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Being queer means constantly questioning your identity and how you represent yourself to those around you, shares Leah Downey. There is a constant need to gauge the reactions of others, to understand if you are safe to be out or if it becomes a source of social isolation.

We want to feel that we can be open within our workplaces about our queerness. However, that process does not come without its limitations. Sometimes it can feel as though openly speaking about yourself forfeits certain aspects of privacy.

My queerness was not a topic I openly discussed until the pandemic hit and I found a sense of community by engaging with other LGBTQ+ people online. I had occasionally opened up to co-workers but for most of my working life, I kept my sexuality firmly closed off outside of my personal relationships.

The first time someone called me a lesbian was at a previous retail job. It made me feel sick. It came after I made a conscious decision to be open about this newfound pride I felt after years of questioning and repression. I felt an innate desire to connect with my coworkers who didn’t feel ashamed to be openly queer.

Breaking down those barriers made me feel incredibly vulnerable. Hearing someone so boldly assign me an identity that I was struggling to accept made me deeply uncomfortable. Being a gay woman became the cornerstone of my workplace identity.

Soon after they stopped referring to me as a lesbian and replaced it with “dyke”. I love being a dyke. I find so much empowerment in calling myself a dyke. Being called a dyke by non-dykes bothers me. Understandably there are nuances within the LGBTQ+ community around using reclaimed slurs, and I gave my gay coworkers some leeway.

I was being called a dyke multiple times a day, in front of customers and by straight staff members. I remember distinctly one day joking around with a female coworker and hearing someone say, “You can tell she’s a lezzer”. I felt so much shame and disgust with myself for being a lesbian, and for allowing people to speak to and about me that way for so long. There was an intense feeling of powerlessness in that situation, leaving me overwhelmed and uncomfortable, cast as some sort of predator.

These issues extend beyond the scope of retail. A close friend of mine has also experienced homophobia from being open about her identity as a lesbian. She is currently training to be a teacher and made the decision earlier this year to be open about her sexuality after a number of months of teaching in an all-girls school.

This was already a major decision. After having negative experiences being openly queer during her own time in secondary school, she decided to no longer make an effort to hide her sexuality. She then began to realise how important it was for her queer students to see an open and proud queer woman living a normal life, entirely different from her lonely adolescence.

Soon, however, two staff members began to follow her around and monitor her interactions with students. Thinly veiled homophobic questions began to be asked quite frequently, creating an unwelcoming work environment.

This came to a head one day towards the end of the school year when I received a number of calls from her, extremely distressed. One of these staff members alluded to her involvement with queer students, heavily alluding to the narrative of queer people being predators around young people. While no accusatory words were used, the meaning was clearly emphasised through language and expressions.

Her experience has thrown her entire career path into uncertainty - a feeling I completely resonate with. In our workplaces, neither of us has felt safe using gendered pronouns when describing a date or mentioning social events we attended if they were for queer people. Trying to connect and allow ourselves the freedom to express our identities led to discrimination and homophobia.

We want to believe that we exist in an accepting social culture. We see companies and schools celebrate Pride, but such actions can only go so far if their staff and students are made unsafe.

The homophobia we have experienced is a latent distrust of LGBTQ+ people or a view that we are someone harmful to other individuals. Being queer has become such an integral part of my identity. I am proud of it. I want to be open and empowered in the places I work.

This article appears in the 373 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 373 Issue of GCN