Bias Against Gays Today Often Subtle, Sometimes Not So (2 of 2 Articles)
* Some defuse tensions by confronting, ignoring or
By JOSEPH HANANIA , SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 18, 2001
Home Edition Work Place Part W Page 1 Financial Desk
33 inches; 1163 words |
Type of Material: Mainbar
Over the last few years, the face of anti-gay bias in the workplace
has evolved from that of overt discrimination to one of more subtle
prejudices, said Jon Davidson, head of the Los Angeles office of Lambda
Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay advocacy group.
Several years ago, many employers might fire a gay employee or turn a
blind eye to harassment by co-workers, Davidson said.
Today such obvious bias is rare, because of changing attitudes and
laws forbidding anti-gay discrimination. Instead, Davidson said, it is
more subtle, involving "patterns of discriminatory behavior," making
anti-bias cases more complex and difficult to prove.
He gives the example of a Los Angeles manufacturing company supervisor
who had gotten good performance reviews, but found herself on the
receiving end of negative job actions, culminating in her being fired,
after she came out.
Among the reasons cited for her dismissal: "She allegedly made
colleagues uncomfortable by discussing sex," said Davidson, who consulted
on the case.
The sex talk? When co-workers discussed family outings around the
company lunch table, she talked about what she and her girlfriend had
done over the weekend.
In this, Davidson said, anti-gay harassment mirrors harassment against
Because of prejudicial stereotypes, "a black man may be seen as
harassing a white co-worker for engaging in the same behavior as a white
man . . . with no eyebrows raised. It's the same with gays."
But gays and lesbians also are finding greater acceptance in the
More than one in five Fortune 500 companies sponsor domestic
partnership plans, a sharp increase from that of even five years ago,
said Kim Mills, 47, education director for the Washington-based Human
Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group.
In addition, three cities--Los Angeles, San Francisco and
Seattle--require businesses bidding for city contracts to provide equal
benefits for gay employees, she said. And although no federal statute
explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, 11
states, including California, outlaw such discrimination.
Nearly 500 complaints alleging such discrimination were filed last
year under provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act,
which prohibits companies with five or more employees from discriminating
in hiring, promotion or job assignments.
It also forbids employers from engaging in a pattern of hostile
comments; from treating a gay employee worse than his peers; or from
permitting a pattern of derogatory posters, physical assaults or
interference with normal movement, Davidson said.
Still, "there are no guarantees that if you come out at work, everyone
will respond to you supportively," said Ian Stulberg, 50, manager of
mental health services programs at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian
Center, adding that the potential discomfort must be weighed against the
"The consequences of hiding a core aspect of who you are is inherently
damaging to the human spirit, adding stress on a daily basis," Stulberg
said. In all but extreme cases, "those out at work end up feeling better
How does a gay employee minimize potential problems while coming out?
Although every situation is unique, the trail is well-blazed.
One way is to make discrimination the issue, as did Los Angeles' Bravo
High School math teacher Ed "Rene" Fette, 42.
Like many other gay teachers, Fette glossed over his orientation until
about eight years ago when a student asked in class if Fette was gay.
Fette postponed the discussion until the next day.
Although Fette's boyfriend advised him to say that his sexual
orientation was a private matter, "kids know when you're avoiding their
questions," Fette said. So, after saying he would discuss only the social
aspects of being a sexual minority, Fette told the class he was gay.
Soon after, Fette found himself the target of inter-campus e-mailed
epithets. This is a fairly common response to coming out, said Stulberg,
whose programs recommend people in this situation turn the spotlight on
the people doing the discriminating, rather than focus on being gay.
Fette took this approach, using an overhead projector to show the
epithets to the class. "What do you think of this?" he asked the
surprised students, opening a discussion about prejudice.
Today, largely because of Fette's actions, Bravo High School has both
openly gay students and an annual Gay Pride exhibit--photos and quotes
from famous gays that enable its students to see positive gay role
Sometimes the message that straight workers are not quite comfortable
with their gay colleagues is delivered in more subtle ways.
When Dr. Richard Riggs, head of Cedars-Sinai's physical rehabilitation
program, arrived here six years ago after working in a rural Alabama
hospital, he anticipated few problems. Cedars-Sinai was a pioneer in
offering domestic partner benefits, a sign of its tolerant attitude
toward gay employees.
As the hospital's only openly gay department chairman, however, Riggs,
39, faced uneasiness from his straight counterparts.
This was especially noticeable at family-style hospital dinners
intended to promote bonding among the department chairmen.
His colleagues bantered among themselves, but Riggs and his partner
Michael Gallagher sensed that his generally older colleagues "didn't
really want to know about us. The bonding became just an act."
Instead of forcing the issue, Riggs and Gallagher socialized with the
chairmen's wives and younger family members. In time, those interactions
helped open lines of communication between Riggs and his colleagues.
If being out is difficult in white-collar jobs, it is even harder in
male-dominated construction trades, said T Santora, co-president of Pride
at Work, the AFL-CIO's Washington-based gay chapter.
"A lot of people go to work hoping the issue is never raised," Santora
Long Beach resident Vivian Price, 51, knows how difficult it can be.
Now a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,
Price outlasted illegal and intimidating harassment through sheer force
"In blue-collar jobs," Price said, "any [single] woman is suspect of
either being a lesbian or looking for a husband. So, my attitude became
simply one of 'Give me respect.' "
One of Price's earliest experiences with harassment was on a job with
a senior electrician who told her to fix an electrical outlet.
Thinking he had cut off the power, she began work on the task--only to
get an electrical shock, which made the senior electrician laugh.
"I was set up," she said.
Joining the union, she gained her co-workers' respect by concentrating
on her job while forming alliances with male colleagues on common
issues--such as fighting to get the unisex bathrooms cleaned up.
Equally importantly, she said, was turning a deaf ear to some of their
When her foreman and co-workers bragged about their sexual conquests,
for example, she brought in a newspaper and read it on breaks.
"I blocked them out, not giving them the satisfaction of getting a
rise out of me," she said.
In time, the co-workers who once shunned her raised money to fly her
to New York for her father's funeral.
Price, who took a leave from her job to produce a just-completed
documentary about blue-collar women called "Hammering It Out," said the
key to her eventual acceptance lay in maintaining her independence.
"Nineteen times out of 20, I solved the problem without going to a
supervisor," she said.
Although much of what happened to Price was clearly illegal, Price
decided not to make unnecessary waves by taking legal action, preferring
instead to gain her co-workers' respect.
"I learned that if I stood up for myself about everything, the men
would leave me alone," she said.
Despite apprehensions about the direction of the Bush administration,
the overall movement nationwide is toward equality, especially in the
private sector, Santora said.
An estimated 20% of all gays are out in the workplace nationwide; the
number is substantially higher in California. Santora sees benefits to
people coming out at work.
"The more people know someone who's gay, the more they are able to
overcome stereotypes. And once the stereotype is exploded, it's gone.
There's no going back."
PHOTO: Dr. Richard Riggs found his fellow Cedars-Sinai department
chairmen uneasy about his gay relationship at social events.
PHOTOGRAPHER: PERRY C. RIDDLE / Los Angeles Times
PHOTO: Vivian Price, 51, of Long Beach, took a leave from her
electrician's job to produce a documentary about blue-collar women called
"Hammering It Out."
PHOTOGRAPHER: RICK MEYER / Los Angeles Times