendly with others who are gay, such as wishing them well on their engagement or marriage; seeing their friends with others of the same sex in photos (with arms around, etc. — obviously, same-sex relationship); or we see our friends change their profile image to two rings indicating same-sex marriage — then we are more likely to realize “it’s all around me; quit fighting. My friend has not changed — perhaps I need to change.”
  • As of the date of this post, 13 states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, as do some 16 countries of the world.

So while much has changed in the past 20 to 30 years, there remains reasons to be concerned about the choices of how to come out and to whom.

Once again, this post is getting too long, so check back tomorrow for the conclusion about just what I said to Tom and Chad who were seeking my advice.

Update: This is a link to the post with my advice to Tom and Chad.

Life is short: embrace change — things are much better than they once were!