These narratives are an exploration into the complexity of heteronormativity in the American workplace. They contribute to the field of critical qualitative research by complexifying and storying the experiences of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian in the workplace. Each of the six stories is titled using the participants’ words and the asterisks mark shifts in the narrative. This essay centers around each story yet all of the narrratives unite to complicate our understanding of “one” story of heteronomativity. Hopefully this piece starts and continues conversations about the varied experiences individuals who identify as gay or lesbian navigate in the workplace.
DEAL WITH IT
When the Skype video popped up, Joe, a white, 31-year-old admissions counselor, with a scrawny build and stubble as facial hair appeared on my screen. I would not say he was eager to talk to me; in fact, he may have been a little hesitant, but not more than five minutes went by before he opened up and started sharing with me parts of his story about working with a major airline.
I have always been a little worried about coming out because the aviation industry is a very conservative industry. I mean, even while I was in school, my gay classmates and I received a lot of harassment, by the instructors. It was kind of worrying. The instructors would say things like, “Oh, well, the gays will be flying in the back.” Here we are in a flight school and they're essentially telling us that we should be flight attendants. We even had some students, do skits for class, and they did the same thing; they would constantly make fun of gay pilots. Fortunately, the university crushed all of that. Yet, it was still kind of ominous going into this industry, because you knew there was a difference between being in the university environment and being in the workplace; in the workplace, you're going to have to just deal with it.
I always thought people just think of me… as me, just from talking with me. I don't know if people can tell. And so, I never came out to anyone, but I didn't deny it—I didn't really care. You know, I would just hear remarks from people here and there who assumed. Sometimes… well often, very inappropriate remarks, but I just let it go. I just went with the flow. In fact, most of the time until it became really bad, I didn't acknowledge it. It started with them calling me “slippers.” That was the nickname they gave me, and I didn't understand it at first. But it's because I'm gay and being gay is equated with being light in the loafers. One of my colleagues would sing a song, like there was a Flipper song, I don't know it, but instead of that, he actually said “slippers” and changed the song. And so then, when I would walk by at work, people would whistle the song. People knew that they couldn't be direct about it. It's not like you can make fun of someone directly for being gay, because that would be harassment. Whereas this, this was something that the company would tell me, “Oh, well, they're just… maybe you just slipped on the ice or something,” and I'm like, “no, I don't think so.”1 And it was just a lot of comments, even from a colleague of mine who was undermining my leadership.
I was actually flown out to headquarters because the harassment got so bad and they wanted to “handle” it.2 The employees were whistling at me, and it was distracting people at work, and the management agreed we needed to work toward a solution. When I entered the room and began explaining what was going on, human resources actually told me they thought it was inappropriate that I allowed people to “speculate” about my sexual orientation. That was the term that they used. And, you know, of course I fired back and I said, “I think it's inappropriate for you to even tell me that.” I'm not sure if they were trying to tell me I needed to tell my co-workers that I'm straight, or maybe they were telling me that I need to come out. But to tell me I shouldn't allow people to “speculate”? I didn't have any control over it, so I wasn't sure of the message. But you know, it's just kind of like you are just valued less, because you're not supposed to talk about it because that would be flaunting it, but then you're supposed to have control over speculations.
Heteronormativity, which is the “presumed bedrock of society, is the quintessential force creating, sustaining, and perpetuating the erasure, marginalization, disempowerment, and oppression of sexual others.”3 Joe's story was marked by vivid recollections of his experiences at work. His co-workers not only maintained their heteronormative power, but also hid their harassment behind their everyday interactions. As a result, Joe's identity was exploited and the harassment was accepted as having a “normal, it-goes-without saying character.”4
Society is fundamentally structured around a heteronormative discourse. People typically think that gender falls into two distinct yet complementary categories (men and women) and often define relationships heterosexually (between one man and one woman). We have been socialized to think about gender from a heterosexual standpoint because it is seen as “normal.” Thus, the influence of heteronormativity “is its (in)visibility disguised as ‘natural,’ ‘normal,’ ‘universal,’ ‘it-goes-without saying’ character.”5 The challenge to heteronormativity is what Judith Butler calls “distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself.”6 Thus, for the context of this essay, I view all organizations as heteronormative. Although some may claim this creates a false dichotomy (i.e., the workplace is either heteronormative or it is not), I argue that as scholars we need to identify the complexities of heteronomativity at work in order to move beyond binary assumptions. Ultimately, I argue heteronormativity is prevalent in organizations and it is not something we can just change. However, by identifying heteronormative policies, practices, and behaviors at work we can recognize and address the pervasiveness of heteronormativity.
In this essay, I view individuals who identify as gay or lesbian as “outsiders within.”7 I contextualize an “outsider within” as those who are marginalized or underrepresented who gain access or entry into dominant structures.8 These individuals garner a unique perspective as they position themselves within the dominant structure and “negotiate their cultural differentness” on the margins.9 The organizations in which these individuals work serve as the dominant structures in which they must navigate their “cultural differentness.”10 Historically, organizational scholars have ignored the crucial importance of sexuality in organizations, specifically sexual orientation. Yet, in the last 25 years, various disciplines have recognized the ways in which sexuality is a key part of organizational life.11 What is currently scarce in organizational scholarship is an understanding of the complexity of heteronormativity in organizations from an outsider within perspective; the stories from within that illustrate heteronormativity at work is “not all ‘one’ story.”12
One aspect that complexifies the narratives of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian in organizations is that their sexual orientation is not visibly apparent (on the surface level) when compared to other diversity categories such as gender and often race. And being that we live in a hegemonic society wherein we freely partake in our own “domination,” we perpetuate what it means to be “normal.”13 Thus, those who identify as gay or lesbian may navigate the visibility of their outsider status to preserve their “normal”/insider/dominant status within the organization. Nonetheless, as the complexities of identity become more visible, the task of understanding communication becomes more multifaceted.14 This inherently underscores the interconnectedness between heteronormativity and the (in)visibility of identity. The importance of this rests in the self-identity regulation that culminates in the reproduction of dominant structures.15 When individuals feel like “outsiders,” or when they do not see other people like them, they are more likely to (re)produce or regulate their identity at work to “fit in.” The narratives shared in this essay showcase my understanding of how (in)visibility functions as a means for people who identify as gay or lesbian to navigate the embedded heteronormative structures from the margins.
Furthermore, these stories depict the process of being “out” as more than a one-time event; it is a constant, daily negotiation. Someone who identifies as gay or lesbian does not just “come out” of the closet once.16 Several scholars have started reframing the construct as a continual process rather than a complete or incomplete activity.17 Outsiders within negotiate their outsider status and manage it constantly—while at the grocery store, when going out to eat, when buying a car, when heading to work, when at home, and during many other everyday, taken-for-granted experiences.18 I argue that for many, the discourse is shifting from coming out of the closet to navigating (in)visibility. For example, a gay individual at work may be “out” to a few colleagues, perceived as gay by other colleagues, and “closeted” to others. As illustrated by the narratives shared in this essay, this fluidity and complexity of “out-ness” is a tension that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian manage in and outside of heteronormativity at work.
Following Butler, the importance of exploring organizations through a heteronormative lens is about creating more livable conditions for people whose existence is not fully recognized within an exclusive discourse.19 In this essay, I strive to contribute to the emerging awareness of heteronormative discourses through communication action.20 I explore the pervasive nature of heteronormativity in organizations through the stories of six individuals in an effort to magnify and subsequently break down restrictive norms and taken-for-granted assumptions. And, in bringing individuals who share an outsider within perspective into the center of analysis, I reveal a reality that has been obscured by traditional approaches of research.21 Thus, in problematizing the (in)visibility and constant navigation of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian, I complicate the assumptions of heteronormativity and (re)present or emancipate their unique lived experiences through their narrative renderings of heteronormativity at work.
To frame the individuals in this essay who identify as gay or lesbian better, I find it important to introduce intersectionality, which focuses on the complexity of human experience. Collins defines intersectionality as “particular forms of intersecting oppressions.”22 In essence, it refers “to the multidimensionality and complexity of human experience and describes the place where multiple identities come together or intersect.”23 In this essay, intersectionality recognizes the varying and competing identities that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian negotiate in heteronormative organizations. It avoids seeing sexual orientation on the basis of a single socially constructed identity and instead encourages scholars to represent the multidimensionality of marginalized individuals. Intersectionality is integral in understanding the complexity that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian navigate at work. As you read the narratives that follow, it is important to recognize how the multidimensionality of each of these individuals’ identities further complexifies our understanding of heteronormativity at work.
This essay originated from the margins of a yellow legal pad. When these stories were shared they were starred, circled, or underlined with words like “remember this” and “important.” They eventually found their place in a chapter in my dissertation. Yet, that did not do them justice, as these narratives were not only memorable moments for my participants, but also turning points for my dissertation research.24 These are the stories that imprinted impressions on me, that still play in my head like a faint record player in the background. These are the stories that remind me to keep critiquing, keep exposing, and keep uncovering representations of heteronormativity to help us understand where we have been and where we are.25 I was unsure of how I would share these narratives; in fact, I have sat on this manuscript for over two years contemplating its fate. Yet I was inspired by Arthur P. Bochner's argument in “Narrative's Virtues”: “The question is not whether narratives convey the way things actually were, but rather what narratives do, what consequences they have, to what uses they can be put.”26 I believe in the power of these narratives and their potential to be shared in meaningful ways as they begin to complexify heteronormativity at work and should be used to educate, inform, persuade, and inspire continued conversations.27 Thus, I made a conscious choice to extract whole narratives as I did not want to cut the narratives into separate pieces and lose their implicit meaning.
The phenomenological underpinnings of this research, coupled with my desire to hear the stories of the participants, led me to embrace a narrative representation for this essay.28 Our “jobs not only share our lives, but offer platforms from which to story experience. They provide recognized means of characterizing and making sense of things, including important ways of accounting for oneself and others.”29 The stories in this essay were selected to showcase how heteronormative discourse(s) enable and/or constrain individuals who identify as gay or lesbian in the workplace. This method of analysis provides an opportunity to represent the “intact” stories and magnify specific details of heteronormative discourse that may be lost in the excerpts of a thematic analysis.30 For example, Lisa, white, a 55-year-old retail vice president, shared a story of when she was exposed for the first time as a lesbian woman, an incident that ended in a federal lawsuit. The details of this story—the emotions that gave me chills—cannot be broken apart. Instead, they must be presented as “intact,” as they were shared.31 Additionally, this method provided “resonance” by “promoting empathy, identification, and reverberation of the research by the readers who have no direct experience with the topic being discussed.”32 Ultimately, I believe in the power of these narratives, as “organizational learning is constituted through storytelling.”33 Thus, I am hopeful these stories have implications for organizations to recognize the nuances of heteronormativity at work and begin to move away from functioning from an exclusively heteronormative discourse.
In the following pages, each of the narratives is marked by an emergent title with the asterisks noting the beginning of each participant's narrative. My hope is that as you read these stories, you write notes about the moments you find most meaningful, your own experiences, and your emotions as we work towards complexifying heteronormativity at work.
I first met Kai while waiting for a shuttle to attend a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) conference. He stood waiting outside in the frigid winter cold in a full suit and tie, dressed to impress as a white, 28-year-old, human resources supervisor for a large Fortune 500 company. Fast forward two years: as we spoke on the phone for this interview, he shared that he wanted to find a quiet place outside to talk. With sounds of birds chirping and lawn mowers running in the background, I could not help but imagine him sipping sweet tea while telling me his story.
Early on, I think I was a little hesitant to tell people—to just be gay. I had a hard time kind of being me… meaning I didn't like to surprise people and say, “My boyfriend and I are going to go to the movies,” but I also felt this pressure to be out. I always felt like I had to have more of a sit-down conversation with folks before I was able to just be me.
My company has an LGBTQ network and while at first I was hesitant to join, I reached out, probably within my first month of being at the company.34 I actually remember it was my second week, and I wanted to get involved. I ended up meeting with the network lead, who at the time was a senior manager. And we talked through what the network does and how I could contribute. Being that I was a recent graduate and a recent recruit, he thought I would be an asset to the recruiting component of the network. Essentially, we would attend events and visit LGBTQ organizations at colleges and universities and talk about our experiences in the workplace. After a few months of doing that, I was elevated to be the leader of the recruitment component of the leadership team.
I think that's when my story became unique, because I began to work with the leadership team of the LGBTQ network on a weekly or biweekly basis, and these folks were multiple levels higher than me. We were working together in a peer capacity, they knew who I was, they knew what I did, and generally speaking they all liked me. I mean, I don't like to flaunt it, but it was a good group of work-related friends who I got to hang out and laugh with on a weekly basis. It did not matter that I was in an entry-level position, it mattered that I was gay.
I gained a lot more confidence in the weeks following my new leadership position and I finally felt truly accepted within my workplace. I quite honestly was honored to be working with these individuals; in fact, I hate to say this, but I became the poster child of our network. I say this because a couple years ago I was one of the features for our LGBTQ team during Pride month. It was me as the network lead and then two vice presidents, and those were posted around the corporate campus, and so I mean, that's definitely poster-child status. I mean, I've been with the company for five years and you can still see my face plastered around our corporate campus representing “a commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
And then most recently, we started to do diversity campaigns in which someone from each of our networks was nominated and selected to represent the network in features. Guess what, I was nominated and selected. So if you go to a career fair or if we sponsor something related to LGBTQ diversity and inclusion, my photo will be used along with whatever verbiage the branding folks come up with.
In reflecting on all of this, I don't mind being the face of these things, but I have sometimes felt there are so many other people in the company who should be acknowledged too. I shouldn't be the only face of the LGBTQ network… nor do I want to be the only face.
ALWAYS IN MY HEAD
When you have been calling and interviewing people for weeks and someone calls you, you know it must be good. That is what happened early one afternoon when I got a call from Julie, a 34-year-old, Asian American, pharmaceutical sales representative who was currently on disability leave from her workplace. I had recently interviewed one of her friends and Julie had called ready to answer my questions. She was cooped up in her small one-bedroom apartment and was eager to share her journey with me.
During training you have to introduce yourself, what state you're going to be selling in, and the products that you'll need training in. It was a small training class. And for that reason, I'd kind of thought about coming out from the beginning.
When I came out to my training class, we were at a restaurant and, one of the girls had said that her brother's gay. And then a lady had a friend who's gay. And then another girl had a brother who is gay. And then Paul, he's now one of my close friends, he spoke about having lots of gay and lesbian friends. So, after hearing them just openly talk about that and it being kind of an out-of-the-blue conversation, they didn't seem to care. So I told them… I was not even thinking about it. They were all kind of shocked, but they said they were glad that I realized I could be myself around them. They understood why I never necessarily came out at my other companies—because the pharmaceutical sales culture was not an accepting one.
The next day, it was the second day of training. There was a seating area and we were on a break getting water or coffee and whatnot. There was a television broadcasting… I don't remember what it was on. It was probably something to do with Proposition 8 or something in regards to gay legislation. And as soon as it came on… the special news report, the guy sitting next to me, who happened to be the trainer of our next session said… what did he say? I don't know the exact words, but it was something like, “It's awful that our country wastes our time with whether or not they should have rights, because they shouldn't have the same rights as you or me.” It felt like a punch in the face. Who talks like that? Especially at a training with new employees, so I just got up and walked away.
Eventually, everyone in the class walked away, too, because it was just so uncomfortable and what are you supposed to say? It wasn't just me being gay—everyone who was around him had a son or a brother or a friend who is gay, and it was just awful.
I recently took a leave of absence because I had to have surgery. Paul called to check in on me the other day. He said that he had had another training at headquarters and there was a new trainer. I immediately said, “Thank God.” He said the Prop 8 conversation was still in the news; our headquarters is in California, so it was no surprise. And it was again the topic of conversation in the office… I guess some things never change. And he told me he overheard this new guy saying, “There are more things we need to focus on than gay people, if they would all just be rounded up…”
So, yeah. It's just… hearing that, I don't want to come back. I never want to go back to that company. In fact, if someone said that to me now, like that trainer or manager said, my reaction would probably not be professional at all, because it's so personal… but it's these comments that are always in my head, always on my mind while I am at work.
GOOD FOR ME, GOOD FOR US
When Kacey answered the phone, I could sense the level of professionalism in her voice as a proud working woman, only to find out later that the mixed race, 42-year-old corporate scientist was even more proud to be a mother. We talked while she was at work and I remember near the beginning of her story she set down the phone to close her office door. She spoke from her heart and for her family.
When I started my work at the lab I was married, but my life situation changed in the time I was there. When I started I had a baby and a husband. He left when my child was two. And then, probably about two to three years after he left, I just decided that I was going to date women. It wasn't just a shift like that, but I met Deb, who's my partner now and everything fell into place. Honestly, I knew the front office staff was very, very conservative and because of that I never said anything. I just knew from previous things that were said about one of my male colleagues in the department who was assumed to be gay. They made jokes behind his back and were really catty about something they knew nothing about. And to tell you the truth my colleagues all kind of put me in one divorced box and I did not want to re-open that box. And so I just decided I didn't want to deal with it. I guess I didn't have to deal with it. It was kind of a stressful time in my life anyway, and I just didn't want to have to deal with that at work.
When a new opportunity became available. The gentleman who recruited me knew of my personal situation. Even though the people at the lab did not know, he did. When I decided I wanted to interview at this new company, I just decided that if I was going to make a really large transition, move across the country, I wanted it to be… I don't know how to phrase it… I wanted it to be a really big change in my life, for my family. When I went to interview and they said I could bring my family, I explained that my family was somewhat non-traditional. And could I bring my partner, who is a woman? And they said, “Absolutely, no problem.” And they treated us just like, in my opinion, they would treat any other couple coming to interview and I just felt from the very beginning that it was a non-issue. This was a big reason I accepted the job.
When I started, I kind of thought it was funny because they have a mentoring program here, and they put me with a lesbian, so much for not labeling me. That was my mentor. And I kind of laughed. I mean, it was fine, and it was great, but, I mean, I think they assumed that just because we are lesbians, we'd have lots in common. But we didn't really have anything in common, not even our positions in the company. So it was just kind of funny. Her partner played on a women's football team, and so she had pictures of her partner dressed up in her football gear with the helmet and all this stuff, and she was just very excited about it. And then she was talking all about her dog and all this and her dog was like her baby. And I love my dogs, don't get me wrong. I have two of them. But she was just in a totally different stage of life. We just didn't have anything in common. I probably would have been better mentored by somebody else who maybe had kids, but I don't think they even thought to ask me, because I am a lesbian. And so, anyway, that's neither here nor there, but at least I knew there were lots of people who were out.
I know this is kind of a side note, but my son helped me realize what I neglected to see about the way I was living my work life. He is a sophomore in high school and right after we moved here, somebody came up to him. He was sitting outside of school waiting for me to pick him up and somebody came up to him and sat down next to him, someone he didn't even know. And they were like, “So, are you the kid with two moms?” And he's like, “Yeah.” And he's like, “Oh, okay.” I mean, as he shared this with me my heart stopped. It was the first time that I realized how he deals with many of the same things that I deal with. Yet, it's normal to him. I remember how many picnics or company events he attended that Deb didn't, that I had asked him to not mention her. I had subjected him to hide it, yet it all changed when we moved. And I just thought that if I was going to instill in him that it was okay to be in a household with two moms, why the heck was I still so guarded about being myself at work? It took my son's acceptance to finally be okay with it.
It was just really clear… I mean, you know that I could be myself at work. I think I'm still cautious. Like when I have pictures up at my desk, I'm sensitive to the fact that not everybody might be comfortable, but for the most part, I've felt very… I don't know what the word is… embraced. And so I think I had this realization when I came to this company, I just decided that my family just needed to be out. It was not only good for me, but it was good for us.
When I tried to Skype with Lisa, a white, 55-year-old retail vice president, I heard her voice but received no video feed. When I tried again, a woman appeared with short blonde hair, small reading glasses, and a bubbly personality. As she sipped her coffee, we talked about her life and I listened to her story with astonishment—grasping on to each word—as she eloquently and sometimes hesitantly shared it with me.
When I decided to join the state police, I was very much asking the questions. By then, I had somewhat accepted it, I had had relationships with women, so when I marked single and not in a relationship on the application I was lying blatantly.
The state police, at that point in time, didn't even have any women, so they were recruiting heavily.35 This wasn't something I had a desire to do, but I'm so competitive, and they were creating a class for women for the first time. So, they came to me.
I was actually an athlete and they recruited a lot of athletes in college to do that, but you had to lie. There was no way about it. You weren't allowed to be gay. So, answering the questions was the first time in my life I had to lie about it. Before this, when I went to the Air Force I didn't lie because I wasn't out, but there was not even such thing as “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.” It was like “Don't Be.” So, when I answered the questions for the police application and interview, I had accepted this mentality of “Don't Be,” so I had to lie. It just really compounded the thought that I had to lie and live this dual life—lesbian and female police officer.
The truth was they really didn't want women; although they were recruiting women, they were under a federal order to recruit women because they had none.36 But they really didn't want them; so in the police academy, they were targeting the women to try to get women to quit. And so they started out with, I don't know, maybe 60 women in the class, and it was down to the last three of us.
They kept making me box men, bigger men, and for longer amounts of time. And I ended up in eleven different matches. I ended up breaking my nose and jaw, and I was in and out of the hospital a couple of times. It got brutal. And then ultimately, I had a serious concussion and was medically dismissed. I was invited to return, which was total crap because I wasn't wanted back. There was actually one other woman in there that was in charge at the time and she said this to me: “You just have to say to yourself any broken bones can be fixed, but don't let them break you.” And I took that very seriously. That's not the advice I would give to a 21-year-old now, that's quite stubborn to say the least. But I refused to quit and ended up in a lawsuit. I actually was done… I just didn't want to be there anymore, but I didn't want anyone to tell me I couldn't be there. So they would knock me down and I would stand back up and slap them with a lawsuit.
I sued the state police because what they were doing was ridiculous. Most men had one or two boxing matches with someone their own height and weight. Troopers don't box. It was just to see if you have an aversion to physical contact. So, they were using it to beat me up, to get me out. I ended up winning the lawsuit, but it wasn't for monetary reasons. It was to put those rules in place, to put the policies in place. I felt very disillusioned in the end because a few male troopers used this as their way of pushing people out, and they just got reassigned. Nothing serious became of them… and they almost killed me.
About eight years later, the woman trooper who gave me the advice about “don't let them break you,” sued the state police, and she testified in court that the reason that I was targeted was because they knew I was a lesbian. Eight years and my own lawsuit later, and I found this out while reading the newspaper in the morning over a cup of coffee. I was, for one, at a totally different place in my life. I was open; I was out, but I was just so disgusted. In the article, she said that they were hiding. They made her hide. They put a peephole in the showers to watch us, can you imagine that? To see if anybody else was joining us in the shower, because the three women recruits who were left were all allegedly lesbians… and we weren't out, because we couldn't have been out. Can you imagine if we would have been out, what they would have done to us? But somehow people knew we were lesbian. It had been reported. So, her job was to catch us, to watch us take showers.
She ended up winning her lawsuit as well. I find it unbelievable that I had no idea this was even going on. It was just total nonsense to find out eight years later that the primary reason I was dismissed was because it had been reported that I was gay.37
It is funny what you can learn from someone by just listening to their voice. Due to technical difficulties with Skype, I could not see Dwight. I could only hear him and he could see me, but his deep voice resonated off the walls of my tiny office and our conversation felt like a talk with an old friend from high school. As we talked about his experiences, the mixed race, 39-year-old public relations consultant patiently, yet succinctly, shared one important lesson.
For a short term, I was on the North American LGBTQ Task Force. Actually, it was the advisory committee to the president of the company in North America.38 It was a new group, a small group, as they had had a bad lawsuit. It was a discrimination lawsuit, and with this lawsuit, they were like, “We need to start developing what are now known as affinity groups for all the different minorities. We need to have support groups and advisory groups for all different types of minorities within the company.” So, they named February Black History Month and things like that. And we asked for them to name June LGBTQ Pride Month, obviously. They said, “Okay, that's great. We'll do that.”
Each of the groups planned for their events and brought in speakers and really just had fun with it. For ours, Ellen DeGeneres's mother was going to come and speak. We had all these different things lined up, and we were super excited. And as it got closer to the date, we put up a sign saying, “Everybody get excited about LGBTQ Pride Month.”
I swear it was within hours of these signs going up, we got an email from one of the executive staff members in the president's office saying:
To everybody on the LGBTQ Advisory Committee: Just to let you know, we've had some complaints that people are uncomfortable with what “LGBTQ” stands for, so we are actually going to change the title of it. We're just going to call this Pride Month and take off the word LGBTQ and any mention of gay, because people are uncomfortable with it.
And I replied. I just couldn't help myself, I replied without thinking… it was probably less than a few minutes after I got the email. I replied to the committee and said:
Okay, that's fine. I completely understand people being uncomfortable, but this is the South and people are also uncomfortable with black people. So, from now on, I would expect February to be Heritage Month, not Black Pride or Black Heritage month.
And I got a note back saying “point taken.” Then they kept the LGBTQ on all of the posters.
They learned, but I think there were some growing pains there. I do think they were very open to this sort of learning, because they had realized with the discrimination lawsuit that they had to have diversity training, but there were still things they needed to get their heads around and one of them was what it means to have a diverse workforce.
MOVING BEYOND “ONE” STORY
What are in your notes? What comments did you scribble down in red ink on this essay and circle three times in frustration? What I believe it comes down to is that the narratives in this essay illustrate that heteronormativity at work is “not all ‘one’ story.” Next, I focus on three questions that are important for the integrity of this research: What can be learned? What should be shared? How do we continue the conversation in meaningful ways?
First, we learn through the discourse(s) inherent in these narratives that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian each navigate a different narrative of heteronormativity at work. The heteronormative narrative is ingrained in the politics of the workplace—being placed “in a box” from which you cannot escape; navigating assumptions you cannot control; lying to maintain some sense of comfort; negotiating microaggressions.39 These narratives illustrate that heteronormativity at work both enables and constrains individuals who identify as gay or lesbian.
Heteronormativity rests on the discursive struggle and exclusionary nature that often leads marginalized individuals to feel controlled and even dominated in the workplace.40 In essence, these stories show that even when individuals come out in the workplace, heteronormativity is magnified by the ways in which sexual minorities freely partake in their own domination41—remaining guarded about displaying pictures of one's significant other on one's desk; self-regulating moments when it is okay to talk about one's sexuality; and being reminded relentlessly about what has been said in the past.
Second, it is important that we share stories centered on heteronormativity at work. David M. Boje contends that “storytelling is a collective dynamic that scripts, sways, and disciplines organizational learning”42—in order for learning to take place, these narratives must be shared. Thus, if we place value on sharing stories centered on heteronormativity at work, then we can continue to learn from the discursive struggle embedded within these narratives and others. Much of the discursive struggle and negotiation of power is evident in the nuances of the narratives presented in this essay. Yet, as individuals who identify as gay or lesbian navigate their identities as working professionals, we cannot forget that they often do so from an outsider within perspective. As apparent in the stories presented, a few of these individuals navigated the visibility of their outsider status to preserve their “normal”/insider/dominant status. These stories must be shared as it is only when listening to these narratives that their inherent discursive struggle is exposed.
Additionally, by sharing narratives of heteronormativity at work, we are more likely to note the fluidity of “out-ness” that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian manage in and outside of the workplace. This means recognizing that navigating heteronormativity at work is not just within the confines of the four walls encompassing a workplace, but also that individuals who identify as gay or lesbian continuously navigate their (in)visibility. Additionally, in sharing these stories and others, we disrupt the discourse(s) surrounding “one” story of heteronormativity at work. We are able to (re)present the layers, multidimensionality, and intersections that pervade these diverse, unique, and different stories that help us (re)present these narratives as lived experiences and, ultimately, learn from them.
Finally, in order to move beyond “one” story and continue meaningful conversations, I believe there is one critical skill we must improve: we must listen. We must listen to our friends, to our colleagues, to the numerous stories that have yet to be told. Heteronormativity is embedded with its “normal, taken-for-granted, it-goes-without saying character,” and too often narratives exposing heteronormativity are reduced by the discourse.43 Although I argue heteronormativity at work is not something we can simply change, through listening we can identify heteronormative policies, practices, and behaviors at work and address the pervasiveness of heteronormativity in organizations. This is not to say that organizations are not listening or making strides to create more inclusive workplaces. However, too often heteronormativity pervades the inclusive discourse. There is still so much more listening that needs to be done in the workplace to understand and expose inclusive heteronormative practices that also function to exclude: being embraced by an organization only to still feel cautious and guarded; being welcomed and included in an organization only to be elevated to poster-child status; and being acknowledged through new workplace policies and practices only to be undermined by others’ discomfort. In order to critique the discourse, it is essential these heteronormative complexities of inclusion do not go unnoticed, as “listening to many voices is fundamental to learning”44 that “it's not all ‘one’ story.”
Moreover, to work in society is to work in the heteronormative American culture. This is what Butler discusses as a heterosexual matrix, in which “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.”45 Thus, although this essay focused on the margins of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian, others, such as those who identify as bisexual, transgender, or queer, increasingly experience workplace heteronormativity that functions to regulate and subjugate sexual patriarchy and hegemony. Future research should explore how other sexual minorities’ narratives further expose heteronormativity at work. My hope is that the narratives presented in this essay continue the conversation surrounding the importance of narratives as a means for learning, sharing, and listening to underrepresented voices on the margins of organizational discourse.
Each of the narratives shared in this essay unite to complexify our understanding of “one” story. In uniting these narratives, one recognizes the nuanced ways in which individuals who identify as gay or lesbian experience and navigate heteronomativity at work. The challenge to heteronormativity is what Butler calls “distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself.”46 One cannot assume that heteronormativity in the workplace looks the same in every organization or for every individual. In fact, these narratives expose subtle hints of heteronormativity that are so embedded in our norms and conventions that they may not seem restricting. However, these stories unite to magnify the subtleties that open up the possibilities to permit individuals who identify as gay or lesbian to live and to breathe in the workplace. It is my hope that these narratives (and the many others out there that need to be shared) begin conversations surrounding heteronormativity in and outside of the workplace. Although some stories are heartbreaking, others are heartwarming, and it is essential to continue sharing these to understand to what uses these narratives can be put.47 This essay gives us room to grow, as being oneself in the workplace matters, and workplaces need to find ways to listen, understand, and change heteronormative practices in meaningful ways.
To close, I must share the words from one of my participants that inspired this essay: “We've all had different experiences. And so I think it's important to introduce that to anything we do, to remind people that it's not all ‘one’ story.”