Dealing With Homophobic Co-Workers
by Karen Thompson
I remember when my daughter and I were going through this. I worked at an ambulance service at the time. While the company was quietly affirming, there were still coworkers who would say some pretty ugly things out of the earshot of management. I still remember one incident that happened around the time of the annual local Pride parade. The parade always followed the same route; That year, the night before the parade, someone spread horse manure down the entire parade route, so that that the participants would have to walk through it. It was a big local story.
The next morning, one of the medics on duty at my work came into dispatch and high-fived my partner, laughing and joking about what had happened to “those fags and their parade.” My daughter, who was transgender, had come out to me not long before this happened. No one at work knew this, and, like you, I wasn’t sure I should or even wanted to tell them. It was still so new, and although I knew I loved my daughter, I honestly wasn’t completely sure how to defend her—or us, for that matter. I froze while the medic and my partner laughed about the stunt. I wasn’t involved in the conversation, but I could hear every word.
I kept my daughter’s transition from my co-workers and family for the longest time. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what people were going to say, how they would judge us, or more specifically, how they would judge me as a parent. It took a while before I felt safe or strong enough to mention to anyone at work that my daughter was transgender. But it’s hard to lead a double life, and eventually, keeping the information hidden became more painful than sharing it with others.
Slowly, I started talking with the people I considered more than co-workers. I told them about my daughter, a little bit here and there. I found some incredible people who were sympathetic to my daughter and her identity. They were also incredibly understanding about my “coming out” as a parent.
Before you consider this option for yourself, though, it’s important to talk to your child and determine whether they are ready for the people in your circle to know. They may not be ready, and that’s ok. If you both are ready, though, then start by talking with one person at work—someone who might be sympathetic and who you may have noticed is also uncomfortable with homophobic comments.
If you aren’t ready to come out at work as the parent of an LGBTQIA child—or if your child isn’t ready for people in your circle to know—then you can still address the comments without necessarily saying anything about your personal life. Sometimes a casual, LGBTQIA-positive comment on a news story can start a conversation or serve as a signal to someone else who hates the homophobic comments as much as you do. I’m not sure who said this, but I’ve read that revolution starts with a whisper. This was important information to me, maybe even more so than the more forceful proclamations that we often read about in memoirs.
It takes time to build on this subtle way of making yourself heard, and it may seem covert or roundabout at first. But it’s more about finding a way to express yourself in a way that is comfortable for you. Maybe, like me, you’re not a shouter or a soap-boxer. This approach works well with my particular personality of aggressive non-confrontation accompanied by an abject fear I have of voicing an opposing opinion and being singled out. I am much better at voicing an opposing opinion when I’m speaking with someone one on one. I consider that one conversation to be groundwork for a bigger shift in general opinion.
This is also a good way to let the rumor mill work for you instead of against you. Unless you swear them to secrecy, the person you say something to may mention to someone else that you hold the opinion that LGBTQIA people should be free to live their lives openly, with all the basic rights of everyone else. That has the potential to spread to other people in your workplace, and when people realize you’re not the audience they’re seeking for homophobic comments, they will generally try not to do it around you, because they won’t get the affirmation they’re seeking.
In the end, I don’t know what type of environment you work in, or if it’s one where being LGBTQIA-positive may bring on consequences you can’t afford. I encourage you to be safe and to always do what’s best for you and your child.
But I think that at some point, if you plan to stay at this company, you may have to find a way to be who you really are—a way that integrates both your family life and your work life. For me, thinking about how I wouldn’t stand for hateful comments about disabled children, the elderly, or people of color helped me to think about how I should respond to ugly comments about transgender people like my daughter. I knew that for her sake, I wanted it to stop, and that I wanted a safer world for her. I had to figure out a way to do that.
Here are some online resources for additional reading.
Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas, and as Vice President of the Little Rock, AR chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Karen is also a member of the Center of Artistic Revolution, an LGBT youth-centered organization in Arkansas. Karen works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton–the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).