Yesterday (12 July 2017) Sir Andy Murray, the often criticised and proud Scot had to remind a journalist about ‘casual sexism’. It was a reference to that journalist’s comments that an American had reached a tennis semi-final for the first time since 2009. Andy corrected the journalist by reminding him he was only talking about male tennis players. Female tennis players, including the awesome Serena Williams have of course been a regular feature in tennis finals for many years. It’s a small but important victory for women, but a big statement that people need to think before they speak.
I’ve talked for many years about the rise of casual homophobia in the workplace, something I often refer to in my speaking engagements. It’s demeaning, unnecessary and needs to be challenged. But I don’t think it’s easily understood how it affects LGBT employees – it’s actually a barrier to people being authentic, in an environment that seemingly only recognises binary lifestyles.
I worked for in a team of mainly women for a while, and an out-gay man. Within that team my female manager hired one of her friends to run a project, let’s call her ‘Jess’.
Jess was a loud, brash northerner with an omni-directional voice that could be heard across the whole office. She was young, bright and good at her job but she had an opinion on everything. I also knew everything about her; I knew about her mouse-in-the-house problem, how she liked to separate her washing ‘dark, whites, lights and brights’ and every tiny facet of her life. Not because I wanted to, but because she felt the need to broadcast it to the team and any passer-by.
The first time I knew her opinion on gay men was when she came into work flustered by something. She recounted a story of how her boyfriend ‘Matt’ that morning had been ‘properly looked up and down by a gay man in the street’. A story she repeated throughout the day. She seemed to think that it wasn’t for men to admire her boyfriend (who was actually by the way very good looking), but the preserve of women. It was all done in a light-hearted way but the constant repetition was irritating. I tuned her out.
A while later and it was Pride in London. I’d put up posters on my office floor. They were brilliant. I had commissioned them especially to advertise our entry into the parade and they were printed in huge A0 format and very eye-catching. I put them all around the office, above my desk and on a meeting room opposite out department.
I had to remove a smaller poster on the meeting room outer wall and relocated it closer to our department. This poster had been up for a while and advertised a project that Jess was running. She wasn’t in the slightest bit amused I had done this but I told her that this is the way I had done it for years – before she had joined. I also told her I would switch the poster back once the event was over.
After Pride I came into the office, my poster on the meeting room was missing. All the others were in place but there was no sign of it anywhere not even on my desk or in a bin. Just missing. I emailed the office floor to see if anyone had removed it, saying I wanted it back for archive purposes but no one came forward. I knew she’d removed it, but obviously couldn’t prove it. So I let it lie.
The final event that broke my reserve happened during the early hustings for London’s conservative Mayoral selection. Ivan Massow was in the running, and a thoroughly lovely chap. He came into see my boss, as part of his stakeholder engagement with his team. Jess had spotted him and once again began her office broadcast ‘Oooh he’s loovley’ she would say in her broad Mancunian accent. She then Googled him and aghast she announced ‘Ooh he’s gay! What a shame’ and then spent the next couple of hours remarking on ‘What a waste, what shame’ etc.
This really got to me. I then reminded her that there was no shame in being gay, she was taken aback. Perhaps it was the fact I had challenged her one-sided views or perhaps she thought that I was calling her out unnecessarily. In any case this was the last time she spoke to me other than via email. Very awkward given our proximity.
I took this last event to my female manager – her friend – and just said could she remind Jess to think before she speaks, and that it’s another example of how being gay is considered unequal in some way to being heterosexual. My boss then replied ‘Well you know she doesn’t mean it like that – it’s just Jess being Jess’.
Well actually I don’t know if she means it like ‘that’ but even if she doesn’t she should keep her opinions to herself and think before she speaks. It was also a reflection on the fact that my manager also didn’t really get it, and thought of it as a benign thing to say.
After coming home, I got really tearful – even now writing this upsets me. It’s crazy but these events hurt, and I don’t like being devalued by anybody – as any gay person wouldn’t.
So what needs to happen? People need to take causal homophobia seriously. Mandatory diversity training should include material on the effects of casual sexism, racism and homophobia. It’s simply not enough to have policies in place for overt examples of these because overt hate often starts as something casual.
Managers should take these matters seriously too, and whilst not necessarily disciplinary offences, it’s a matter of respect and acceptance of diversity.