When I graduated from Grinnell College with my B.A. in psychology, I was 22 years old and my only work experience was filing card catalog cards and setting up projectors for professors. I needed a job. My girlfriend was a year younger than me and I wanted to stay in Grinnell. The only job I could find was working at the Jasper County Care Facility, a massive facility for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. The facility was located in nearby Newton. Grinnell was a college town. Newton was not. The people of Grinnell were open-minded. The people of Newton were not.
I began working at the facility as a direct care provider on the 2 to 10 shift. There were 7 direct care staff and 1 supervisor on each shift. My co-workers were slightly older than me and had lived in Newton all their lives. Some of them were friendly. Some of them were not. All of them looked at me with interest and not because I was the only college graduate that worked there. I stood out because I got my haircut at a barbershop and wore jeans, t-shirts and work boots. Within 3 months, I was promoted to shift supervisor and then people began to actively talk about me behind my back.
There were two women on my shift who were best friends - Tracy and Christine. Tracy liked me and Christine did not. One evening, while we were both on break, Tracy told me that people were saying that I was a lesbian. I just laughed and said, "Really?" She said, "I told them there is no way you're a lesbian." I simply nodded.
I have always been an open and honest person but, from the moment I walked in the door of that building on my first day, I knew that I could not tell anyone that I was a lesbian. It went against my nature to say nothing and every day felt like a lie but I knew it wasn't safe.
Christine was defiant and surly most of the time, regardless of circumstances. I had to confront her regarding her job performance on a number of occasions and as you might imagine, Christine wasn't fond of criticism.
One night, I was in the office finishing some paperwork and Christine came in and shut the door behind her. She sat on the edge of the desk and was silent for a minute. I turned to look at her and she asked, "Are you a lesbian?" I didn't know what to say but I knew that I couldn't hesitate, I said, "It's not appropriate for you to ask questions about my personal life." She stood up, took a step towards me and said, "Well let me tell you something...if I ever find out that you are a lesbian for sure, I will be waiting for you at your car when our shift's over and I will beat the shit out of you." Before I could say anything, she got up and left.
I was her supervisor. I never told anyone. I took no action against her.
I went to work, did my job and went home to my girlfriend every night. A few months later, I gave notice as my girlfriend was graduating and we were going to move to Minneapolis. On my last day of work, I packed up my things and Tracy came into the office. She said, "I'm going to walk you to your car tonight." I told her we could just say our goodbyes in the office. She said, "No. I'm walking you to your car tonight."
Nothing happened. No one was waiting for me. But, when I got home that night, I couldn't help but feel that I'd been lucky.
I think about this story whenever I think about outing and I thought about it tonight when I watched Finn out Santana on Glee. There will be people who will say that Santana deserved it - she is a self-described bitch and a bully. But no one ever deserves to be outed. As much as I would like every GLBT person to come out, it is a personal decision layered with complexity. There is no way to predict the consequences or their severity. Sometimes, I wonder what if...what if someone had outed me all those years ago in the tiny town of Newton, Iowa? What if?