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Bias Against Gays Today Often Subtle, Sometimes Not So

Some defuse tensions by confronting, ignoring or sidestepping their harassers.

February 18, 2001|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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 African Americans.

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 workplace.

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 potential gains.

"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 about themselves."

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 models.

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.

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