Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Lesbian Women and Work-Relationship Conflict

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Lesbian Women and Work-Relationship Conflict

Article excerpt

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Lesbian Women and Work-Relationship Conflict

We learn from an early age that there are good fun secrets and bad dirty secrets. Not telling your mom about her surprise birthday party falls into the good fun secret category. However, if a neighbor tells you that you must never tell anyone what you do at his or her house, this takes on the feel of a bad dirty secret. It is a cultural indicator that whatever is to be kept secret is shameful; that it is not meant to be aired in public. Sexual orientation and the policies that have been put in place to keep one's sexual orientation a secret have more the feel of a bad dirty secret than your mother's surprise birthday party. This seems all the more pronounced when some people can tell and some people can't tell. Heterosexual individuals can wear wedding rings and put up wedding photos, while gay and lesbian couples may face unemployment lines if they do so in a don't ask, don't tell workplace.

"Don't' Ask, Don't Tell" originated in a U.S. military policy (US Code Title 10, 1993) that prohibits anyone who "demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the military, because it "would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." The policy goes on to forbid not only disclosing one's orientation, but also from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes.

While the policy originated as a compromise between legislators and the military, it has become a common way in which organizations refer to similar policies or their approach to diversity when it comes to sexual orientation. This may be formalized policy or an informal organizational cultural norm that is communicated by the phrase "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The implication generally being that a person is allowed to work, exist within, or be a member of an organization so long as one does not disclose a bisexual or homosexual orientation. Making it clear that heterosexual people are given free reign to talk about their sexual orientation, including their families and children (Pobo, 1999).

Even when there is no explicit policy about disclosing a lesbian or gay sexual orientation at work, it is not something that people do lightly. Regardless of the policy in place, coming out (disclosing one's sexual orientation) at work is considered a problem by two-thirds of individuals (Levine & Leonard, 1984; Winkelpeck & Westfelt, 1982). One coping mechanism is to stay closeted, pass as heterosexual at work by devoting energy to portraying oneself as heterosexual, separating work and home life, and avoid social situations with co-workers (Garnets & Kimmel, 1991). A workplace that is supportive of workers being honest about who they are and employees being out in the workplace is related to decreased job anxiety and increased job satisfaction (Griffith & Hebl, 2002; Ragins, 2004).

Deciding whether or not to come out is not a one-time decision. Rather, it is a decision that is made many times during the course of one's career (Sedgewick, 1990). A change in jobs or the hire of someone new at the workplace leads to another decision point. At each of these decision points the organizational climate comes to bear on the decision about whether or not to disclose one's sexual orientation to that person. Being out about being gay or lesbian is not always an all or none situation. Rather, most individuals are out to some people, but not others. Some are out to absolutely no one in the work environment, while others may be out to everyone in the work environment. It is important to understand how individuals who are out to one or two people and those that are out to everyone with whom they work may differ considerably. Even being partially closeted is likely to have some impact on feelings of stress in the workplace and stress specifically about their family life. …

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