Starting a new job is hard enough, right?
You don’t know anyone. You don’t know where anything is. You don’t even know what you’re doing, really. Not yet anyway. An experience that’s made incrementally more stressful if you’re a queer person.
Every time you start a new job you also have to come out, slowly, to each person at your new workplace, one by one, every time you meet someone new. Those little ‘coming outs’ we as queer people are put through every day, by a society that still assumes the ‘norm’ as if it would be rude to simply not assume anything, dig up traumas from the past and force you to relive it.
Now imagine, if you will, that you’ve been working in the same job for the last four years. Everyone there knows you well. They’re your friends, your trusted colleagues. You’ve spent late nights drinking and dancing on (sometimes under) tables with them. Everyone, companywide, is on the same page when it comes to equality. You are embraced, welcomed, celebrated. You are accepted. They love the Robyn and Solange heavy playlists you put on during a shift. And what’s even better you’re not the only one, in fact there are loads of other queer people, representation across the whole spectrum. It’s a protective bubble, spherically encasing you in protective ignorant bliss.
Four years is a long time though and eventually you get bored, you see a chance to finally go after a job in that career path you’ve always had your eye on. So you quit.
My most recent career change went something like this and leaving that protective bubble was… enlightening to say the least.
I left a managerial position in a company I had worked with for since it was a scrappy start up but in an industry I had no interest of pursuing long term. I left for greener pastures in the creative industries. I got a job in a post-production house at the bottom rung of the corporate hierarchy as a runner. Specifically the despatch runner. I worked in the mailroom, which I would quickly learn was also the ‘male room.’
My team was made up of four straight guys, and one straight woman. They weren’t unfriendly, well except for Jake, he was outwardly hostile to just about everyone, but it was immediately obvious that I was not going to fit in here.
The guys would play Playstation at one of the desks while they were ‘working’ and during some car race one of them ventured to ask me what kind of films I was into. I didn’t really know what to say. All I could come up with was something honest like ‘anything with Amy Adams in it!’ Or something very pretentious, like ‘um, obscure Noah Baumbach comedy/dramas.’ You take your pick. Wanting the guys to take me seriously I went with the more pretentious answer hoping it was more impressive or maybe just a little less telling? The conversation ended there.
I’d like to think I gave it a shot getting along with these guys. Like I said they weren’t unfriendly. But early on that first day it started. I wasn’t sure the first time I heard it. Maybe I was projecting some bad high school experience onto these guys. But then it happened again, and again.
‘That’s so gay.’
Everyone’s favourite derogative and they weren't using it in a fun, pastiche-y way either. I can’t remember specifically what was ‘gay,’ but something was, and then another thing and another. ‘Gays’ were being tossed about casually, launched into everyday conversation, like explosives. One after the other: ‘gay’ BOOM, ‘that’s gay’ BOOM, ‘dude that’s so gay,’ BOOM, ‘those shoes… are gay’ BOOM. Just about everything these people didn’t like was ‘gay.’
It happened on the first day and then every day after.
Conspicuously I was never referred to in that way. I guess they’d figured it out that I was actually gay. Maybe it was my very intelligent Noah Baumbach comedy/drama comment. And being an actual gay it would be inappropriate to jokingly call me that. Right? Too accurate maybe? Too much like an actual insult. Either way they weren’t brave enough to use the word accurately only insultingly.
And it wasn’t just the guys, the one woman in the office, the ray of hope, the one I thought might be my saviour, she did it too. She also spent a long time on that first day concerned that a girl from the second floor, who was a known lesbian, had asked if she wanted to grab lunch later, and she didn’t know what to do. Apparently she was scared one lunch with a lesbian in a public place would result in some kind of aggressive predatory gay behaviour. I was alone.
So it continued. The homophobic slurs unfettered by my boss, who was in fact the biggest culprit, the biggest school boy of them all, the one who laughed the hardest and slapped his gross tongue about relishing his offensive vernacular, mistaking it for a rebellion against political correctness. One of them was crushingly intelligent which made his continual use of ‘gay’ as a derogative bizarre all the more painful. And Jake, well, one time at a post work drink, I begrudgingly attended, he attacked a female bouncer who’d asked him rather politely to not stand on the road, calling her a man and determined to stand where he wanted as if he were entitled to all of the road. That was Jake.
I’d like to think of myself as a politically minded gay, a military gay. Heaven knows I’ve launched into colleagues before for using the word ‘gay’ in the wrong context. But here I was new, I was replaceable and I was outnumbered. A minority of one. So I said nothing. I clenched my jaw and ground my teeth and sat quietly until they got bored and moved on. How was I going to go that office and sit with these guys every day if I made a scene? Somewhat shamefully, I protected my own interests. I was scared and uncomfortable and I still wish I’d piped up. But in the moment I was preoccupied with self-preservation. I hope to be stronger in the future.
The thing that was really shocking was where we worked. This was an office, in the entertainment industry, in the middle of London. In Soho! It was August and Pride Week was still visible in the rear-view mirror. It was flabbergasting. I had no idea how closeted, how protected I’d been by my progressive bubble at my last job. And the scary thing is how much we talk about London as a progressive bubble. If this is what passes for progressive inside the bubble, what is happening outside? In the rest of the country? The continent? The world?
As much as I know there are other bubbles out there, that my experience isn’t commonplace within them, it’s thrown me. It’s challenged me to become more aware, more willing to stand up for myself and my community. To look beyond the bubbles.
Since then all those people have either been made redundant, quit in the face of progress, or sadly, been promoted. I’m still here for the moment and for the most part things are better. If someone were to use the word gay incorrectly now I would feel ok calling them out, happy to educate, I’d also feel like they truly didn’t mean it as a slight, that their ignorance was not an attack... just ignorance. This is not how I felt at the start. A new bubble is growing.
This morning I went to make myself a coffee and found this exchange handwritten on separate scraps of paper and stuck to the coffee grinder, each one in response to the one preceding it: ‘Please don’t adjust the grinder.’ ‘Grindr? Isn’t that an app?’ ‘You would know. Haha.’ ‘So would ya mum.’
I took them down.