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All About Everyday Manners

Challenging Offensive Language in the Office

I’ve been teaching at a major university for nearly 30 years. A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with some of my department colleagues when one of them told a “joke” that, while not blatantly homophobic, was certainly gay-unfriendly and not at all funny. After he was done, you could have cut the air with the proverbial knife — the silence was very awkward. Not wanting to be confrontational, I just walked away, but afterwards I felt that I could have been more direct in voicing my displeasure with the joke and the jokester. How could I have done that in a professional manner?

Many of us are loath to be confrontational, particularly as we get older and become less willing to take risks. But there are ways to sound off in the public sphere that make the right point. Sure, walking away is one method of voicing displeasure, but even done with a certain élan (a quick turn and a throwback of the head — not just slinking off), I’d still ask: Exactly what kind of message is that?

I’m a proponent of using words in these situations and feel strongly that prejudiced individuals take silence as agreement with their views. If no one speaks up in your professorial group, how’s the offender to understand he crossed the line? And keep in mind that with your seniority, your comments could well carry extra weight; in fact, I’d argue you have an added responsibility to be the moral compass among your younger colleagues.

Offensive language needs to be challenged in the moment. I’m not suggesting you tear the guy to shreds publicly, but to the best of your ability say something like, “Not funny!” Or, “I find that offensive.” I have no doubt that your colleagues will be glad you spoke up (and that most of them will wish they had your moxie or tenure).

Although I’m not sure of your sexual orientation, you certainly don’t need to be in the targeted group to take a stand. If we all speak up on behalf of each other, we’ll be hearing fewer jokes of the kind you describe. Frankly, social change happens when we draw a line in the sand about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

However, I’m curious to understand the distinction you’re making between a joke that is “not blatantly homophobic” but “gay un-friendly.” Is there really a difference? Is the use of the three-letter F-word worse than the much bandied “that’s so gay”? Actually, there’s something insidious about “that’s so gay” that speaks to deeper (often unconscious) prejudices.

Last year when I was on tour for my book on the gay-straight divide in American life, more than one talk radio interviewer went for the jugular with obnoxious questions like, “Why do gay men care about their clothes so much?” and “Why do lesbians wear their hair so short?” They were trying to gay-bait me into an angry response, of course, and I was upset. But I didn’t fall for it — I simply challenged the premise of the questions with humor. “How do you put frumpy gay congressman Barney Frank into this picture of yours?” I’m convinced that upholding civility and respect frustrates the provocateur in this kind of situation and actually gives you the upper hand.

Because the episode you mention occurred in connection with your workplace, it’s not a bad idea to remind the offender that certain kinds of jokes can land people in hot water. (A CNN analyst, Roland Martin, was suspended earlier this year for making anti-gay tweets, to give a highly publicized example.) But that’s the kind of point you’d want to make later on in a more private conversation or by e-mail.

Verbal harassment is certainly an ongoing problem for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — at all ages. Much of the attention has been focused on young people in high school, but the job challenges faced by gays later in life are also considerable. Eliza Byard, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network, explained to me that, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people from their 40s on up are also vulnerable to harassment and bullying — especially in the workplace — even though it’s rarely talked about.” In fact, the weakened economy alone has significantly impacted the willingness of L.G.B.T. adults to be out with their manager or boss because of fears of discrimination, ostracism, or job loss, according to a recent Harris Interactive/Out and Equal survey. The result is there are older gays deciding to go back into the closet.

Whatever the age group of your academic peers at that lunch, your effort to speak up about an inappropriate joke would have been a highly appropriate gesture.

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