On to the other letter in last week’s Dear Prudence with a response that made me, to be blunt, extremely angry. A letter writer submitted this:
I am a proud gay man and for the last several years have worked in a high-ranking position for a company where my homosexuality has never been an issue. Recently, while a group of us were having lunch, the topic of two straight female celebrities kissing on an awards show came up. Everyone agreed that the kiss was a stunt, but one co-worker, with whom I’ve always been close, called it “trash.” She ranted about how it was indecent and that children were watching. It made me very uncomfortable that she displayed a hateful side I’d never seen before. She later apologized, saying that her comments were in no way directed to me. I accepted her apology, but I’m still very bothered by it because there was a tone of disgust toward gay people. I’ve changed around her and no longer talk to her about my personal life. She’s noticed and keeps asking me whether I’m still upset about that conversation. I say no, even though I am. I have great memories of the fun times we shared as friends, and I don’t want to bring this up because it could have an impact on our professional relationship. How do I tell her how I feel and finally put this behind me?
How does Prudence respond? Shall we predict? Possibly she will reinforce that, no, this man is not obliged to be Bigoted Coworker’s Friend anymore, and that, yes, he should perhaps bring the issue up with her, since he was obviously upset by it? Since he’s comfortable being out in the workplace and his workplace seems supportive, maybe it’s worth talking to a supervisor or a member of the human resources staff about the company’s antidiscrimination policies?
Her response was highly relevant to my interests, because while the letter writer was writing about an instance of homophobia, these kinds of interactions play out in workplaces all over the world with other dynamics involved, like race, age, disability, and gender.
And, surely, Prudie couldn’t deliver two instances of deplorable advice in the same week, right? Oh, no.
When Joseph Biden declared his candidacy for the presidency, he evaluated his opponent, Barack Obama, by calling him “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” It was the kind of compliment that required an apology for its racism, yet presidential nominee Obama selected Biden to be his running mate. Which means you should let go of an ill-considered remark by someone you know to be a decent, nonhomophobic person. It’s possible your colleague’s ire was more about the slobbery, in-your-face nature of the kiss than a commentary on homosexuality. Surely, how she treats you is more indicative of her true feelings than her reaction to celebrities being deliberately provocative. It’s a mark of how comfortable she is with you that she could express her unfiltered opinion (which she won’t do again). When she saw you were upset and realized she may have been out of line, she apologized. It’s churlish and even mean-spirited on your part to accept her apology, yet behave in an obviously cool fashion. There’s nothing to be gained by re-airing the whole episode. I think you should tell her that she’s right—you’ve been letting the lunch incident eat at you, but you’re over it now, and you look forward to resuming your close relationship.
I am horrified and angered by this response. No, Prudence, this man is not obligated to resume their close relationship just because the woman is comfortable letting fly her bigotry in his presence. He was fairly explicit about the fact that the ‘rant’ was centered on homosexuality and how gross and icky it is. This is not an ‘ill considered remark’ from a ‘nonhomophobic person.’ It’s an unfiltered opinion, all right. And what, exactly, do Barack Obama and Joe Biden have to do with Out’s coworker?
One of the changes that we have seen, culturally, is that it is less socially acceptable, in many circles of society, to air these views, but they still skulk below the surface. When they do come out, it’s not an indicator of ‘comfort.’ It’s a reminder that there are no safe spaces, and that behind every person who words things carefully to avoid being outed as a bigot may possibly lie, well, a bigot. It’s a reminder that when people ‘forget’ who you are, they will feel comfortable assuming that you are not the Other and that, therefore, it’s ok to air their true feelings around you. Out’s coworker showed her true colours, and Out is being told to basically just let it go.
How many times have I heard people spew ableist rhetoric and then say that they weren’t talking about me? Or air their transphobia around me, thinking that I am a ‘safe’ person to air it around because they believe that I’m a cisgendered woman? If someone told me that I should just let those things slide, I’d be livid, as I hope Out was when he read this response to his letter.
People. We are not obligated to be nice to people who think that we are disgusting, awful, or should die. We don’t need to play makeup with people when they air their bigotry in front of us. The belief that we need to is precisely that which allows really destructive social attitudes to persist.
Dealing with these attitudes in the workplace is challenging, but the appropriate response is most certainly not to ignore them or pretend that they didn’t happen.