Thursday, 26 April 2012

Tolerating Intolerance

Coming out of the closet was a gradual process for me. The first person I came out to was a friend in 2003, but I had my biggest coming out in 2005. That’s the year I finally told my parents, and every other little coming out since then has been easy in comparison. Or at least, almost every other coming out has been easy. I have gone back into the closet exactly once in my life, and this is a discussion around that situation.

In the summer of 2010 I got a job doing archaeological survey for the U.S. Forest Service in Northern California. For four months, I would spend ten hours a day, four days a week with the same three people, isolated from anyone else in the middle of a national forest. By the end, everyone would either love or hate each other; either way, we would all get to know each other really well. Which meant that at some point I would end up having an “I’m gay,” conversation with my co-workers. It’s a conversation I’ve had a million times, and I’ll probably have another million times. I wasn’t worried.

My survey team consisted of a young man from Buffalo, New York with a degree in Biblical archaeology, a local middle aged woman who was married and had no college degree, and our supervisor: a local man who had just gotten his degree in archaeology and Middle Eastern Studies. We settled into our daily routine quite quickly. During our breaks we would talk about everything from our family lives to the politics of gang violence. Right away it became clear that my three colleagues were extremely conservative and quite religious, which actually just made our conversations more interesting. We were all respectful of each other’s differing opinions and outlooks. We never once got into any sort of shouting match or name calling; we were at work, after all, and so we remained professional. Even so, there was one topic I never broached, and that was my sexual orientation.

Normally I only ever bring up my sexual orientation if it’s pertinent to a conversation, anyway. I don’t go out of my way to bring it up, but I also don’t go out of my way to avoid it. If I’m having a conversation about the weather, I’m not going to try to worm it into the conversation. On the other hand, if someone points out that a particular actor is really hot, I might make a joke about how “he’s really not my type,” or something. At this job, though, I made a conscious effort not to out myself, which is harder than it sounds. Being a lesbian might not be the most interesting thing about me, but it permeates and colours many other aspects of my life. I ended up filtering everything I said about myself to make sure I didn’t inadvertently come out.

I wasn’t only worried about their reactions because they were conservative. They had also made anti-gay comments and used anti-gay slurs on occasion. Whenever this happened, I would quietly mention that I didn’t think the comments were appropriate, but I completely failed to mention that they were offensive to me, personally. The proud, LGBT activist in my mind was shouting at me that it was even more important I was out, now. How could I hope to change minds if I wasn’t willing to be open? And yet I still remained firmly in the closet.

I was afraid of what might happen if I did come out. What if it all went pear-shaped and we couldn’t work together anymore? I was spending the majority of my time with these people; if we didn’t get along it would make the work environment insufferable. What if things became bad enough that I’d want to transfer to a different survey team? What if my co-workers were suddenly so uncomfortable around me that they wanted to transfer to a different team? Would I be blamed for having caused the problem by bringing up a controversial topic? We weren’t supposed to discuss anything too controversial anyway, and sexual orientation can cause all sorts of controversy.

Even if we were all still able to work together, I thought that coming out would have changed the dynamic of the group. These were people who gave every indication they believed homosexuality was not right. I thought that if I came out, it wouldn’t just potentially cause problems in the working environment, it would possibly offend my co-workers. Somehow, the truth of my existence could be offensive to someone else, and I desperately did not want to offend anyone. So for four months I kept a big part of my life secret, which did have one unexpected benefit.

At the end of the season my supervisor reviewed my work and had a little exit interview. At the end of the interview, my supervisor told me that he really liked working with me. He thought part of the reason our group had gotten along so well was because I had been able to work really well with people with different beliefs and perspectives than my own. I thanked my supervisor for the compliment, and thought to myself, “You have no idea.”


These four months of my life have been a source for a lot of reflection, particularly lately. When I think back on it, I always feel resentment toward my co-workers for making me feel like I needed to hide who I was. But then I wonder whether that’s an entirely accurate evaluation of what happened. Did they make me feel I had to hide, or had I made myself feel that way by assuming I knew how they would react? Is that justified as a method to protect myself from intolerance? Should I be ashamed of my assumptions? And perhaps the million dollar question: if I could go back, would I do anything differently? It’s a whole lot of what if’s and should haves to unpack, but I’m going to try by looking at these questions one at a time.

So then, did they help create a working environment which made me feel like coming out would cause problems? The short answer to that is, yes. The long answer is quite a bit more complicated. Unfortunately for conservatives, the public and political face of the Christian right is one of intolerance and homophobia. Now you’ll notice I have not used the term ‘homophobic,’ until this point in my article and that was not accidental. It is a term that does get overused, and often misused. However, in this case I feel it is accurate.

In the U.S., the Christian right has been represented by people and political campaigns that actually fear LGBT people. The anti-same-sex marriage campaigns that suggest we need to protect children from learning about same-sex marriage, the argument that allowing same-sex marriage would mean having to legalize bestiality and paedophilia, the concern that out soldiers would negatively affect the military – the element they all have in common is fear, literally a fear of gay people and what out gay people will do. So the public image of conservative Christians does contain an element of homophobia.

What this means, is that when I became aware of the fact that my co-workers were right-wing Christians; that is the image that immediately popped into my mind. In my defence, I did try to keep an open mind. I hadn’t quite decided whether I was going to stay closeted or not until I heard one of them use the term “faggoty,” to describe something her husband had done that had pissed her off. That cemented my assumption that these were people who would not take kindly to working alongside a gay person.

So a large part of the problem was completely out of their hands; they can’t control the political dialogue surrounding conservatives. However, they could control the language they used and been aware that the words they were using could hurt someone. Even when I pointed out that terms like “faggot,” and “dyke” were potentially offensive, they continued to use them. It created an environment that was not welcoming to someone who was considering coming out.


As much as I might want to end this article there, I have to admit that I also contributed to the problem. I let my own assumptions about conservatives affect the way I handled the situation. As a result, I potentially misjudged my co-workers. Sometimes the only reason people use pejorative terms when they don’t think anyone is around who will be offended. Perhaps they didn’t mean them to be negatively associated with gay people; they just didn’t realize any gay people were around who might be offended.

In general, we were all quite respectful and considerate of each other. The middle aged woman of the group had a difficult time with some of the paperwork, and we all made sure to help her out as much as we could without being judgmental. My supervisor and the guy from New York both belonged to two very different Christian denominations, and their discussions about religious ideology always remained civil. In short, we all made an effort to be considerate of each other’s different backgrounds. When looked at in that light, it seems a bit ridiculous for me to have assumed they would have had a problem with my sexual orientation.

And yet as I write this I keep coming back around to the saying: “better safe than sorry.” Maybe they wouldn’t have cared that I was a lesbian. Maybe they would have at least been able to get over their issues with my sexuality and continued to work with me…but then again, maybe not. When viewed through a lens of self -preservation, perhaps my assumptions were actually justified. Yet, if I’d always allowed my assumptions of how I thought people would react dictate whether I came out or not, I’d have never told my parents, and their reaction was much more positive than I had anticipated.

Needless to say, I’m still quite conflicted on this point. I completely recognize that I jumped to conclusions based on their political and religious affiliations combined with their use of some choice pejorative terms. But was that a justifiable action? I just don’t know.


So if I could go back and do it all over again, what exactly would I do differently? In truth, I don’t actually know the answer to that. I would like to think that when I next find myself in a forest surrounded by conservative people, I’ll come out of the closet. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t let my preconceived ideas about right-wing Christians get in the way. Plus, I’d like to think that I’d be brave enough to be completely honest about who I am all the time.

Ideally I would find some moment in one of the early conversations we had to casually bring up my sexual orientation. Seeing as it was during the summer, I could have so easily mentioned Pride. I took a vacation day to go to San Francisco for Pride anyway; I could have just told them why I was going to the city, instead of making up a reason. Really, I could have used any number of opportunities to mention it without making it some huge deal. I’d like to think that is how I will handle it if this situation ever comes up again. But actually I just don’t know; the next time I’m in the woods with a bunch of conservatives I might end up doing the exact same thing, because I still have many of the same concerns now that I did then.


In the end, what I’m left with is advice for anyone who finds themselves in a situation similar to mine:
§  Don’t jump to conclusions. Conservative doesn’t equal anti-gay.
§  Give your co-workers a chance. They just might surprise you.
§  Be empathetic. You might be the first out LGBT person they’ve ever met.
§  Understand your co-worker’s perspective. It might take a while for your co-worker to become comfortable with your sexual orientation.
§  Be respectful. If you’re going to come out, find a way to casually work coming out into a conversation without making it a huge deal.

And to all the self-identified conservative Christians (or anyone else) who find themselves among a group of relative strangers, I say this:
§  Don’t jump to conclusions. Assuming everyone is straight can make coming out more difficult.
§  Give your co-workers a chance. Sometimes it takes a bit of time before people feel comfortable enough to come out.
§  Be empathetic. You might be bazillionth person they’ve come out to; it can be nerve-wracking not knowing whether someone be accepting or not.
§  Understand your co-worker’s perspective. Don’t ask them to keep it quiet or to not be obvious; romantic relationships make up a large part of a person’s life.
§  Be respectful. Refrain from using anti-LGBT slurs; even something you don’t mean to be hateful can be damaging.

This was originally published at The Good Men Project.


  1. Don’t worry too much about ur closet time in the woods. It’s time for them right-wing Christians (whatever that is, hehe), and other self-proclaimed righteous ones, to open the windows and doors to their centuries old comfort zones, and let some fresh breeze radically clean out their own dusty closets!

    1. Thanks for the sentiment and I do agree with what you're saying. At the same time I think some sympathy is necessary for people who have a difficult time escaping their preconceptions. Plus, and more importantly, I think it's important that we give people a chance...and I didn't do that during my "closet time in the woods."

    2. U did give them a chance. But they refused (or were too blind) to pick up the signals.

    3. True, however I can't really condemn them for not picking up on signals, is what I'm saying. I should have been more upfront. And at the same time, they should have been a heck of a lot more open minded. And I also definitely agree that the burden on them to be more open minded is a lot bigger than on myself to have been upfront. Being open minded is a purely good thing; meanwhile if I'd been upfront I faced potentially serious consequences. I totally recognize that.

      Like on a personal level I'm totally all about how screwed up it is that I felt the need to remain closeted. When I take myself out of the situation, and think about it logically though, is when I recognize that sometimes people are unable to break out of their preconceptions.

    4. Or cherish them and don't want to break out of them. Many even need them to keep their lousy and fragile self-esteem halfway upright. It's then when they seek a scapegoat for their frustrations, guilt feelings, unsolved contradictions between their appalling actions and for instance the Ten Commandments, and bad economy.