Does 'heterosexism' deter gay workers climb up America's corporate ladder?


Most of us practice self-censorship at work. We refrain from calling the boss an idiot, we tone down criticism of colleagues, and we sometimes suppress opinions in order not to give offense. After all, we have to work with these people every day.

But this self-restraint doesn't even approach the lies many gay men and lesbians feel compelled to make of their lives to survive and prosper in white-collar corporate America.

As demonstrated in this eye-opening book by James D. Woods (Jay H. Lucas collaborated on research), the extreme self-censorship of gay male executives can take different forms, including "counterfeiting," the pretense of a heterosexual personal life for the benefit of co-workers, and "avoidance," when one tries to elude sexual labels altogether, often at the cost of any connection with colleagues.

Even for those who "come out" at work -- declaring their homosexuality -- the issue doesn't go away. Many then face anticipated or actual job discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

Mr. Woods writes: "In surveys, roughly one in three gay men claims he has been the victim of discrimination in the workplace. Twice that number anticipate it at some point in the future."

At the heart of this book are interviews with 70 gay male professionals the authors conducted a couple of years back. Many of the interview subjects are hiding their homosexuality at work, so they only are identified by first names in the book. Company affiliations also are omitted.

While this sometimes leads to a melding of voices, the individual stories remain the strongest part of the book, bringing to life the everyday struggles of ordinary men in typical office settings trying to lead ordinary lives. No homophobic bogymen roam there -- just people on both sides of the sexual orientation fence wrestling with all-too-human concerns about acceptances and careers.

The authors are gay, and in an appendix Mr. Woods writes that "despite our efforts, the interviews were not neutral encounters between two 'objective' researchers and their respondents." They note that they talked to men about their work, but did not observe them at work. Objective or no, Mr. Woods manages a neutral yet sympathetic tone. The book grew out of a dissertation, and sometimes the neutral tone slides over into academic detachment.

Mr. Woods argues that while statute and professional ethics might lead one to think America's offices are becoming asexual places, they are in fact infused with sex. He writes: "At the personal, social and symbolic levels of organizational life, one invariably finds sexual attractions and impulses, roles and appearances, flirtations and jokes, expectations and assumptions."

Many of Mr. Woods' subjects are staunch defenders of the professional "asexual imperative," which would insist on people being judged at work only by the quality of their work. But Mr. Woods sees subjective relationships playing a key role in people's managerial careers, and finds "heterosexism" in the workplace, which is in part a double standard that tells gay men their sexuality is private, not a fit subject for the office, "even as heterosexual co-workers wear wedding rings, display baby pictures and parade wives and girlfriends at company functions."

It's not just a matter, of course, of who gets to put up baby pictures. Mr. Woods notes that only about 5 percent of company insurance plans cover a homosexual partner, while family coverage is nearly universal.

But he goes too far in debunking the "asexual imperative," even as a goal that could make the nation's workplaces more fair and happier places. And he puts too much emphasis on the need to socialize with colleagues or clients, to be "one of the guys," in order to get ahead.

Although much of the book is devoted to men who, to some degree, are hiding their homosexuality at work, Mr. Woods also examines the "integration" strategy, or coming out at work. He says "there is less and less consensus in gay circles about the value of secrecy. For a growing number of men visibility has become a personal as well as political goal . . ."

After thoroughly documenting the stresses and strains on professional gay men, Mr. Woods concludes on an upbeat note, saying lesbians and gay men are more and more treated like other minorities, "suffering many of the same predicaments as other oppressed groups." He even finds hope in laissez-faire economics: "Because heterosexism is expensive for both employers and employees, market forces may ultimately achieve what appeals to fairness and civil rights will not."

(Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.)


Title: "The Corporate Closet: The Professional Lives of Gay Men in America"

Author: James D. Woods with Jay H. Lucas

Publisher: Free Press

Length, price: 331 pages, $22.95

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