In and Out
Once You've Come Out of the Closet, It Isn't Very Easy To Get Back In
Thirty-eight years ago this month, patrons of a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village fought back when they were targeted for arrest by a raiding police party. The Stonewall Inn, heavily frequented by gay blacks, Hispanics, drag queens, and transgendered people, had seemed to be an easy target for a Republican city administration still smarting from the loss of a primary election. By refusing to go along quietly to the police station, however, this small group on society's fringes sparked a three-day riot involving thousands of protesters and police.
The Stonewall Rebellion is widely considered the seminal event of the gay liberation movement, not just in the U.S. but also throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia. And every June, we celebrate our gay pride by taking to the streets once again, thankfully in this country more in peace than in violence.
Coming out and fighting for your rights is a liberating act, but what we sometimes forget is that it's not just a one-time occurrence. This year, I learned the hard way what a lifetime commitment it often entails, and how easy it is to keep quiet when the stakes get raised.
I came to this realization in a job I recently held, where I made a Faustian bargain. After more than 20 years of being proudly out in the workplace--sometimes even blazingly so--I tacitly agreed to go back in the closet to take a senior position at a real estate development firm in Baltimore County that paid handsomely.
The recruiter I was working with was quite open-minded and even invited my partner and me to dinner, but she warned me to never tell anyone at my new job that I was gay, because the firm's owner was very conservative. More sensible people might have said, "Thanks, but no thanks," but with dollar signs dancing in my head I rationalized. "What the hell," I said to myself. "I don't have to be bosom buddies with these people, now do I? I'll just do my job well and keep my private life just that--private."
There were immediate signs that any sort of difference at this firm, known for its bland, flat buildings near major highways, was frowned upon. In my first week, I wore a Brooks Brothers blazer to work, thinking I was dressing conservatively. The next day, the recruiter called me saying never to do that again--my superiors had spotted the blazer's patch pockets and, even though they were made of herringbone, decided I was wearing a jean jacket.
Additionally, not discussing my partner of 20 years proved harder than I anticipated. The pronoun situation alone would have made a trained spy sweat. Answering questions as simple as "What are you planning to do this weekend?" was like clomping through a minefield. Once, a small gathering of my in-laws came out as, "Some of the family of my close friend are in town, and everyone's coming over to our--um, I mean my--house for dinner."
Things got easier a few weeks into the job when my partner had a heart attack, and I had to fess up about us in order to miss work so I could be at his side as he underwent surgery. Word spread fast at the water cooler about what had happened, and I was heartened to receive messages of genuine concern from colleagues who said they'd never known a gay person before, let alone worked with one.
Based on these promising results, I flung caution to the wind and began telling folks that not only was I gay, but also that I had a son with two mommies--dear lesbian friends of ours who asked me to help them conceive a child. They now live in Colorado, and since I'm a part of Noah's life, I needed to use some of my vacation time to visit, bond, and just be there for him and his overtired moms.
Again, the enlightened-leaning, including my immediate supervisor, thought the situation was pretty cool, but others were full of queries that I had a feeling were being taken back to the water cooler and discussed again, this time with concern of a very different nature.
As I shared pictures of my new family, the questions grew bolder: "Who's the real mother?" "How did you all--you know--do it?" "Won't he grow up confused?" And even though his office was two doors down from mine, I never really bonded with the firm's owner. Our conversations fell flat after a word or two, when I made comments in meetings all I got from him were blank stares, and even my brief hallway greetings went unacknowledged.
I think I was just way too different for him to comprehend. I was a gay, Democratic city dweller in a land of white-shirted, straight Republican boys from the burbs who just loved to ogle the office girls. Several months after my partner fell ill I was dismissed at the owner's behest.
To restore the equilibrium, the boss hired a highly placed Republican eager to leave the outgoing Ehrlich administration, who I was told was more suited for the job I held. I had to pack up and get out in little more than a day's time to make room for my replacement.
Lawyers advised that I really had no recourse, as Maryland is an at-will employment state, which means either employee or employer can sever the working relationship at any time. In addition, the firm had no employee manual, and so no written policies on fair treatment. And it wasn't like anyone ever said, "We're firing you because you're a gay boy who's just too different from the rest of us."
Truthfully, I'll never know if I was fired for being gay--I later found out that the owner is notorious for dismissing employees at the drop of a hat. Whether it was Noah or my partner or just my personality, I do know it was something about me personally, because no one complained about my work. Maybe I just wore one striped shirt too many.
Ultimately, I'm one of the lucky ones. My supervisor brokered a severance package far beyond the norm for that firm, and I had the resources to weather several months without a job. I now work at an institution that values diversity in all its forms. But not everyone has the options I had.
When I reread the courageous accounts of Stonewall, I'm ashamed that I compromised myself and my family for little more than extra spending money. I suppose you could say I got my just deserts, and it helped me remember that fighting for equal rights is a lifetime commitment, not something you can opt in or out of as the spirit moves you. However tempting, or lucrative, my future career options may be, you can be damned sure I won't ever hide behind a half-open closet door again.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201