A couple weeks back I received some LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) diversity training. Frankly, I figured the seminar would be a skate. While I am your typical heterosexual white male, it’s not like I have not known people in the LGBT community. As a Unitarian Universalist, I have also helped our church become a welcoming congregation for LGBTs. I was even Standing on the Side of Love at their annual assembly in Salt Lake City last year. Still, I was not quite prepared when I walked into the classroom, and left more than a little confused.
That’s probably partly by design, and partly because I have some trouble when an issue has too many permutations. Two instructors showed up from Out and Equal, a San Francisco based non-profit that is helping integrate the LGBT community into the workplace. Of course, the LGBT community has always been in the workplace. For the most part, they stayed silent about their natures at work. During the last couple of decades, more from the community have come out at work. In San Francisco, you expect LGBT to be out in the workplace. In other parts of the country, like many places in the Deep South, if you know what is good for you, you remain closeted at work, and maybe in your community as well. In Washington, D.C., being LGBT not that big a deal, as like most major cities we have a rather large LGBT community. For the most part the LGBT community just blends in. In general, there is an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the workplace. You disclose as much about your personal life as you feel comfortable disclosing. However, it is also perfectly okay to come to work, do your job, act pleasantly and then go home with your colleagues not much the wiser. Miss Manners does not approve of prying questions anyhow. So we generally don’t pry.
One of the instructors was a fifty something lesbian dressed as a man, right down to the blue suit and pinstripe tie. I first mistook her for a man until I heard the pitch of her voice. She spent most of her career in the military, but left the day the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy went into affect. She was eligible to retire anyhow, but said she could not live with an official policy where she had to remain closeted. The gentleman was much younger, gay and frankly gorgeous. He was skinner than Fabio but otherwise looked a lot like him, but with long dark locks mixed with blond streaks that flowed down his back.
Men dress up for work all the time, however, most of us just dress for success, which means that while we may look good in a suit, we are indistinguishable. When we get home, we revert to blue jeans. This man was as beautiful and any woman I’ve ever seen exiting out of a beauty salon. Frankly, he had me a bit mesmerized. Obviously, I need to get out more because I had no idea my sex could look so good. By the end of the day, I realized what my problem was: I found him attractive. I had no desire to put the moves on him nor I could not imagine myself intimate with him but the same is true with the many attractive women I run into everyday as well. I realized I found him attractive because he took exquisite pride in how he looked and in many ways, this made him seem effeminate to me, and this was the source of my attraction. Finding a man attractive has happened to me before, but only rarely, and generally about every five years or so. Generally, I don’t see my fellow men. I know them as people, but I don’t see them the way heterosexual women do. During the seminar, we were encouraged to challenge our assumptions, and I must say I was challenged.
I have always said I was heterosexual, yet few of us who call ourselves heterosexuals really are entirely heterosexual. Whether we wish to acknowledge it our not, we fall somewhere between the extremes of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Most of us tilt rather markedly toward one side or the other but at the same time, many of us have had homosexual experiences, generally when we were younger. Many like me assume we are completely heterosexual because even if occasionally we do find a man attractive, we don’t act on it.
From the seminar, I learned there is much more to someone from the LGBT community than just their sexual orientation. There are in fact at least four aspects to sexuality to consider about any person. The first aspect is our birth sex, which is straightforward enough. However, there are exceptional cases where someone is born with both obvious male and female genitalia. The second aspect is our sexual orientation, or the sex to which we are attracted. For most of us straights, this is all we think about when we consider someone from the LGBT community. The third is the gender we identify with. A transgender person, for example, has a conflict between their birth sex and the gender they feel inside. For example, if they have male genitalia, they may find it disgusting and unnatural. This often leads to stress because they are inhabiting the wrong kind of body. Lastly, there is the aspect of gender expression, or how someone chooses to express their sexuality. Transvestites, for example Eddie Izzard, like to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex, even while most remain extremely heterosexual. If you think about it, this means that a person might fit into any one of 24 possible categories. Moreover, categories are simply conveniences for us to try to organize aspects of someone in our own mind. A person’s actual sexuality includes all sorts of other possible variants.
By the end of the class my head was spinning. For example, I could be a biological man who so strongly feels I am a woman to the point that I might consider sex change surgery and hormone replacement therapy to look like a woman. Yet, even though I feel inside like a woman, even after all that surgery to make me a woman, I might prefer to dress like a man. Moreover, I might prefer men to women, which suggests I am not homosexual, but a heterosexual woman in a man’s body who prefers a “butch” look. Most would label this person as a homosexual simply because they are attracted to men and be done with it. We were asked to ponder how we would make the workplace an accommodating and friendly environment for people like this so they don’t have the stress of living a closeted identity. Indeed, they will probably be most productive in a work environment where they can truly be out and equal. Before taking the seminar, this all was so less confusing. Of course, I just chose to remain largely ignorant of the many variations of humanity out there.
As confusing as the LGBT world is, it is relatively straightforward stuff, compared it with the kinks many of us straights have but choose to keep in the closet. Since my wife has many friends from the LGBT community and well the kink community, about a decade back I purchased the book Come Hither, A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex by Dr. Gloria G. Grame. It sits next to my bed. I am a reasonably sexually curious person, but curiously in the nearly ten years, I have owned the book, I still have not finished it, although I genuinely mean to finish it. Frankly, I find the numbing variations of kink too confusing to fully get my mind around. Although I’ve gone through the definitions many times, I still cannot quite get the difference between a “top” and a dominant, and submissive and a “bottom”. To my wife it all makes complete sense and is intuitive, but to me it is a confusing muddle. Moreover, power play is just one aspect of the whole world of kink that seems to me to be an endlessly confusing hall of mirrors.
So I figure that if once every five years or so I run across a guy that I find attractive, then overall I must be a very vanilla heterosexual. Because of the seminar, I certainly will be more respectful of those in the LGBT community and mindful of the diversity inside it. In fact, I may be less “don’t ask, don’t tell” than I am now, simply because I don’t want them to feel they have to shutter some part of their life when they come to work.
Frankly, I don’t care if someone at work is or is not part of the LGBT community. If they want to have a picture of their same sex spouse in their office, that’s fine with me. I am glad to hear about their weekend activities with their lover or same sex spouse. I hope they would voluntarily open their lives to my gentle inquiries, because so much of their world still confuses me. My philosophy is people are just people, and these sort of variations should not matter at all as long as in the workplace there is no harassment. Which of the 24 squares a person falls into perhaps helps in understanding where they are coming from and how to manage them. I hope that I can set a standard with my employees that these variations do not matter and we should welcome anyone in the LGBT community we happen to work with for the complex person they happen to be.
I hope I will eventually understand all these permutations. Right now, I just wish my head would stop spinning. Once again, my black and white world seems to be mixed with too many colors to wholly comprehend.