Sunday, January 9, 2011

Update on homophobic office rant

This is an update to a previous post, which can be seen here, in which I was subject to a homophobic rant at my office.

When I woke up on the morning after this incident, I thought I was fine. I got the kids ready for school, ran a few errands, and went into the office. As I got closer to the university, I realized that things were not as 'fine' as I had previously thought, but I still wasn't prepared for the knot of anxiety that I felt in the pit of my stomach as I approached the office door. I was also not prepared for the sound of my keys bouncing off each other as I tried to open the door with a trembling hand, afraid that he would be on the other side. He wasn't.

Still, as I got ready to begin work, just as I do every morning, I realized that something was different and I am not sure that it will ever be quite the same again. My office is a place where I had always felt safe. I had found a little niche where I could exist as I am without having to hide or conform, without having to pretend to be something I am not without having to worry about being judged or discriminated against. The place I could let my guard down and not have to worry about the anxieties that I often feel while dealing with people in the "real" world outside of this bubble.

And I am confused because he never touched me, he never made me feel as if I was in any kind of physical danger, never so much as raised his voice. Maybe that is why it didn't hit me until I really started thinking about the words that he used. If he had yelled or made me feel physically threatened, then I would have really seen the words for what they were from the beginning. But his tone was almost pleasant, conversational... in the context of words that were so full of not-quite-hidden hatred, or at very least ignorance, it made the entire situation seem even more surreal.

And the part that frustrates me most is that I can't get over being mad at myself. I am angry that I didn't tell him off or at least really explicitly tell him that it was inappropriate and that I wanted him to shut his mouth right then and there. I wasn't entirely quiet... at first, I tried to argue with him, but then just tried to ignore him in the hopes that he would stop talking, but he didn't, so I left the room. Either way, rationally I know that I am not to blame and that putting any blame on myself for his words is unhealthy and part of the victim blaming trend that I have written about so often (although I don't like that term... and I am definitely not thinking about myself as a victim in the context of this incident).

When I talk about it, people seem surprised that I didn't fight back. I am known for being argumentative when I want to be and for not backing down from an argument or debate, so it makes sense that those who know me are shocked that I didn't say or do anything. Still, acting shocked that I didn't say or do anything makes me feel as though I was wrong, and that isn't helping me right now.

Another friend just told me that although he doesn't condone that behavior, it is probably because the person was attracted to me. Then said something about how guys are jerks and it can be hard for them to behave properly around attractive women. So, basically what I got from that conversation was that it is my fault because I fit into a specific box of what could be defined as attractive by some people's standards (despite the fact that I don't wear makeup and rarely wear "figure flattering" clothing). Is the solution, then, to make even less effort with my appearance or should I excuse him for just being male?

And to make matters worse, I just received a non-apology letter, saying things like I'm sorry if you were offended by our openly intellectual conversation... you should have told me to stop... sorry if you thought i was rude or offensive. NOT sorry for being rude and offensive, but just apologizing if I interpreted it that way, because he is clearly open-minded about sexual orientation (he said as much in his letter), and I am the one with the problem for not seeing that. That letter should never have been allowed to be sent as an apology.

So, now I am sitting at home, not wanting to be alone, but not wanting to go on campus either. I am dreading tomorrow because it is the one morning that I know he will be there and I am pretty sure that he is angry with me for not seeing our 'conversation' as intellectual/academic. And the way that this is being handled is making me as angry, or possibly moreso, than the original rant... and I thought things were being handled so well up until late last night.


  1. I can empathize with that, and I'm sorry that you had that experience!

    I find that although I consider myself to be a strong, educated, intelligent, well-spoken feminist most of the time, I'm often thrown off my game. I'm a graduate student in psychology out in Utah, and I usually expect the people around me to be more enlightened than they are. When they say sexist, homophobic, privileged crap I'm often at a loss. Or I don't realize what they really said until I'm able to think about it later. Then I start punishing myself for not speaking my mind in the moment, or not being clear enough, or being too upset, or...

    All I can do is make a mental note of it and try to pay more attention to my internal cues next time. If my gut is telling me that this person is out of line, I need to trust it. At the same time, we all (especially students) need to pick our battles. We can't fight them all.

    I admire the way that you tried to get through to this person, and I admire you for taking a step back when it became clear that it was kind of like talking to a rock. Don't beat yourself up about it, and keep being yourself.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and it's icky aftertaste. It has made me feel less alone.

  2. Miss Wizzle said it all. One of the things the KGB figured out, vis a vis torture, is that when people believe they are responsible for their own suffering it makes it more intolerable. You don't need a justification for not having been more vocal, and there's nothing you should have done that you didn't do. Sometimes you kick ass and sometimes you don't. I know that you know all this, but I'm telling you anyhow.

  3. Miss Wizzle, thank you so much for posting this. After some of the blame stuff starting happening, knowing that most of the people have read about it through my blog, I began to wonder if it was worth continuing to post about personal things when it opens me up to so much criticism. I thought about going fully anonymous again, but I'm not sure I'm capable of that.

    Comments like yours remind me of why I think feminist blogging is important... it reminds me of consciousness raising from the 60s and 70s, but in an electronic format that allows it to reach pretty much anybody.

  4. 1abcowboy, it can be hard for me to accept that I don't always kick ass... especially when I usually enjoy it.

  5. Hmm...reading your descriptions in this post and the other, I sense that your sexuality may have actually intimidated your office mate. I'm not defending him as what he said is everything you say it is and he should be called out, but it sounds a lot like he's perceiving your non-straightness as a threat to his own sexuality or heteronormativity and he needs to convince himself that lesbian woman tricking themselves so can feel comfortable as a man. I really do wonder how that conversation would have gone if you were a gay male!

    Speaking from my own experience as a straight male gradstudent in a similar discipline, I've found it at times extremely fraught to wade into gender and sexuality discussions. Perhaps because being a white, straight male I enter the conversation from a disadvantaged standpoint of white male privilege and heteronormativity, which somes means that I feel that I have to qualify who I am so that my counterpart can deem me a 'safe' white hetero male, and even then I am sometimes reluctant to voice my views at the risk of dismissed as one thing or another (which, from my limited knowledge of gender scholarship, seems to put me in Judith Butler's camp). I discussed some anecdotal personal experiences here:

    I remember the first time I went to gay bar in the Church area of Toronto. It was a mostly male crowd and I was nervous as hell. Until that point, my interaction with gay men had been on an individual or small group basis, but now I was in a decidedly and overtly gay space. It's all good now, and I ended up having a great time as my inner sociologist (anthropologist?) came through and I ended up getting a learning quite a bit about the literal and figurative ins and outs of gay culture in the village.

    Perhaps your homophobic colleague felt the same sort of nervousness upon learning of your sexuality and reacted disgracefully. What this suggests then is that you own that office space, and it is he who now feels uncomfortable because he doesn't understand. I don't know the dynamics of your situation but could there be a teachable moment in there somewhere?

    It might not be so odd that this occurs in a sociology department; there's nothing to say that soc gradstudents, especially straight males, have ever read anything on gender or queer theory.

  6. Also, I like your blog, well done! I found it through this Canadian Dimension essay:

  7. Boris, thank you for shedding some insight on what he may have been thinking. I like that you explicitly stated that you thought his words should be called out, because the argument that you are making almost treads on dangerous justification territory, but you managed to make it without going there, so thanks for that... As long as explaining what he might have been thinking doesn't serve to excuse what he said.

    I understand what you are saying about having trouble speaking on certain topics when you come from a point of privilege. I sometimes feel the same way about entering into discussions on race as a white person, but at the same time, I want to make sure that my work doesn't scream of white privilege, which I think it sometimes does despite having grown up in a home with a Muslim stepfather who was born and raised in Syria and having a daughter who is black and native (from her father)... and I hope pointing that out doesn't sound like one of those "but i have black friends" type of arguments. I feel as though I am close to the issue of race, but still have to check my privilege constantly. I think what I'm saying is that, as a straight white man, you might still have a lot to say that is valuable, just check your privilege first.

    And I'm glad you like my blog... I am a huge fan of Scott's as well and I didn't realize he had linked to these posts... thanks for sharing those links. I'm falling behind on blog reading.

  8. No, I'm definitely not excusing his behaviour. Your colleague was clearly out of line but he doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are a whole host of reasons that produced his response but none of them excuse it :)

    I was pondering the concept of white privilege, (masculinised or not) in light of your comment, and have some thoughts of my own.

    While I agree that it is a useful tool for understanding gender and race inequality, it can also be counterproductive when over-used, or used to dismiss an individual. If, for example, someone thinks "white male privilege" before they think "Oh, it's Boris" when they meet me, then I'm being negatively objectified and dehumanised as an individual if this then leads the person to make certain assumptions about my character. This is racism and sexism reversed and is not the way forward. The term must, IMHO, be very critically applied.

    I will try to explain.

    The fact that I'm white and male cannot be helped. In this society of ours, I am hegemonically privileged whether I like it or not. However, this does not mean I actively use that privilege to gain advantage, or it is overtly present in contexts such as those where i associate with friends and colleagues who are not white, male, or straight for that matter. Sometimes, though, it has felt as if I've been dismissed uncritically because of an uninterrogated and essentialising use of a conceptual tool.

    Sincere and critical race and gender discussion shouldn't involve reluctance from any participant, but this often seems the case, be it yours over race or mine over gender, race and sexuality, or any other such thing. Representatives of the privileged cohort might feel like they're under attack for things they cannot help or might not even be aware of. This is discrimination by definition and there can be no good gleaned from it. It takes a lot of patience and a critical examination of one's own positions, on both sides of the equation to move beyond reproducing a reversed mechanism of intolerance and oppression. Are you alienating or alienated, offending or offended? If so, is your position or theirs justifiable?

    No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental... (Said, Culture and Imperialism, 336)

  9. Although I get what you are saying, I'm not sure I entirely agree. I have never really felt under attack for being white, but my discomfort in participating in certain discussions likely does not come close to the discomfort that my stepfather felt leaving the house after 9/11 (he didn't for a very long time) or the discomfort that my daughter's father felt when a man at the bar where he was playing refused to shake his hand when they were introduced... nevermind the hidden forms of racism that take place everyday.

    I don't have to actively use my whiteness to gain privileges... they exist whether I like it or not. I don't even have the choice of not taking advantage of them because they go beyond my own agency.

    Sometimes I feel under attack for being queer... which was the context of this post. I have been attacked (both literally and figuratively) for being female. I do not feel under attack for being white.

  10. No, the awful experiences of your family members would not come close but the mechanism of discrimination still exists, although obviously lesser in degree by orders of magnitude. Does this make one form of discrimination justifiable or excusable and another not?

    The friend who dismissed guys as jerks may have been trying to help, but the statement is emblematic of the dismissiveness that happens in situations like this. "Guys are jerks, he might have _____" might be a light hearted attempt at consoling you, but it is an essentialising misandristic statement which allows one room to avoid a really critical appraisal of what transpired and why it did. The reverse would be something like "women are crazy, she's only doing that because she wants you" which really wouldn't be well received.

    It might not be possible in your situation, but it could be something of an exercise if your colleague was made to include in his apology a researched essay where he reflected on the validity of his assertions.

    Anyway, I hope the situation resolves better for you than it has to date. Thanks for the exchange today.

  11. I've just come across the Ms Marx blog, and this unfortunate incident is the first couple of posts I've read in detail. As a straight white male, I understand -- and this isn't an understanding I was born with, but had to develop over a long time and a lot of reflection -- that those of us who have this kind of privilege have an absolute responsibility to call this kind of bullshit out when we see it. It's difficult, and it makes life harder, and that's what we owe for pretty good hand of cards we were dealt.

    What I'm saying is, there were obviously a lot of guys who heard this line of bullshit, and never challenged it. And because when your conversationalist spun his line of idiocy, no one contradicted it, the conversationalist determined that he was just stating the truth -- uncomfortable truth, perhaps, so all the more important that he state it out loud.

    Well, a lot of people failed you, and to some extent, they failed this guy too. I'm not surprised you're still upset by this whole thing, and I'm saddened that it happened at all.

    For all the guys out there who read this, think about the times you heard assholes like this spouting off, and just shook your head and thought "what an asshole" to yourself -- and that was the end of it. Think of all the times some guy has said something overtly sexist or racist or whatever, and you've just politely steered the conversation in a more palatable direction.

    I can tell you this: confronting this kind of thing, as the disinterested party, and especially in the workplace, is really important. It sucks, it causes problems for everyone, it might even be one of those dreaded career-limiting moves. But it's necessary, and when you do it, you'll sleep better at night, I promise.

    And by the way, this is not about the big, strong, straight males coming in and making the world safe for damsels in distress. This is about engaging with our society, and using our advantages -- whiteness, maleness, straightness, economic advantageness, or whatever -- to the betterment of everyone.

    So, Ms Marx: here's hoping you recover your office soon, and all the things it meant to you.

  12. Sorry -- re-reading my comment, I realise that it sounds like I'm demanding that Ms Marx should be doing the confronting. Let it be clear that my pronoun use is at fault, not Ms Marx. It's the privileged co-workers who should be responding to the kinds of things that the jerk was saying.

    Apologies -- I hate to be unclear like that.

  13. Boris, I could only imagine how thrilled a grad student would be if made to apologize in the form of an essay... I think that would be cruel and unusual punishment with the workload we already have. He did spend a fair amount of time talking to a prof in our department who is one of the leading queer theorists and activists in the country, so at least that is something, but I'm not sure how much of the message actually got through.

  14. Thanks M@. I didn't take it to mean that you wanted me to do the confronting, but the clarification was still important. None of my coworkers were in the office at the time, or there is no way he would have gotten away with saying that. And I fully agree that this type of thinking needs to be called out.

    I have friends who change the way they talk when I am around because they know I will comment every time they say "that's gay" or "lame" or "retarded" or any other such statement that is often casually used in everyday conversations.

    I have made dozens of comments on facebook status updates calling out offensive language, or tactfully telling male friends that calling me "princess" is not a compliment.

    And I am generally the first to stand up for friends or call out offensive remarks in a classroom or social setting.

    But in this specific incident, I froze... I think if we were debating the issue more generally as opposed to something that was about me personally, I would have been fine. But when alone with a guy in an office who is offering me his penis as a cure for my sexuality, speaking out may not be the first thing on my mind... getting out was.

  15. It never ceases to amaze what some people view as being appropriate for the workplace--to say nothing of "intellectual/academic." I work in social services in an urban metropolitan area and the amount of open negativity/bias against LGBT individuals is always striking.

    A few months back I overheard some co-workers discussing some male musician whose sexuality was the subject of debate and one of the male staffers declared that he'd rather have his son grow up to be a convicted murderer than come out as gay because "he might've killed someone for the right reasons."

  16. Here via Feministe - I read the original incident as well as this followup, and I am especially steamed at his non-apology letter and the idea that it was up to you to stop him from running his mouth.

    When people do and say appalling stuff, often people don't "fight back." You know why? Because we're reeling and caught off-guard. And because, hey, if this person feels totally free to explain to you why your own sexual orientation and relationships are Not Real, what else will he do or say? For what it's worth from a Kindly Internet Stranger, DO NOT beat yourself up for freezing like a deer.

    I really feel for you, did you say you have to share an office with him?

    If you're looking for a way to respond to his non-apology, this might help you reclaim a little bit of your own.

    "Thanks for your attempt to apologize. I was offended, and I am offended that you see it as my job to tell you to stop if I am offended instead of your job to think about your comments before you say them. Unfortunately I was so taken off-guard by your remarks that I didn't speak up at the time.

    What you see as an "intellectual discussion of human sexuality" felt to me like you were explaining that my own feelings, relationships, experiences and desires weren't real and that I could be "cured" if I found the right man. I guess we'll never know.

    If you are interested in learning more about this on an intellectual level, I can recommend x, y, and z sources. However, I think it will help our working relationship to view this topic as off-limits and put this behind us as soon as possible. I also strongly caution you NOT to speak this way to gay students you may encounter."

    That gives you some grounds that if he starts bringing it up again he is crossing the line into harassing you, as in the first step in stopping harassing behavior is telling the person directly that they should stop. You have room if he brings it up to say "We agreed we weren't going to discuss this anymore, and by bringing it up again you are making me feel both annoyed and unsafe."

    Then...document document document.

    I'm so, so, so, so sorry.

  17. Verchiel, wow... that must be incredibly difficult to hear, especially for any queer people who might happen to be in the room. Does the person who said that know that we don't all have rainbow tattoos on our foreheads and he might be personally insulting people (I'm rather sure that there are also many straight people who would be offended by that type of remark as well). It makes it clear why some people prefer not to come out, especially to people they aren't close to.

    JenniferP, that is a great letter... and it might be beneficial in the near future. He is currently working in a different office, but I don't think that it is a permanent solution, and something similar to what you wrote might be good to send to him before we start working together again. Thanks!

  18. Glad to be useful, and again, ugh. This shouldn't be your problem.