About four months ago, I was fired for sexual harassment. The management dubbed this “mutually agreeable,” which is corporate-speak for “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” The way I see it, I was fired for being a lesbian.
My sexuality has always been a topic of conversation among friends and strangers. It just comes up. I can’t be bothered with chaste silence or pronoun-switching. This is how I came to be known as The Lesbian on the second day of my new job at a place we’ll call Last Chance Loans.
The office seemed friendly enough. The dress code was jeans; the CEO’s dachshund waddled down the hallways. I felt comfortable right away. LCL was peopled with characters like Dina, a wiry forty-year-old who once stuck her head in my cubicle to say, “I don’t like Jessica Simpson. She looks like she smells.” The following is an actual transcript of my coming-out conversation with Dina.
Me: “Blah blah blah I’m a lesbian.”
Her: “Oh, I love Melissa Etheridge!”
Then she asked what I thought of the Catholic priest scandal. “I mean,” she said, “the church seems to attract a lot of them.”
“A lot of whom?” I said.
“The gay men.”
“Um,” I said, “those priests weren’t gay men. They were pedophiles. It’s different.”
“Oh yes,” she nodded gravely. “That’s a lot worse.”
Then there was Jane. I figured any place that hired Jane to be their receptionist couldn’t be all bad. She was young and awkward with a slight sneer and the deadpan delivery of Steven Wright. I liked her duck-footed swagger and ill-fitting button-up shirts with boybeaters peeking out. Between her and Deirdre, a snarky twentysomething who flashed her middle finger at me at least once a day, I thought I’d found my work buddies.
We took three smoke breaks a day together to warm up in the sun and joke about our coworkers: Clara, the ferociously ambitious, slightly hunchbacked executive assistant; my boss, the marketing director who sauntered in late every Monday; the office manager-grandmother who carried an illegal seven-inch switchblade in her purse. I told them about my exchange with Dina and they fell over laughing.
One day, I noticed a rainbow-studded ring on Jane’s hand. “Is that a pride ring?” I said.
He read aloud a passage describing her pubic hairs as a dark forest in which he wanted to get lost.
“Nah,” she said. “I got it in New Mexico.”
“Now, are you sure you’re not a dyke?” I teased, “because you wear boybeater shirts every day.”
“Is that a gay thing?” Deirdre asked.
“Yeah, we invented that,” I said. “Y’all straight girls steal all our best stuff.”
“Huh,” said Jane and Deirdre. Our conversation moved on to something else.
A week later, the human-resources director called me into her office.
Six years ago, when I was an office assistant in the math department at the University of Texas, a handsome thirtysomething professor would trot into the mailroom like a yellow labrador whenever I lingered there. He’d stare at me and make coy conversation. I liked his warmth and attention, his sandy hair and radical politics. One day, he invited me to his office for tea. He brewed me a cup of Tazo that turned deep red. “It’s called Passion,” he said with a grin. Then he showed me a book of letters exchanged between Napoleon and Josephine. He read aloud a passage describing her pubic hairs as a dark forest in which he wanted to get lost.
I smiled and laughed. What was I supposed to do? I was a virgin, a freshman, and a girl who had been taught that it was vain to assume someone was hitting on her. I knew it was weird, but he wasn’t hurting me. It wasn’t until he started emailing me (without having asked for my email address) and calling my dorm room (without having asked for my number) that I got creeped out. He asked me to the movies. I declined. He asked me again, and I mentioned it to my supervisor.
After that, we still worked in the same department, but his entrances and exits were rushed and angry. I spent the rest of the year feeling like a heel for getting him in trouble, however informal. I told myself that I was just looking for attention, playing the victim, that I should have been able to dissuade him by myself.
But the fact that you don’t feel like you can say no is the exact reason sexual harassment policies exist. It wasn’t until years later that I accepted how young eighteen is and how skeevy his juvenile advances were. I stopped feeling guilty for tattling on him. The part of the experience I’ll never forget is how hard it was for me to say anything — to say no to him, and to say “um . . . ” to my boss.
At a later job, a supervisor asked me on a date and was boyishly disappointed when I declined. I worked there another year and we never shared a moment’s discomfort. Though his asking might have been technically inappropriate, I never would have filed a complaint because
How I hated the sexist hypothetical bastard — he’d never mess with this dyke!
I didn’t feel harassed. However meticulous my employers’ definition of sexual harassment — and every employer of mine has had one — my definition has always come down to, Am I queasy as I step into the elevator? Do I want to object but stop myself out of embarrassment and self-doubt? Am I scared?
When I was hired at Last Chance Loans, part of my induction was a grave-faced and long-winded explanation of their sexual-harassment policy. As the human-resources director read me the list of potential offenses, I imagined a balding, suited, leering man committing them: the ass slap, the crotch-cup, the lewd comment about wanting to fuck famous women, the needless brush of the passing groin, the inquiries about my sex life. (As a waitress, I got this all the time. Most colorful was from an elderly sonofabitch who asked as I refilled his coffee, “What do you girls do, anyway? Bump tacos and giggle?”) How I hated the sexist hypothetical bastard — he’d never mess with this dyke! I nodded along with Miss HR, glad to know that her hard-ass policy would have my back if I ever needed it.
When I got the call, I walked into the HR director’s office with confidence. I’d been there only a month but had quickly determined that it didn’t take much to impress my employers. When I alphabetized my boss’s files, she treated me like a genius. So why did Ms. HR have the steady eye of a cobra with a spreading hood?
“Shut the door, please,” she said.
Oh shit. I sat down and folded my already-clammy hands.
“There have been some issues brought to my attention and I want to discuss them with you.” She pulled a manila folder out of her desk and opened it.
I got very still, as prey tend to do.
“I see you did a cartwheel in the lobby?” she said.
I relaxed. So I was going to get called out for being a dumb-ass. That was fair. “I’m sorry,” I said with a little laugh. “It’s just that I have to pee all the time, and I have to pass Jane to get to the bathroom, so it gets embarrassing. I try to do something to distract her from actually keeping count. The lobby was empty, but that was dumb. I apologize.”
Ms. HR didn’t look up. “I see you also that you flashed her?”
“No!” I yelped, recoiling as if bitten. “No! I would never do that. No, I . . . I think I may have acted like I was going to, like, mimed it? But I never did . . . “
“But you acted like you were going to,” she countered.
I was struck dumb. Was that the same as doing it?
Ms. HR continued. “I see here you also asked her about a pride ring, and implied that there was something lesbian about her T-shirts.”
I began to tremble. How did she know about our talks outside? Someone must have told her. But who? And why?
“But . . . those were jokes I made outside the office.”
“We take sexual harassment very seriously here at Last Chance Loans,” she replied.
The balding man was back in my head.
The balding man was me.
The inside of my chest started to crumble.
“Also, you told Clara she was . . . ‘fine’?” Ms. HR queried.
I remembered that day. All the bigwigs were at a conference, so work ground to a halt. The women of the office had gathered to sit in the sun and gossip. It was right after our secretary had declared herself “a straight-up black Bronx bitch.” We had a new girl in the office who was enjoying the joviality. Clara walked in and I introduced her in my best Ladies’ Man voice: “That’s Clara. She fine!”
“I . . . I . . . ” I stuttered.
“And when asking to be transferred to Jane," Ms. HR continued, "You were asked, ‘Do you want Jane?’ and you said, ‘All the time.'”
“On the phone!” I exploded. “To talk with!”
I was starting to panic. How many people had complaints about me? Had she conducted an investigation prompted by one complaint, or had they each come to her individually? Had my coworkers compared notes in the copy room in hushed tones? Did they feel about me like I’d felt about my math professor?
“Look,” I said, clinging to my dignity. “Clearly, I’ve misinterpreted the office environment. But shouldn’t I have had some kind of warning?”
“Consider this your warning,” she said.
“But,” I pressed, “if I’d known I was being misinterpreted, I could have adjusted my behavior.”
“Do you think you can adjust your behavior?” she asked, leaning forward. “Is that something you think you can change?”
“Of course!” I cried. I searched her eyes for some sign that she knew this was absurd, that it was a corporate exercise, perfunctory, that she was just doing her job. But her unblinking composure veiled a blend of disgust and pleasure.
For the next week, a little voice piped up every few seconds to remind me — you’re a pervert.
I looked at my hands. She wanted to know if I could stop terrorizing the women of my office.
I used to think I’d escaped the self-loathing that plagues most gays. I’d grown up well-loved and free of religious condemnation. I had moved to New York City from Austin, Texas, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a lesbian. But sitting in Ms. HR’s office, I felt like I did when I got busted playing doctor with Eileen Gospel in fifth grade: that I was bad in a way so base that doors had to be closed before I could be reprimanded.
She continued. “I’ll be meeting with the management to decide how to proceed. And we’ll need to make your placement agency aware of the situation.”
The stain grew. I wasn’t just losing my job — I was losing my means to get another one. I’d have to start over. I saw her reading my file to the lazy boss who loved me, and to Andy, the jokey guy at OfficeTeam who once considered me his finest temp. I saw their faces change as they listened to her. I saw myself change in their minds. I saw Andy explaining to his bosses why my file was being terminated. And everyone, in my mind, regarded me like the plague. Sexual harassment is too dire for the benefit of the doubt. No one would associate with me now. Shit, shit, was this really happening?
Finally, I burst into tears. I was so ashamed. How could I have made my friends feel this way? It took me what seemed like forever to believe that a woman could want me. I felt guilty even looking at beautiful women’s naked bodies when they presented themselves for my approval. I felt like I was doing something bad to them. And now I had done that bad thing to my friends, without meaning to, without even knowing it. They did feel the way I feared those women would feel, and at work, inescapably — I was always there, bouncing around, talking, being heedless, reckless, assuming all was well.
I sobbed into my hands. “It does . . . paint a picture . . . ” I said.
“Yes, it does,” said Ms. HR. She stared at me. I could have stopped, but I didn’t want to. I wanted her to see me cry. I wanted to eat away her valuable time with my sobbing, instead of moving somewhere discreet and hygienic to be rocked by her accusations.
After five or six minutes, she sighed. “You can go to the bathroom to clean up if you want. I’ll let Toni know you’ll be a few minutes.”
Now it was my turn to stare. It was three-thirty. I was wearing a mucus mask, and she expected me to finish the day? “I think I’d like to go home now,” I said. I left her office, bolted for my desk and ripped everything out of it. My coworkers stared. The new girl — who, I thought, must not have been interviewed — said, “What happened? What’s wrong?” I just shook my head. Let the other bitches tell her. I grabbed all available office supplies and ran for the door. On the way out, I started to cry again.
As I fled, I saw Jane. Her eyes were wide and worried. She started to stand at her desk, but I wouldn’t look at her. Downstairs on Madison Avenue, I collapsed in front of a store and called my best friend.
“Lily,” I said, “I just got fired for sexual harassment.”
“Of course you did,” she said. “Wait. You’re not serious.”
I limped into Central Park and told her everything. As I recounted my offenses, the shame subsided. A pride ring? Cartwheels? Ten minutes later, it seemed funny. En route to my train, I called all my friends. “I’m a sexual predator!” I crowed.
“That’s what you get for defecting to corporate America!” they laughed. And I did too.
But in all my merriment, something lingered. For the next week, a little voice piped up every few seconds to remind me — you’re a pervert. People who knew you were grossed out by you. People you shared cigarettes with were disturbed enough to trot downstairs and report you. However absurd their definition of sexual harassment, I had met it. Their reports were accurate.
I’ve always thought that if a woman felt sexually harassed, then she was, end of story. After all, if a victim had to prove malicious intent on the part of the harasser, then only the most extreme incidents would warrant reporting. Relentless dirty joking, the casual display of porn, and other acts that would create a threatening atmosphere would be exempt.
So I was rightfully fired. But what if the "victims" were uncomfortable with me because I was gay? Was it Ms. HR’s right to terminate me to satisfy her homophobia?
A few weeks after my departure, a former coworker sent me an IM.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve done the little things you got fired for, well, I’d have a shitload of nickels. But I get away with it because I’m a guy. They expect it from me.”
I thanked him for his honesty and told him not to lose any sleep over it. Meanwhile I thought, so was sexism at work, too?
What’s a gay girl to do in a straight world? Hide in the bathroom — or the closet?
Women at work reliably talk about a few things: each others’ bodies, their dating and/or sex lives and the men they work with. Comisseration and co-admiration are standard. In my first week at Last Chance Loans, my boss and a peer led me into a discussion of our respective breast sizes. They bemoaned their buxom figures, admired my "more subtle" one — so perky! — and complained about the trauma of buying a bathing suit. They knew I was gay. I felt uncomfortable. But hey, you talk about what your boss brings up, especially in your first week. And the women around me talked, as women in the sterility of an office always had, about the hottest and most slippery of topics. But I didn’t talk about my sex life. I was quiet when the dating discussions came around, except to reference my few ex-boyfriends. What’s a gay girl to do in a straight world? Hide in the bathroom — or the closet?
I don’t know how to keep everyone happy at work. The obvious answer is to apply a stringent, elaborately delineated standard to everyone equally. But is the resulting culture of paranoia that accompanies such rigorous — and ultimately unrealistic — standards worth it? Probably not. Besides, those who manage complaints always have, and always will, exercise their own biases in prosecution.
There is no equality.
Not that it shouldn’t be striven for, but all told, I’d rather err of the side of women’s comfort. I guess I’d rather live in a world where I can get fired for being goofy and gay than one in which my office mate can leer at Deirdre or watch girl-girl porn on his lunch break.
What I didn’t know: the day I got fired, Jane ran out into the street after me — no small gesture when you’re a receptionist. She didn’t see me crumpled in a little ball down the block, wailing into my cellphone, but she’d looked for me. Weeks later, when she heard I’d be giving a reading, she came to see me. She wanted to tell me it wasn’t her. She had related the discussion jokingly to coworkers; the woman I’d called “fine” had turned me in. It had snowballed from there, she said. She wanted to apologize.
“You know the best part?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Everyone says that Ms. HR is a huge dyke.”
We laughed and went down the block for a beer. Now, I have a job at FHM where my job is to talk to beautiful women, and Jane and I are very good friends. I got fired, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. n°
©2005 Emily DePrang and Nerve.com