As a straight woman, working in a gay and lesbian community center provides me a unique opportunity to confront society’s heterosexual bias not only professionally, but on a personal level as well. Recently, while with a friend of mine, I ran into a couple of friends that I hadn’t seen in ages. Reunions like these always seem to start off with the typical ice-breaking-awkward-catching-up-questions.
Generic ones like “how have you been” and “what have you been up to” are merely just precursors to more personal inquiries like “are you seeing anyone” or “what are you doing for work?”
When the work question was asked I replied: “I work at Compass. It’s a gay and lesbian community center serving Palm Beach County.” As our conversation progressed I shared what I do for the organization and the passion I have for my work.
After we had left, my companion had to ask. “Did you see their facial expressions when you told them where you work?”
“Of course I did. I get that all the time,” I said.
It’s absolutely disheartening to speak so passionately about your profession only to have it met with the confused facial gestures and delayed responses of archaic points-of-view. I went on to discuss with my friend the discrimination and stereotyping that I frequently encounter when promoting or describing my job. It could be as simple as: standing in line getting some coffee wearing my “Got Gay” shirt, which I love by the way, or posting and promoting LGBTQ related events on my Facebook page, most of which people don’t care to see, or want to understand.
From the second I heard about Compass in 2007 I knew that I wanted to be connected with the organization. I had my opportunity in 2009 while completing my bachelor’s degree in social work. I needed to complete an internship in order to graduate. We were given the opportunity to list our choice of four possible internships and I wrote in “Compass” four times. After the completion of my internship I was most persistent on getting hired and, thankfully, I was successful.
I know that some people will assume just because I work at Compass I’m a lesbian. Since I began working for them three years ago I have been confronted with being stereotyped and discriminated against several times. Being gazed at with confused expressions and told “you don’t look like a lesbian” drives me even harder to promote Compass’ mission everyday.
As a straight ally I can make a difference by helping others engage in conversations so they can see past their biases. Regardless, if I am at home, school or with friends I bring a different perspective to the conversation. My view on equality has a much different tone. Some individuals oppose my opinions, but what truly matters to me is that my opinions are being voiced and, hopefully, there is some awareness taking place. It is important that I ask questions, do research and be completely open about what I know. There are many times I have to make others aware that phrases like, “that’s so gay” have negative connotations. It’s my responsibility to educate all and advocate individuality because the wrong words could leave one more person in the closet.
Regardless of my sexual orientation, it’s important that I come out and speak up. This year at PrideFest of the Palm Beaches I ran into several straight allies that came out to celebrate and support pride. Seeing individuals from my own social circles really impacted me and made me feel happier than ever that support for the movement is growing.
I believe that typecasting and assumptions create division in our society. It should not be a matter of judging a person based on what their sexual orientation is, or is not. What should be judged is whether or not they are a good person based on the manner they carry themselves and how they treat others. Working at Compass has allowed me to grow into my own skin and embody pride. Compass accepted me into their family just the way I am, and I believe the rest of society would be well served to learn from that example.
Julia Murphy is the HIV Case Management Coordinator for Compass Community Center in Lake Worth, FL and can be reached at email@example.com.