How Big a Problem Is Gay-on-Straight Workplace Harassment?

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday November 17, 2008

Bawdy locker room talk that questions the orientation of co-workers; offensive terms that demean the whose sexual preference of others; lurid catcalls; explicit water cooler banter about last night's conquest: all examples of workplace harassment.

Only in these cases--and others like them--they were allegedly perpetrated by gay men on straight male coworkers.

As more gay men (and lesbians) are out on the job, their transparency may be interpreted as crossing the line from innocent social interaction to inappropriate displays of sexuality. But are the offended parties true victims of sexual harassment, or just hypersensitive heteros employing a double standard?

"There's a tendency to view things that gay men and lesbians do or say as being sexual," says Gregory R. Nevins, a supervising senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal. Nevins observes that when a gay man makes a comment about a boyfriend or a partner, "People may say they're bringing their sexuality into the workplace, whereas they'd never interpret it that way if it were a man talking about his wife in a general manner."

Gay men in the workplace cite the ways in which shows of affection that can be considered "normal" for heterosexual men subjects them to rumors or accusations of crossing a line.

For Mark J. Rywelski, an account coordinator with CJP Communications, "Coming out definitely liberated me in many ways. I have no problem giving someone a hug or kissing them on the cheek." Even so, Rywelski acknowledges that his actions "could easily be seen as sexual harassment."

Having worked in the restaurant and theater industries, he has successfully managed to navigate work environments where "you have no choice but to be in physical contact with others. The relationships and bonds formed out of that lead to a more relaxed camaraderie, as well as behavior that was, at times, risqu?."

While working as a waiter, the restaurant's relaxed atmosphere led him to occasionally (and in what he thought was good humor) refer to heterosexual customers as "breeders"--a casually employed term he didn't think was offensive or potentially litigious until a fellow employee called him on it.

That's an example of the kinds of words or subjects that might spark controversy. LGBT employees should keep in mind that certain subjects and words may offend or be taken the wrong way out of context, even if they're being used in a sociable, humorous, or non-sexual manner.

"People who are not comfortable with the LGBT community can perceive open and honest discussion as being out of bounds or perhaps too aggressive." says Joseph G. Milizio, an attorney and managing partner with Capell Vishnick LLP who recently launched a gay and lesbian representation practice group. Milizio says that LGBTs who choose to be open about their private lives in the workplace risk being challenged by "the perception of a third party, most often a straight person, who feels uncomfortable with the situation."

Still, Milizio emphasizes that awkward social interactions aren't necessarily the same thing as politically incorrect behavior: "If I ask you for a date and you're a straight guy who's supersensitive to that request, you might be put off; but it's not sexual harassment." Perhaps not. But at least one court has decided that heterosexuals who are offended by the sexual expressiveness of gay men do indeed have a case.

One case has received some attention as representing a gay man who apparently crosses the line.

As reported on EDGE, an out-gay New York City police officer was recently found guilty of sexual harassment. In a recently resolved 2005 lawsuit, two co-workers accused Lt. Kieran Crowe of harassing them through unwelcome stares, provocative gestures and pantomimed masturbation.

Rather than face a two-month suspension and a year of probation, Crowe retired from the force, but not before unsuccessfully employing a "jock itch defense." Crowe claimed the rubbing of his crotch was to relieve his jock itch, not to proposition or harass co-workers. He also characterized his pantomimed masturbation as visual shorthand to communicate that he was being "jerked around."

Problems in 'Macho' Professions
Crowe's lawyer continues to portray his accusers as financially strapped opportunists. Meanwhile, a heterosexual police officer working in another major metropolitan police department says an openly gay colleague has offended co-workers by repeatedly accusing them of closet homosexuality. Officer Greg Clemens (not his real name) describes Officer Timothy Burns (not his real name) as a verbally aggressive gay man who's "so convinced that everyone he meets is gay that he is like a steamroller, bearing down on people."

Burns has offended many in the precinct by repeatedly citing a fellow officer's status as a single man as evidence of his homosexuality. Clemens says that as a result, "people who are very much straight have wound up having to threaten to file a harassment complaint in order to be left alone--and that's been bad, because several are gay-friendly."

He also feels that such behavior may discourage others from coming out or lead to further scrutiny of those who do, even when their actions are free of the agenda employed by Burns.

"These are issues that could put somebody in physical danger. There are ways to make life difficult for an openly gay police officer that don't involve anything overt." says Clemens. "If you are a gay officer who radios for help, others might take a couple of minutes to get down there."

For Milizio, such actions illustrate the very real consequences of being out at the workplace, particularly when the job is one associated with masculine heterosexual men. "It's no coincidence that the majority of cases, if not almost all of the cases, involve professions or activities which are within the domain of that macho image," he says.

Physically intimate occupations may lend themselves to homophobic reactions among firemen, policemen or professional athletes. "The fact that these people work together in close situations as far as living arrangements makes them more sensitive to those issue" reasons Milizio, "because they're afraid to be connected so intimately with someone from the LGBT community."

Rywelski backs up that assessment by recalling his days playing baseball, football and wrestling: "I know for a fact what topics are addressed 'at ease' with a bunch of guys." says Rywelski. "I was in situations with heterosexual men speaking about their conquests and what they'd done with a woman." Although he endured hearing about everything from sexual positions to STDs, Rywelski points out that "if a gay man were to describe the same thing, others may feel uncomfortable. It opens gay men up to people misconstruing what they're portraying instead of seeing it as just being chummy with your friends."

A recent case in San Diego illustrates the observation that those in masculine professions are supersensitive (bordering on homophobic) when it comes to taking what they themselves may well have been dishing out for years.

This past October, a case brought by four San Diego firefighters ended in a mistrial when the jury could not agree if they were sexually harassed. The lawsuit stems from an incident in which the four were forced to march in the city's gay pride parade when the original crew cancelled at the last minute.

Along the route, they were subjected to catcalls and obscene gestures; and claim to have been traumatized by the incident. The city has since changed its policy to ensure participation in any parade is voluntary.

Milizio believes their trauma stems not from the stinging words of the crowd, but "perception. It's not that there's a problem with the parade. It's that they might be perceived as being homosexual." Nevins also sees homophobia and paranoia at the root of the charges, wondering "Had they been in a situation where women were ogling them, would they view that in a different way?"

Sorting out the intent of one person from the interpretation of another is, according to Nevins, the gold standard of determining sexual harassment - no matter the sexuality of the offending party. "The real question is, does the conduct meet the fairly demanding standards that have been set and established for years." In a courtroom setting, that conduct has to be "so severe and pervasive so as to alter the terms of employment. As long as it's being applied on an equal basis to gays and straights, that's perfectly fine and as it should be."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

Comments on Facebook