Gainesvillians recount anti-gay discrimination experiences
Joe Courter
July/August 1997

A speakout about sexual orientation and discrimination was one of the final events during gay pride month in Gainesville this June. It was held at the Civic Media Center and co-sponsored by the CMC and the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida. Over a dozen mostly gay or lesbian community members expressed their personal experiences and feelings about being the object of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Most obvious was the very much internalized code of behavior which gays and lesbians must follow, to some extent, to survive in our still intolerant society. No person, no matter how "out," could relax and truly be him- or herself all times. Even at such places as South Beach in Miami or Key West, where a majority of the people in the immediate vicinity are gay, it's still not safe. A public display of simple handholding can still be met with rude comments or worse.

The need to be covert was most critical at work. Persons with office jobs had to worry about what pictures to have in their cubicle and how to deal with innocent social conversations which quite naturally include mentions of family, friends, and social activities. One person who was recently hired into an office environment but was not yet out at work had to endure the uncomfortable situation of listening to co-workers talk about his predecessor, who was also gay. He quickly learned that his co-workers were both somewhat ill-informed and intolerant.

Another person mentioned how, when he'd been hired into a position at UF, he had to deal with a co-worker who had at one time been his neighbor and so had had prior knowledge of his homosexuality. The co-worker, who was disappointed that another person had been passed over for the job, used this private knowledge against him, making an already tense situation more difficult. The job situation eventually smoothed out, but only through the gay employee's personal gumption, exceptional job performance, and support from a boss who wasn't totally homophobic.

Another testifier had been well into a job routine when the boss found out he was gay. The discovery was immediately followed by extra work, time restrictions, and speed-ups. He eventually took a pay cut to get away from that supervisor.

Almost all felt that being out at work was an ideal and a worthy goal, but also that in our society such a step is taken at great risk, especially in a highly competitive job situation. "Why give them one more possible thing?" as one person put it. But a young office worker, not yet out on the job, related this story: "Recently a lady at work got married, and they did this whole thing at work. They had a cake, everybody stopped work; they cut the cake, congratulated her and everything. I could never do that. I know I have a lot [LGBSU, pride week, a more accepting society than before] and I shouldn't be greedy, but I also understand that there's a lot of discrimination and that we still can't be open, that our lives have to be in the dark, and it's kind of unfair. It makes me understand why there's people fighting for gay marriage."

"It shouldn't be that way," added another person.

Most felt things were getting better now, and that perhaps even worldwide there may be a positive change, especially with the influence of mass media bringing gay people to mainstream attention. It was happily noted that at this year's pride month painting of the graffiti wall on 34th street a Gainesville police officer showed up to make sure no-one threw eggs or harassed the painters (as has happened in the past). This officer was not only supportive, but he openly stated that he was unhappy to miss Gay Day at Disney World this year because he had to work. He was known to many there at the wall painting as an out-gay cop, from police academy through his hiring with the department.

But a gay cop here and a sit-com there does not take away the fear of victimization and the climate of hate that still prevails, and it doesn't guarantee that today's advances will remain tomorrow. Recounted were stories of name-calling, dirty looks, violence and threats of violence to both property and persons. There's real pain felt with such abuse, and shock. "Until it's you, it's just someone else's story," said one woman whose car had been repeatedly vandalized.

One person, when addressing the question of whether things were really changing, said: "The way I see it, it's going to change, but we've got to teach. We have to keep beating on this like the black movement did: 'We're just like you, not some strange group out there.'

"There is this group out there that's with us, that supports us, and there's this other group out there who's not going to support us; and as I see it there's this large group in the middle who get swayed, and that's the group we have to go after. Once we get after this group and teach them all the things we talked about tonight, and convince them we're not the ... monsters that the religious right sees us as, then we can get the laws changed. That's our primary goal right now: teaching."

Three-quarters of the way through the event, TV-20 showed up and immediately began to shoot some film. Three people quickly bolted from the room, and others had to ask that their faces please not be filmed because they were afraid of losing their jobs. I'm not sure the photographer or reporter grasped how profound this occurrence was, but I think for all of us present it demonstrated the fear and insecurity that gays and lesbians face every day.

It is a huge, bold step to be an out gay or lesbian, but it is also an essential step to bring the issue and the truth to the eyes of the world. The anti-discrimination ordinance, which would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, is being re-introduced to the City of Gainesville, and a sub-committee of City Commissioners will be looking at it. In view of the more enlightened make-up of our commission (since we gave Republicans Jim Painter and Tom McKnew the boot last year), the ordinance just may pass. But the conservative right will be mobilized, and all people who support this ordinance will need to mobilize in a show of strength.

You've just heard a lot of "somebody else's stories." Know those people are just like you.

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