Sexual orientation has always been to me like having brown or blue eyes: nothing much you can do about it, and it doesn’t harm anyone. Nothing you should need to conceal or must confess. In the company I work for, the country I live in, and in my immediate cultural environment, being gay is no issue. When the SVA was looking for blog posts about diversity in our industry, I had my doubts. I felt I was not legitimate in raising a concern, as if I had to, where there was none. I am not too fond of highlighting our differences and specificities, our diversities, as to me we should be treated all the same no matter what our nature is. I like neither individualism nor communitarianism.
Making It Not an Issue
And so, I felt in order to write this blog, I was going to have to make up a topic that was not a matter for discussion – at least for me. I felt that writing a blog post about being gay was an attempt to make this a particular claim, or even victimization, whereas I think that in my environment, it should be everything but a subject for discussion. There are bigger problems in this world and more important causes to fight for.
I must admit that I used to have my part of shame in this. When I was younger, observing that some gay people, even public personalities, didn’t fear being exposed, was a relief to me. I was not left alone with what I thought then was a problem. So maybe it is now time for me to give something back and expose a bit more of myself, hoping to do something useful to other gay people who don’t live their business lives peacefully. To me, psychological safety is vital in the workplace.
It’s a Matter of Self-confidence
In my home country France, I’ve suffered a few remarks.
In a former company where I worked as a software project leader, I didn’t hide much from my colleagues, but was always unsure how I would be perceived by our customer who was in the construction industry. Looking back, I realized I was probably just projecting my own biases. Still, one incident strikes me in particular: the project was not running smoothly, and I understood they suspected that I was gay when they explained to me that, “in their world,” they were used to brutal and “manly” project management, and that I was maybe not used to it. I should have asked what they meant, but I did not dare to speak up even though I was over 30 and quite experienced in project management. Ultimately, I was unsure at the time what the consequences would be and if I would expose myself to being hurt in some way.
Today I’m older and when things come up in conversation, and my colleagues tell me what they did in the weekend with their loved ones, I just talk about my partner (in French, the name is different if the partner is a he or a she), as freely as they do. I get absolutely no remarks or comments, not even an eyebrow raised. So, this is not a subject I conceal anymore. I feel more confident, and probably the way I talk about it makes it look like a non-issue, which in turn makes those around me act more normally, increasing global confidence in a circular way.
Sometimes An Issue (Cultural Gaps)
Yet there are still some countries where I would avoid the subject. I remember a business trip in an Asian country, where our local distributors were very fond of knowing everything about our private lives and asked us openly how many girlfriends we had. If I answered sincerely, I thought I would get sarcasm. If I didn’t answer, I felt like they would be suspicious. The only thing I could do was to try to change the topic.
In Eastern Europe, I traveled with a straight male colleague, and the customer we visited proposed to “go have play with the nice girls we have in our country” in a shady bar where he brought us. We were both embarrassed and felt sorry for him for such (what we judged) as an inappropriate proposal. I guess that has happened to many of us in business trips. It is even worse when you’re gay.
That also happens in North America: a customer, whom I knew was very conservative, asked us in turns, directly, if we were married. Well, I am, but not in the way he expected, and I felt I had provoked him with my answer. I saw he was shocked and remained silent for a few seconds; the tone of our exchanges was a bit different from then on, and more reserved.
And still today, after this post has gone public, I wouldn’t feel comfortable travelling, even for business, to some countries where being gay is illegal and punished with prison, flogging, and even the death penalty. Writing this, I still have some fear that the first thing that will pop up when googling my name will be that I’m gay. Who cares? Several dozens of regimes still do. My personal anecdotes are insignificant when I think of what gay people endure in such countries. Writing this, I’m also wondering if my coworkers’ attitudes will change and if some relationships will degrade; if some customers will prefer not having to do business with me; or even if my company will suffer from it in any way.
The State Of Our Industry
I’m not an expert in LGBTQ matters and I can certainly not advocate as an association would, but my feeling is that gay acceptance is a matter of self-confidence and company/industry culture, if you are lucky enough to live in a country that accepts it.
Self-confidence is not something you can decide, and it’s not even something that automatically improves with age. It depends on what experiences you’ve confronted, under what circumstances, and how you behaved, given the constraints you had or the level of protection you thought you needed. For this reason, and although it begs belief to have to say this, I would advise to avoid asking your business contacts about their romantic lives, unless they bring up the subject first. It’s not as innocent as asking where you live or what your preferred food is. You don’t know if they’re gay and comfortable or secure with that. You don’t know if they are comfortable with themselves; with their work mates or their fellow citizens that may be in the same conversation; or whether they think you could be harmful to them in any way, business-wise or other. And they have no escape: not answering is already an answer.
In our tech-savvy industry, I’m lucky enough to usually come across people sharing the same cultural background, despite the few anecdotes above. Most people I’ve encountered in my work are not particularly interested in the sexual orientation of their fellows. Culturally, my everyday environment is a safe place for me as a gay person. I sincerely hope most other gay people in our industry feel the same. It’s probably different in other industries or workplaces, and I’m happy I can have a serene work life here, today, in this respect.
As to what to reveal or conceal, who am I to give advice to other gay people? It’s a matter of personal choice and trust in your own judgment when confronted in different situations. It’s up to everyone to decide if joining an industry community group is helpful or harmful, both personally and globally: it’s always a paradox if you must make yourself more visible so that you’re accepted as normal and invisible. The way you expose yourself, and the way you are perceived, or how you think you are, depend on each other in a circular way. Everyone does what is safe for them – and if possible, contributes to increasing the safety of others.
In my own case, I decided to act as if there was nothing special and talk as openly as my non-gay colleagues do. My bet is that if I act normally, people will also consider it normal. And if not, I’ll leave them with their own discomfort. But I wouldn’t do this in every circumstance: my being gay becomes a problem for me, only if it’s a problem for them.
The Ultimate Goal Is a Safe Place to Work…for Everyone
Being gay shouldn’t be a subject for concern in the workplace, and so we should not need to discuss it. Yet, still for some gay people, in some situations, it is a source of fear. I hope that this blog post will help some of them feel they’re not alone in our industry and, by that turn, help to improve their psychological safety. Humanity is diverse – some people have brown eyes, and some have blue eyes; some people like dark chocolate and some like white chocolate; some people are straight, and some are homosexual. And none of those differences really matter. Acknowledging this diversity in the workplace with no taboos contributes to the personal and professional fulfillment of all of us.