In the mid-1980s, the AIDS epidemic prompted me to take the pulse of rooms for a different reason than I had as a pre-teen before I first came out or as a young adult when I first went out as a gay man. I had earlier tested spaces to decide if I could come out and if I would be safe in doing so. In 1967 I told a classmate of mine in Comparative Literature that I was gay when she asked if I were dating anyone. Sylvie had a son and daughter about my age and I just took a leap. She only missed a beat before she continued our conversation on other getting-to-know-you topics. But the safety of that particular relationship didn’t extend to the University as a whole. Within a year, I was told in a different class that I could not elect my major of choice because of my orientation. Over time, however, my caution morphed into taking the pulse to learn how I would come out, but not if I would.
When I started teaching in 1970, my coworkers knew I was gay because I told them so. Many met my boyfriends and then, as things progressed, my partner. There was not much of a roadmap for disclosure back then — after all, it was one year post Stonewall! Sometimes I just screwed up the courage; other times, I merely responded honestly to questions. Because I was initially teaching in a program restricted to teens trying to avoid recidivism in jail or prison, I had more than the expected quota of gay and lesbian teens in my classes. I also had two part-time classroom aides who were part of the Peace Corps. One was totally dreamy (likely attributable to his chronic marijuana use); I came out to them in our first meeting.
I recall in those first years being asked by opponents (e.g., the department chair and one principal) and supporters alike why I needed to disclose my sexual orientation. It has now been 45 years since I honed this reply: “For parity. Straight people wear precious metals, buy rare stones, eat odd food, frame photos, and buy fancy, hideous clothes they will wear only once just to illustrate their heterosexuality. I just tell people I am gay.”
Telling teens I am gay was a less clear-cut situation. Initially I deflected their comments and questions. I had the sense that most really didn’t want to know as much as they wanted to be “in the know.” I reasoned that my sexual attractions were not their business anymore than their heterosexual teachers’ orientation would be. However, it was also true that their straight teachers were revealing their sexuality all of the time with titles like Mrs., wedding rings, and mentions of their children. Unlike today, these trappings were pretty exclusively the stuff of heterosexuals.
There were some students, often straight teens, whose lives got more entwined with mine. The mother of two half-sisters in my classes engaged me in their family when I took considerable efforts to acclimate them to their new school. On our second meeting, she just asked if I was gay. Another family encouraged my interest in their son’s college education. When he asked if I was gay, I said, “Yes.” It changed nothing. Students whose fathers were pastors and mothers were politicians had parents who just wanted to know and so I told their parents, who in turn told their teens. Perhaps most notable was the family of a student who became disabled while in a club I advised. Since I was deeply involved in his rehabilitation, I just told them I was gay without their asking.
I recall that my attitude was somewhat fear-filled, but also liberating. I was taking the pulse of parts of my work life and found it within normal limits. With exercise I could keep in strong. I didn’t ask anyone not to tell others about my identity, but did tell them that my life, like their own, is private and mine. Over the years other educators have sought my counsel about disclosing their sexual identity to youth, particularly to teens. Times have changed and so has my advice. But these two items have not: I advise against telling only LGBT youth about one’s sexual identity and oppose asking any teen to keep a confidence. In the case of the former, I believe that limiting disclosure to LGBT teens reinforces that our sexuality is shameful instead of private. In the case of the latter, sharing any sexual information with a minor as a secret creates a vulnerability for the teacher and the teen that cannot be readily understood or later explained.
My decisions about my sexuality served me and, by extension, my students well in my 13 years in public schools. By the time I was a doctoral student, my name and face had appeared many times in the press as a gay rights activist and as an AIDS activist. This public exposure cracked open a new level of disclosure. I more regularly took the pulse of spaces to determine why people would assume I was heterosexual in the first place. I considered my attire, the pronouns I used, and how I introduced my partner at the time. I also started to challenge myself to see my orientation as an asset instead of a neutral.
For example, when I applied for an internship in psychology, I decided to tell the interviewers that I wanted a program in which my being gay would be viewed as an asset. When someone on the team suggested that my sexuality should be of no interest to a client, I pointed to the family picture on their desk and asked how this heterosexual image would then be appropriate. I got the internship. And a reputation for being assertive. My directness in general and about my sexuality developed into one additional way for me to take the pulse of places to work. The code of professional, appropriate, and discrete let me know where I stood in organizations that were reluctant to acknowledge their interpersonal and structural biases.
My dissertation investigated the incidence of depression in 50 gay and bisexual men with AIDS and a matched group without HIV. I continued the candor required for that work for the next 30 years. I remember a mid-day house party I attended to recruit prospective research subjects. There were a dozen cross-dressing, Black people holding a truly camp Tupperware party a few blocks from Fondy Market. When I gave my required, scripted recruitment speech, one girl interrupted me when I said I was particularly interested in getting leads on men with an AIDS diagnosis. She said, “Baby, why the fuck do you think we are having a party in the middle of the day! This particular Titanic is sinking!”
I found healthcare to be an odd field in which to work. The majority of its frontline workers are not afforded much by way meaningful information or supervised experience to successfully operate across cultural differences. For example, I was asked to consult with a third year resident on a patient with HIV who wanted to change physicians. I started by reading the chart and found the resident’s note referred to the patients sexual orientation as homosexual no fewer than a dozen times. She only vaguely understood my point when I noted that she had not once mentioned the orientation of a presumed heterosexual man with kidney disease. Organizational development, human resources, clinical education, medical sub-specialties offered, and the quality of clinical care all failed LGBT staff and patients in so many ways. Sadly, these were the shortcomings of really kind and committed people.
Two incidents from this work particularly come to mind. As a finalist for a promotion in one position, I was asked to make a formal academic-style presentation with the subject being me. I decided to do a PowerPoint on my academic background, research experience and interests, and my work history. Then, in the background of each slide I included photographs of me and my spouse, Paul, our home, our friends, and our dogs. It seemed to me that about half of the 30+ people in the room didn’t notice the photos or understand their import, many others were tolerant, and a few possibly accepting. However, when one member of the audience said something harassing and negative (he wore that smirk that suggested he believed that others would jump on his bandwagon), no one intervened. I handled it myself, but later was advised by my employer that I needed to develop a thicker skin. It was as if harassment of co-workers was to be expected.
In the other incident, one advisor to residents asked me why I kept talking about diversity and inclusion in my department work. When I told him addressing these issues was part of my job description, he asked if they weren’t just code for accepting “homosexuals.” After I reported this exchange to another colleague, the advisor came back to me — not to apologize, but rather to suggest I was too thin skinned to work in a group of men. (Note: 2/3 of the staff and students in this organization were women.) At this point in my life, approximately half of my work had been in factories or on projects where 2/3 of the employees were men.
During the 1980s and 1990s — those earlier years of AIDS, I experienced public health to be progressing in its acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in ways not found in health care. But I also found the field to be particularly self-congratulatory and defensive. One example of this was the rush to naming Acquired Immunodeficiency Virus (AIDS). On one hand it is descriptive. On the other, Zika and Ebola are also acquired viruses but their names suggest none of the blaming attached to AIDS. Another example is the coining of the acronym MSM (men who have sex with men). Though social science research has suggested that there might be some protective qualities to humans identifying as gay or straight, the CDC did little to support that notion, but prefers to argue for the strictly behavioral term MSM. The problems with that have been numerous, but public health suggests, “Not our problem.” Of course public health will reflect the sexist, heterosexist, and classist history of society, even while it promotes views more advanced than much of health care.
Now, twenty years since I have worked for someone else’s agency, I continue to take the pulse of places where I work as a consultant and coach. I let people know I am gay within minutes of meeting them. It seems fairly natural to do so when I say that I retired from full-time employment within a year of the death of my late husband. In this way, I tee up several possible conversations giving me a sense of where I might be working and what I might expect. Not so long ago, a queer friend of mine asked if I came off as having a chip on my shoulder when I did this disclosure. I said that I might, but that I doubted that I cared very much then or now.