When I was 14, I got a job as a cashier at a local pizza restaurant. I stood behind the counter all day repeating, “You can get an extra large for $2 more,” in an orange apron. I was very young and very naïve — grade school does nothing to prepare you for the realities of pizza-lusting customers, psychotic managers and the drama that ensues when you place several people in close quarters for days on end.
Ever since then, I’ve been in “the industry” as my fellow servers refer to it. I’ve moved up through the echelons from lowly paper-hat wearing burger wrapper to the more lucrative position of server. At the moment, I work at a restaurant in Ottawa, and with the exception of a gay bar I worked at in my hometown, it’s the first job I’ve ever been completely “out” at.
I can say with genuine pleasure that, while I have had to “educate” one or two people, for the most part, my co-workers are cool. Minor issues have included a co-worker telling me I was not a “real woman” because I was a lesbian, being told I “walk like a boy” which is bad for my appearance and being introduced to a co-worker’s friend as, “Lori the friendly neighbourhood lesbian.” None of it was malicious. All this said, while I have never had a seriously unpleasant altercation, there is a huge difference between accepted and being tolerated in the workplace.
A little while ago, for example, on a particularly slow evening, I was having a conversation with a staff member. A nice guy, but young and a little unworldly.
“Lori, I was wondering something,” he says, hands in his pockets, “I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, but when you look in the mirror, are you’re turned on because you have all the same parts as you’re attracted to?”
He’s wearing such a shit-eating grin that I laugh. Obviously he’s kidding. No one would actually ask a lesbian that question, right? Not in real life, right?
It takes me a good 30 seconds to realize he’s serious.
“No, I’m not. What kind of a question is that?”
When faced with the utterly absurd, you can either laugh or cry, and I usually prefer to laugh.
“Are you serious? Like, what? You think there’s a nation of queers out there, somewhere, trapped in a state of perpetual sexual arousal in front of their bedroom mirrors?”
“I guess that is, um, a pretty stupid question,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to offend you.”
“No, no you didn’t offend me,” I assure him. And I’m genuinely not offended. He’s just a kid, after all, and while his question was, let’s face it, pretty dumb, he didn’t intend for it to be rude or offensive. He was just curious. I can deal with that.
“You’re sure I didn’t offend you?”
“No worries buddy,” I smile, trying to reassure him.
He laughs, and turns around to his friend and fellow co-worker, who has just walked in. His friend says, “Rock paper scissors for who has to do the dishes?”
“Deal!” They start to rock paper scissor with a furious athletic intensity.
“And whoever loses is gay!” his friend says.
“Okay,” the words slip out of my mouth before I have a chance to bite my tongue. “Now,” I say. “Now, I’m offended.”
The two boys stop their game. The one I had been speaking to stops and looks at me in confusion. His hand is frozen in a pair of scissors.
I walked away. I had tables to attend. But when the night was over I approached him again. I told him I knew he didn’t mean to be offensive — people say “that’s really gay” all the time without really thinking about what it means. But when he and others say things like that, I explain, it connotes that being homosexual is something to be ashamed of, something they themselves wouldn’t want to be. In other words, that it’s “okay” to be gay so long as they don’t ever have to be, and they’re willing to like me “besides” my sexuality.
This attitude is common — so common, in fact, that most people don’t even know they have it. A very good friend of mine recently told me that while she had “nothing against” homosexuals she would “prefer if her child were heterosexual.” It seems to me that if homosexuality is truly “accepted” then it shouldn’t matter one way or the other any more than it should matter if they are a world-class pianist, line-order cook or column writer.
The word “tolerate” comes from the old Latin word “tolerare” which means “to endure”, as in, to endure something you’d rather not. Accept, by contrast, is defined as “to give admittance or approval”.
It’s not that everyone has to like us. Heck, in a world where Big Religion is still officially anti-gay and where all difference — including sexual difference — is viewed with suspicion, tolerance ain’t that bad.
But when it comes to the individual — me, here in Ottawa, out in the workplace — wouldn’t it be nice if my co-workers could get past toleration and move toward acceptance?