Homophobia vs. Heterosexism in the workplace

We all want to excel at our job functions, advance throughout our careers, have a manageable salary, and be respected in the workplace. But the latter is made more difficult when you identify with the LGBTQA community. The healthy type of anxiety that comes with starting a new job is exacerbated by your queer identity and the possibility that your new employer could be prejudice. How can you pinpoint discrimination in the workplace and what should you do about it?

Currently, under federal laws, the only protections you have from discrimination on the job are based on sex, race, age, national origin, religion, disability, and pregnancy status. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009, which Congress is taking forever to review and pass, aims to extend those protections to queer people. Until then, there are local laws and policies at your workplace that may protect you from unfair treatment. It’s important to become familiar with those rules beforehand.

You should also be able to discern the forms of discrimination that take place because it’s important not to mislabel or mischaracterize just any behavior. The goal is not to be a victim, but to demand respect and equality. I am going to be speaking about homosexuality in the workplace, but the points in this post overlap and apply to all queer identities. When talking about homophobia and heterosexism, you’re talking about two different concepts that often work in tandem but are not the same.

Homophobic people hate gays. They cannot stand your existence and make their prejudice beliefs known, whether through hate speech, harassment, or even physical violence. Heterosexist people, on the other hand, don’t necessarily hate gays, they just believe you are inferior. They assume that heterosexuality is the norm and the desired sexual orientation. While homophobia is hateful, heterosexism is patronizing.  

Depending on the institution, heterosexism is probably more rampant as it is subtle and more effective. When I began working as an intern for a tech start up, I was clearly the odd one out. As the only gay, African-American person in the entire company, I knew that homophobia, heterosexism, implicit bias, and microaggressions would probably rear their ugly heads with time. 

It all culminated within my own department and team, which consists of five people, including myself. My other two male team members are both white, straight, and cisgender (to my knowledge). One has a girlfriend, who he always seems to bring up in any given conversation, and the other…. well, he once practically drooled over a pic of Hilary Duff’s massive ass in a bikini, so I’m guessing he likes sushi. There was already a clear divide that I acknowledged but refused to allow to create a barrier between me getting to know more about them.

On their end, there was minimal effort. In the first few weeks, I was never invited to lunch outings, conversations were forced as if they’d rather just have stayed quiet and ignored me, and shady comments were slipped in here and there, as well as sour looks or smirks anytime I would speak or join in on discussions. As a matter of fact, the entire heterosexual male population in the office seemed to be wary when approaching me as if I were a part of an alien species that spoke an entirely different language. 

The devil was always in the details. When planning a work-sponsored basketball game, I was left out and not even entertained as a teammate because all gay men are terrible at sports. “We didn’t ask you because we thought you might be busy” [laughter ensures]. Once at an office lunch, I took a bite of my piping hot meal, soon bending over and holding my mouth in pain. My team member with the always-needed-to-be-mentioned girlfriend uttered “Swallow it like a girl,” which I still don’t know the meaning of. Another male coworker even bent his wrists and spoke in a high-pitched tone to mock me when I replied to a question he had asked. The other male on my team even referred to something as “gay,” which I surely thought was an outdated way to use that adjective, but hey. 

But none of that is homophobic. They speak to me occasionally. We’ve shared laughs. We’ve even had interesting conversations and collaborated on projects together with ease. Their behavior and attitudes are not hateful, they’re condescending. For heterosexual men, masculinity acts as a guide to navigating interpersonal relationships with others, and who better to exact those masculine tendencies on than a rather feminine, scrawny gay man? Heterosexist men need to dominate gay men, who are perceived to be submissive and lacking true masculinity.

Heterosexism is denying me the chance to play in a basketball game because of my sexuality or even assuming I have no interest in sports when tons of gay men are athletic, and even more straight men could care less about football games on Sundays.

Shady swallow

“There are always flamingly homosexual, shredded gym rats out there who get approached by straight women more than some of your heterosexual male coworkers do.” 

Heterosexism is a straight man being able to talk about his weekend trip with his girlfriend to her parent’s lake house while a gay man mentioning a date with his partner is met with silence and odd looks. Heterosexism is the notion that being gay means being defective and not worthy of respect because of who you love. 

So, what should you do if these issues have compounded and impede on your work performance? Speak with your human resources department, talk to your boss or supervisor, and start looking for work elsewhere. Not every job is going to have an inclusive, non-toxic work culture, and not every paycheck is worth the emotional distress. You can also fight back. No, don’t hit anyone. But incite educated discussions about LGBT culture, tell stories about your same-sex partner, dress appropriately for the job but keep that queer flair that sets you apart from the rest. Don’t let an established status quo pull you away from your identity.

And it’s Pride Month, so if you’re queer and you’re here, demand a raise.


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