5 min

To be, or not to be

Out at work

Credit: Tatsu

After only a few months of working at the law firm Ogilvy Renault, Wendy Warhaft brought her same-sex partner of the time to a company dinner. She was the only queer at the office who brought a date.

“There may have been some gossip at the time, but it was generally a positive experience,” says Warhaft. “I wouldn’t hesitate to bring someone again.”

Everyone strives to be themselves. People have different comfort levels when it comes to divulging personal information at work, especially something as integral a part of them as one’s sexual orientation. People come out at their own pace, and in their own manner.

Warhaft feels that coming out “en masse” by showing up with her girlfriend was easier than having to tell her co-workers one at a time. “It’s a perfect way around the dirty work. There’s none of the wondering if the person you’re telling is really understanding what you mean by the word girlfriend, and you don’t have to face anyone’s reaction up close.”

She and her date ended up sitting at a table with the managing partner of the Toronto office and his wife, who took a big interest in their lives. The wife spent the entire time delving into the dynamics of a lesbian relationship, saying things like, “I don’t understand how two women would work because you’d both want to do the nurturing.”

Warhaft considers her firm, the seventh largest law firm in Canada, gay-friendly and she thinks that law firms in general are positive environments for queers to work in.

“Lawyers are quite aware of the law and of issues of harassment and discrimination,” says Warhaft. “There’s unlikely to be overt discrimination in large law firms, but you can have one person in a particular department who has a bad experience because of some asshole down the hall.”

No matter how gay-positive a work environment is, Warhaft thinks it’s important to recognize that people have different comfort levels. “Someone can work in a progressive environment, like Starbucks on Church, where [being queer] is not an issue,” and the individual still won’t feel comfortable coming out.

Brad Poechman, for example, needed to come to the full realization for himself that he was gay, and even then, he was reluctant to divulge to others.

Poechman, 26, a financial advisor, started working at a small branch of TD Canada Trust to pay his way through university. He remembers that of the approximately 20 people on staff two were gay men, both of whom were open about their sexuality.

After half a year of working there, Poechman was hanging out at “the Cup” on Church St, when he saw another guy from work. “I freaked out because I wasn’t really out,” says Poechman.

The next day at work, Poechman tried to convince his co-worker that he wasn’t gay. The day after, Poechman approached the same guy, and asked what it was like to be gay at the bank. The guy laughed and said, “Everyone here already knows you’re gay, Brad, and it’s fine.”

Investment consultant Paul Flarity scoped out the queer-friendly factor at the bank before he certified his first cheque. He started working at the same downtown TD Bank as Poechman three and a half years ago as a teller. His boyfriend of the time, who also worked there, told him it was a very gay-positive company. Flarity says that if there hadn’t been so many gay men working there he wouldn’t have applied.

As it is he’s never had a problem. “I’ve never come across anyone at work who ever blinked an eye about my sexuality,” says 28-year-old Flarity. His manager is straight and gay positive, and sets the tone for the rest of the office.

Clearly, Flarity has factored his sexuality into decisions about his working life; he’s clear about where he won’t work. “If I were to change careers, I wouldn’t do something like construction.”

And most would agree. But that didn’t stop Michael Henderson from getting his boot into the construction business – although 20 years later, he still passes for a straight guy.

Henderson doesn’t out himself at work but he doesn’t take part in heterosexual banter, either. “People don’t assume I’m gay. Maybe they just figure I’m classier,” says Henderson. “I don’t know what I’d say if someone asked me.”

After paying his dry-wall dues, Henderson, 51, moved up through the ranks of the construction business and is now a finishing superintendent for an international company.

Henderson says that he’s not compromising anything by remaining closeted at work. In fact, he thinks he’d be compromising something if he did come out.

“If I did tell people that I was gay, people might respect me less on the site. And everyone would know within 20 minutes in 30 different corporations around the world,” says Henderson.

Once at his current site, Henderson saw a sketch a worker had drawn of two guys with tool belts on a sheet of dry-wall. One was about to fuck the other up the ass, and there was a caption under it that read, “Oh, you’re going to really like it this time, Joe.”

“There are references like these all over the place at construction sites,” says Henderson. If only the future owners of this condo knew what was on the other side of their freshly painted walls.

Henderson remembers when an openly gay guy came to work for him temporarily. When the job was over, Henderson referred this hardworking, effeminate man to his brother, who also works in the construction business.

“He lasted two weeks at my brother’s company. [The worker] called me and said that he couldn’t take it anymore,” says Henderson.

When Henderson’s brother looked into it, he found out that the gay man’s resignation was the result of two other workers who wouldn’t stop harassing him and they were fired. Henderson says that although he could have predicted something like this was eventually going to happen, he didn’t want to tell the worker not to be himself.

He says the incident confirmed his suspicions of how homophobic construction sites really are and he doesn’t expect the situation to improve during his career. And he’s okay with that.

“Being gay on the job site is kind of like smoking pot,” says Henderson. “A lot of people do it, but no one really talks about it.”

Social worker Cherie Miller never thought that she’d be integrating her lesbian identity with her working life to the extent that she does. Miller works at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, and is out at work. But she wasn’t always comfortable being open about her sexuality.

Thirteen years ago, Miller started working at the Jewish Family And Child Services, where most people didn’t know she was involved in a long-term relationship with a woman.

She thought it was a good idea to keep her private life private because she saw many colleagues and clients as being potentially homophobic.

“Looking back, I think I created more of a barrier than I needed,” says Miller. “I thought if I came out, there would have been more hardships than there probably would have been.” In retrospect, Miller thinks that people may have been more receptive to her if she had been more open.

Three years later, she was working at the Jean Tweed Centre, an addiction treatment centre for women. “Since this was a feminist agency that works for an anti-oppression and anti-discrimination model, I knew that identifying as a lesbian would probably be considered a good thing,” says Miller.

At the Jane Tweed Centre, she was invited to run an addiction recovery group for lesbian clients. “I had never come out to clients before, nor had I considered integrating my sexuality into my work in that kind of way…. I had nightmares about being that public about [my sexual orientation]… that the walls in my office were falling down.”

She ended up running about five groups and found being out to her clients to be “such a rich experience.”

“I don’t think I’d go back to an environment where I’d have to be closeted, having experienced the other,” says Miller. “No one should have to do that.”