Gay on the Job
"Coming out" in the Utah Workplace.
By Carolyn Campbell
JANUARY 26, 1998: One day, Kathy Worthington just stopped talking at work. Other Murray City Post Office employees were surprised when the formerly gregarious woman abruptly got quiet about her personal life. She'd been part of hundreds of conversations about kids, home life and weekend activities. What her co-workers couldn't guess was that beneath the unexpected silence lay a sea of emotion:
Worthington was enacting a major life transition away from the office. She was about to "come out" as a lesbian. "I'd pretty much given up on relationships with men, was discovering that I was gay and getting to know gay people."
She says she wasn't aware how completely she had cut herself off from office conversations until she came out months later. Worthington approached seven or eight people she knew well and said, "Listen, there's something I need to tell you. I'm gay. I thought you might hear it from someone else and feel that you need to defend me. I want you to know that I'm perfectly OK with it and don't need to be defended."
She was surprised at one friend's response: "For two years, I've wondered what I did to make you stop talking to me," the friend said.
Other gay workers throughout Utah say they can relate easily to Worthington's experience. Many of them fear that they would lose their jobs or families if they revealed their sexual orientation. "Coming out isn't something you do easily," says a self-employed gay man who wished to remain anonymous. "You worry that you will lose friends or customers. You wonder if your being gay is all people will think of whenever they see you after that."
The fact that thousands of Utah gays are not out of the closet makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact size of Utah's gay community and gay work force. Utahn Cal Noyce, who is co-chair of Pride At Work, a national organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered labor, says that if 10 percent of Utahns are gay, that means that tens of thousands of people in the state's work force are homosexual.
Brook Heart-Song, a gay community activitist who is on the boards of both Utah's Stonewall Center and the People With Aids Coalition, says that it appears that more and more Utah gays are coming out, as evidenced by the increasing number of participants in the annual gay pride parade now more than 10,000 each year.
Heart-Song has personally seen Utah gays at work as police officers, financial planners, nurses, construction workers, truck drivers, firefighters, psychologists and lawyers, among other vocations. "It's hard to think of a profession where we're not," she says.
Brenda Voisard, Ph.D., a therapist who has counseled many gays and lesbians, and is a lesbian who is "out" at work herself, says that "being lesbian or gay and one's career are so intertwined -- both are big pieces of a person's identity. When I work with people in career counseling who are lesbian or gay, I usually end up doing some work around their gay or lesbian identity as well ... such as how they went into a certain career considering their sexual preference."
Voisard explains that some gay and lesbians choose careers that fit the typical homosexual stereotype -- like male hairdressers, interior designers or florists -- hoping to find other gays in their career field. But, she notes, the opposite is also true: "A lesbian woman who wants to keep her identity under wraps possibly doesn't go into stereotypical fields such as biology or construction work. I've seen it keep people from doing a career they would really love because you are putting yourself out there if you pursue something that is geared to your heart."
For gays, becoming "out" to themselves and deciding whether or not they feel comfortable within themselves about their sexual preference is a long process in itself. Coming out to others is an additional courageous step, Voisard explains. "By doing that scary process, they then are often braver in doing something that seems risky or scary careerwise, too."
Gay employees describe an office atmosphere where straight employees display pictures of their spouses, children and grandchildren and discuss their personal lives and activities freely. Closeted gay employees, on the other hand, maintain a carefully-crafted facade to keep their private lives secret.
Tom Palmer (not his real name) is a white-collar professional in Salt Lake City's Research Park who describes himself as "semi-closeted" because he is out to some co-workers and not to others. When he started his job more than 10 years ago, everyone knew him as a married man. But when he divorced and began a gay lifestyle, his personal life became a closed book.
"At work, you watch even your jokes and are careful not to say anything that would give a hint of your sexual orientation. You watch your glances and it's hard to go to parties where everyone is bringing his spouse or girlfriend and you are left alone. You don't want to bring whoever you are seeing and be the subject of gossip for three weeks."
Still not "out" at work, Palmer refrains from wearing his earrings on the job and dresses less flashy than he does away from the office. He and many other gays and lesbians play "the pronoun game" in the work place -- substituting "she" for "he" when they describe who they are currently dating.
"When I first got divorced and started to date [men], I'd change the name of a man to a woman just so I could have a chance to talk. People seemed interested as long as I was talking about a woman. I waited until I was with my 'safe friends' to tell what I was really doing," Palmer explains.
While working for Salt Lake City's Intermountain Health Care (IHC), Kevin Hillman recalls that he didn't ever feel safe. "You never tell people where you're really going and always have a story made up before you tell anyone what you did for the weekend. You try to tell it as truthfully as possible -- maybe you tell exactly what went on, but never say who you were with."
In years past, Rich Cottino didn't want to come out where he works, at US West. It was "very easy for me to deny [my sexual orientation] and pass for being heterosexual. I knew what pronouns to use and what not to talk about."
Cottino felt he was doing a great job of hiding his homosexuality until he was 30. Then, he took the path of many other gays when coming out at work -- he chose several trusted friends and told them individually. "My funniest experience was when I took a very dear friend, a woman from the office, to lunch at Astro Burger. Just as I was about to open my mouth, she said, 'Are you going to tell me that you are gay or what?'"
When Cottino stammered, "I was going to tell you that," his friend's response was, "It's about time."
Many gay employees agree with Cottino's friend's statement, and see the late 1990s as a time when they are receiving increasing acceptance, and rights, after coming out as gay in the workplace.
"It's very empowering to work for a company that allows you to be who you are. You feel valued for yourself as a whole, for all you bring to the company your ethics and internal beliefs," Cottino said.
Hillman, who left IHC and is now out in his job as a postal letter carrier, says being out is just easier. "The most exciting thing about being out is that all of sudden you become a person, instead of an 'it' or a 'that,' and you don't have to worry about anyone overhearing your conversations."
Co-workers get a better understanding of who their gay counterparts really are, Hillman explains. "They learn that we are individuals, that our interests are all different and our sexuality is only part of our makeup."
Increasingly, gay employees are coming out at work and view their "outness" as an emerging diversity rather than a moral issue relating to an immoral sexual choice. Too, they feel that companies are echoing this sentiment with concrete changes in official policies.
Companies with familiar names in Utah, like KFC, Nordstrom and REI, now have anti-discrimination clauses that relate to sexual orientation. "Nationally, hundreds of major businesses and at least 100 municipalities have anti-discrimination clauses that include sexual orientation in their policies with no problems," Cottino notes.
He has been involved in diversity issues at US West since 1990 and considers being a gay man at work an unofficial part of his job description. US West began offering domestic-partner benefits this year. Domestic same-sex partners of US West employees are now able to get health, dental and vision insurance.
"It's a way of the company realizing that gays and lesbians are worth the same as any other employee, recognizing who we are and that our relationships are valid." Cottino adds that "when you factor in your wages plus benefits, in the past, heterosexuals received more than a gay couple."
Many gays and lesbians feel penalized by employers who don't recognize same-sex partners. "Without domestic partner benefits, being gay is being single as far as your taxes and your auto insurance rates. You are not bringing home as much money and are penalized right off the bat," says Palmer.
That's echoed by Worthington, who is frustrated that heterosexual employees are treated differently. "They can marry someone with 11 kids and add them to their insurance in five minutes."
Worthington has been with her partner for over five years and is unable to insure her. Worthington's partner, Sara Hamblin, has metastic breast cancer. Worthington explains that in order to finance the treatments that Hamblin requires for her cancer, Hamblin has had to keep two jobs.
In her first data-entry job, Hamblin has "good" insurance that helps pay for her current cancer treatments, but the work is sporadic. In her other job, the postal position where she works with Worthington, she is a "transitional" employee whose insurance benefits are more costly, with less coverage than traditional full-time postal employees.
Worthington and Hamblin together own two vehicles and a house. "We are each other's family. My daughters both love her like a mother and give her Mother's Day cards," Worthington explains. "They each want to name their first daughter Sara. Her parents are both deceased and her two brothers are a lot older and live in other states. Without me to take care of Sara, there is no one," Worthington says.
Worthington's longing for domesticpartner benefits grew more critical when Hamblin's cancer was diagnosed. She wanted to be able to take leave without pay to care for Hamblin, if necessary, following chemotherapy treatments, and especially if her partner needed bone-marrow treatment or surgery.
Worthington wanted her requests to be considered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires firms with more than 50 employees to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for spouses, children, parents or themselves. But her first two requests were denied. In an emotional, third appeal, she said, "You guys are expecting me to choose between Sara, the person I love most, and my job."
After that appeal, the Post Office granted her request to take as much leave as she needed, when she needed it, to look after Hamblin. Worthington and others think the decision may have been precedent-setting, even though the Postal Service emphasized that the leave was not granted under any workplace policy or the Family Leave Act.
Hillman and Worthington are far from the only "out" gay postal employees in their office, they say, largely because the U.S. Postal Service values diversity that includes sexual orientation.
In the "Postal Bulletin" dated Aug. 31, 1995, and also in notices posted on bulletin boards on all Post Offices, the Postmaster General announced a policy statement on sexual orientation: "The Postal Service is committed to ensuring a workplace that is free of discrimination and to fostering a climate in which all employees may participate, contribute, and grow to their fullest potential. We recognize and value our diverse workforce and are committed to fair treatment of all employees. Harassment and disparate treatment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or identity will not be permitted or condoned in the Postal Service ..."
US West's policy echoes those statements: "Unlawful discriminatioin against an individual based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability, 'covered veteran' status or any other form of unlawful discrimination is contrary to US West policy and strictly prohibited."
According to Kim Mills, spokesperson for the national Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., Utah is following a national pattern of anti-discrimination against gays in the workplace. From across the nation, Mills receives notice from at least one company each week that is instituting domestic partner benefits. She also frequently hears of new anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation.
"More and more people are coming out. We believe that because of this, national polls show increasing numbers of people who say that they know someone who is gay," Mills said.
"A significant result of knowing someone gay is that this knowledge leads people to feel that gay people should be treated more fairly in society, and particularly at work. They feel that no one should lose a job because they are gay."
Such feelings are not universal, however. After Cottino's "coming out" lunch at Astro Burger, he was walking down a hall at work when a male employee walking in the opposite direction moved as far to the other side of the hall as possible. In Utah and elsewhere, there are people who feel that same-sex relationships are a moral issue that is, an immoral choice that has been made rather than an inherent characteristic at which discrimination could be directed.
"People need to be comfortable where they work. I'm aware of many situations where gays will challenge people who feel same-sex relationships are immoral by yelling discrimination," says Gayle Ruzicka, president of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum of Utah. She says she's heard from more than one US West employee who feels that a company's "diversity" policies are unfair.
"In one case, a gay male made an unwanted pass at another man who responded by slamming him into the wall and uttering a homosexual slur. The one who spoke out was reprimanded and required to take diversity training. The one who made the pass did not receive corrective action," Ruzicka said.
"We are all minorities in one place or another," Ruzicka claims. "I agree with Colin Powell's comment that he is absolutely insulted that anyone would compare somebody's sexual choice to race, as in people's acceptance of homosexual relationships to the acceptance of blacks in the military."
But Cottino says that he's never heard of the incident Ruzicka described during his six years of working with diversity issues at US West and throughout his three years of teaching "the courses that she alludes to."
Neshia Allen (not her real name), a lesbian teacher in Salt Lake City, knows the experience of feeling tension in the workplace. It's "a feeling of paranoia every time I'm called down to the office. I ask myself, 'Have I been discovered?' I worry about my credibility if I was to be outed. I worry that I could no longer be effective."
Being a closeted lesbian teacher is a lonely state, she explains. "You don't want to get too close to people at work for fear they would start asking personal questions and you'll be on the spot."
After witnessing the ongoing plight of Spanish Fork High School teacher and volleyball coach Wendy Weaver, Allen feels she could never come out safely. "If a similar gag order were upheld in Salt Lake City, if the students attacked me, personally, I couldn't defend myself or even talk to my fellow teachers about it."
She has determined that this will be her last year teaching. Allen plans to seek another career where her sexual orientation will feel less precarious.
Is there a difference between teachers coming out as gay versus employees in other occupations revealing their sexual orientation? Gayle Ruzicka says yes. "Public schools are compulsory. The children have to go there, so teachers have to have high standards to be an example to the children. They are expected not to live immoral lives. It's very difficult for children to sort out the situation when they are taught in their homes that homosexuality is immoral, yet at the same time parents teach them to respect their teachers."
The state of Utah appears to be having a difficult time sorting out its feelings about this issue, as well. Weaver's lawsuit against the Nebo School District and a subsequent citizen's suit against her promise contentious litigation. Salt Lake City's newly-passed non-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation has been repealed by the new Salt Lake City Council.
While Utahns continue to debate the issue, Worthington and Hamblin persist in their personal determination to live out their lives happily. Hamblin's cancer is in partial remission and her cancer has shrunk considerably, although there is visible cancer still in X-rays and cat-scans.
"Sara's hope is to live until the year 2000, but there is no guarantee of that. We are still trying to live each day to the fullest and we've stopped fearing that she is going to die right away. We even bought a new house in Taylorsville and we're making reservations for a cruise this November," Worthington says.
Worthington feels grateful to be able to carry on in her hopes for Hamblin's continuing health, along with affirming her community role as an open and vocal gay activist. "This is an exciting time to be gay and watch the changes that are happening. If I wasn't out now, it would be like being black in the '60s and having nothing to do with civil rights. I'd look back 10 to 20 years from now and wish I'd been a part of it."
Palmer's company began offering insurance to domestic partners this month, and he imagines that will "test the waters" of his decision to come out some time in the future, possibly when he is involved in a serious relationship.
Cal Noyce has has been calmly out at work at US West for 20 years both in Utah and California. His job title is network technician "a fancy name for telephone installation and repair," he says, "For me, being out at work doesn't mean wearing a tag that says you are gay or lesbian and going out of your way to make sure everyone knows. It's an acceptance thing meaning that it's no different for me at work than it is for a non-gay person. It's no different from other 'known facts' about an employee: That you're straight or Mormon or that you like red cars. It's being a human being."
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