American Fork: discrimination, or just awkward?


Should American Fork or any other Utah cities extend employment benefits and protections based on sexual orientation? The following dialogue might shed light on a complicated issue.

(The setting for this dialogue is a steel mill employing about 75 persons. Tom is the mill supervisor. Steve is one of Tom’s most trusted employees.)

Steve: Hey, Tom. How ya doing?
Tom: Fine, Steve. How are you?
S: Okay I guess. Say, do you have a minute or two to talk privately?
T: Sure. Come on in and close the door.
S: Thanks. This isn’t easy for me, Tom. What I am about to share with you few people know. I feel very uncomfortable.
T: Listen, Steve, you’ve worked for me now … hasn’t it been 15 years? You are by far one of my best employees. Don’t be uncomfortable. Take a deep breath and just tell me what’s on your mind.
S: Okay. Here it goes. Tom … I’m a Martian.
[an uncomfortably long pause]
T: You’re a what?
S: I’m a Martian.
[another uncomfortably long pause]
S: Tom?
T: Oh, I’m sorry. You just caught me off guard. I couldn’t tell whether or not you were kidding.
S: I’m not. I really am a Martian.
T: Steve, have you told anyone else about this?
S: My parents know. That was difficult. And, of course, my other Martian friends know.
T: Martian friends?
S: Sure. We represent about 10 percent of the population.
T: I’m dumbfounded. How do you know that you’re a Martian?
S: I’ve always known. Ever since I can remember I have always been attracted to space. I’ve had what seems like an obsession with Mars. I just know that I’m a Martian.
T: But why now? Why, after 15 years, did you wait to tell me?
S: Well, I’ve been struggling with it. All around me are earthlings. Everything on earth is geared toward earthlings. Earth this, Earth that. Tom, a large part of me wants to be like everyone else. And it hasn’t helped that I can’t prove that I’m from Mars. I don’t have a spaceship to show you or anything like it. This is just who I am. I have often thought that God must be cruel or something, you know, to have made me a Martian in an earthly setting. But now I know that God isn’t cruel. He loves me. And for me to be what He made me I simply must be open about being a Martian. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity. I have often thought about killing myself, Tom. It hasn’t been easy.
T: I can see.
[another long pause]
S: Are you okay? You look puzzled. Is this going to be a problem for you?
T: I’m not quite sure, Steve. I don’t want to offend you, I like you, but it may take a while for me to get used to this. To be honest, your announcement alone has already affected the way I view you. I’m sorry, but I’m being honest with you.
S: And I have always felt your warm regard for me personally and your respect for my work here at the foundry.
T: I’m glad you drew that distinction between your personal life and your employment. You have to realize that your co-workers may not be as patient with you as I am desperately trying to be. Steve, count on the fact that many of your fellow employees will have a problem with this.
S: Then that’s their problem! Why should I live my life based on the prejudice, narrow-mindedness and bigotry of others?
T: Well, it’s not entirely their problem, as you say.
S: What do you mean?
T: Steve, if the universe wherein you came out of your “galactic closet” was limited to your personal life, then your workplace relationships would be unaffected.
S: I suppose.
T: But the vast majority of your co-workers are not your close personal friends. In other words, the only reason they know you or associate with you at any time during the day is because they have to work with you. In this foundry, we forge steel. It’s a dangerous setting. Your co-workers rely on you each day to make safe and sound judgments regarding their safety in the workplace.
S: Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that if I was a pencil-pusher instead of a floor supervisor that my being a Martian would have a less significant effect in the workplace?
T: Yes and no. If I had my physical life in your hands, as many of your co-workers do, then I would wonder about your judgment if you suddenly announced to me that you’re “My Favorite Martian.”
S: Funny.
T: So the answer to your question about being a pencil-pusher is “yes,” if I indeed had my physical life in your hands. In that case, I really would prefer that you were a pencil-pusher. But Steve, as your employer, while I may not have my physical life in your hands, I do have the future of my business in your hands and the hands of every other employee. Pencil-pusher or not, I have given you a certain stewardship and I have placed in you a significant amount of trust.
S: I’m not sure I follow.
T: Do you understand the word confidence? As your boss and the owner of this business, I have to have confidence in my employees. Your co-workers on the foundry floor might not have as much confidence in you as they otherwise might express if you tell them you’re a Martian. As their supervisor, you need to have their confidence. Their lives depend on it.
S: And what about you?
T: I told you. I’m not sure where I stand. Frankly, just because you say that you are a Martian does not make you a Martian … especially in the workplace where I have to judge you by your works, not by what you believe.
S: This is more difficult than I thought. I’m starting to feel defensive.
T: Well, then help me to better understand your situation. How did you come to assume this identity?
S: It’s not assumed, Tom! It is who I am. It’s like being born black or female or left-handed.
T: But so far, Steve, it’s not like any of those innate traits. You came in here and told me that you’re a Martian. Your being black or female or left-handed would be self-evident. Your being a Martian is not self-evident. For instance, what is it that you do that makes you a Martian?
S: I don’t have to do anything. I just am.
T: But don’t you see the inherent problems with that? First, just believing in something doesn’t make it true. Even Christians just can’t say that they believe they are Christians and then not conform their lives to Christ. They have to act on that belief. Only then might they claim the label of Christian. And second, if we’re sitting here talking about things that are only relevant to your psyche, what’s the purpose of “coming out” in the workplace? If what you’re talking about has nothing to do with your work, then why are we talking about it as if it does?
S: I thought that you would understand. I thought that you were my friend, or, at least, that you respected me. You seemed like such a fair and open-minded person. I thought that you would sense how important it is to me that I make known who I am. And my being a Martian does have something to do with the workplace. Do you know how hurtful Martian jokes can be? Do you know what it’s like to have who you are made fun of by idiots who don’t have one clue what it’s like to be a Martian, let alone a Martian on Earth? Furthermore …
T: Go ahead. Get it off your chest.
S: Furthermore, I am concerned that I have not received a raise lately, even that promotion you gave to Alan, because of the perception that I’m a Martian.
T: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on a second, Steve. First of all, I didn’t have the slightest idea you even considered yourself a Martian until right now. I gave Alan the promotion over you based on merit and his ability to motivate our colleagues. Steve, you’re awesome to work with. You do what you are asked, and then some. But you simply haven’t shown me the leadership qualities I need in that other position. Honestly, Steve, upper management has more confidence in Alan than you for that position.
S: I don’t think that’s true. I think they’re discriminating against me because I’m a Martian. True, you and they didn’t know it until now, but you could sense it. I am sure you suspected it and now you are using it against me.
T: Holy cow, man. You need to get real and very fast. There is no “perception” thing going on here. I don’t even know how to define a perception, legally or not.
S: It’s just that I know I am otherwise qualified for the job you gave to Alan. So it must be your perceived impression of my status.
S: By the way, do you have the slightest idea of what it feels like to not be able to bring my life-partner, “Kazoo,” with me to office parties or out with other co-workers?
T: Are you talking about your friend Rob?
S: Kazoo is his Martian name. Rob is what he goes by on Earth.
T: I just assumed that you two guys were homosexuals.
S: Well, we are by earthly standards. But that’s beside the point.
T: Wait, Steve. Maybe it is relevant. Perhaps your homosexuality will help you better understand my own interpretation of what you’re saying.
S: Anything is worth a try at this point.
T: What if you came to me and said, “Tom, I’m … let’s just make up a word for homosexuality, let’s say … gay.”
S: That’s a stupid word to describe my homosexuality. I mean it’s kind of cute, but it certainly isn’t descriptive of any kind of sex act. Joy? Euphoria? Relief? But not “gay.”
T: Hey, work with me here, will you?
S: OK.
T: So you announce to me that you’re “gay.” And I ask in return, how do you know that you’re “gay?” Now, Steve, wouldn’t your reply stretch the limits of credibility if all that it was based on was an unproven belief or a feeling that you’re “gay?”
S: Of course. Being “gay,” as you put it, really means that I have sexual urges for men and that I act upon those urges in a proven physical way.
T: Exactly. You and I both know that under the color of law there is no such thing as innate “gayness” or “orientation.” Those would be improvable beliefs or perceptions. Let me try to explain it to you in a very relevant way. Steve, when I evaluate your job performance, your job rating is based on tangible things like timeliness, work habits, production, leadership skills, and how you get along with your co-workers. I don’t just leave your rating to you for self-evaluation. Even if I trust you, that system would be very impractical. Both law and this workplace only understand your observable human conduct – the human action involved. That’s the only way that you or anybody else would know if you were a good worker, or a Martian, or if you are truly this “gay” word that I made up.
S: I get your point.
T: You know, Steve, you could come to work and tell everyone in the whole place that you’re “gay” and it would be meaningless. But come here and tell everyone about the homosexual sex you had last night or start hanging up pictures of you and Rob passionately kissing each other or having sex, each proving that you’re “gay,” and then watch heads turn. That would certainly, and I might add, adversely, affect our workplace environment.
S: Which is exactly why I keep my admittedly unconventional sex life and everything associated with it to myself.
T: I commend you for it. That’s good judgment.
S: OK. So what you’re trying to help me to understand is that barring any kind of outward manifestation or physical proof that I am indeed a Martian, that my simply saying so is about as meaningful as my saying that I’m “gay,” as you so inventively put it, without any signs that I engage in homosexual sex.
T: That’s what I’m trying to get across.
S: Furthermore, you’re also trying to tell me that for me to announce to all of my co-workers that I’m a Martian, without first showing them any evidence to prove the fact or without first explaining the virtues associated with that lifestyle, will only create needless on-the-job tensions, a breakdown in morale, and promote a general lack of confidence in my professional judgment.
T: It could do all of those things, yes. And just think of the legal nightmare that would be created for me and every other employer if Congress or any other government entity passed legal protections for anyone on the basis of unsubstantiated claims … first, in the hypothetical case of someone being “gay,” and second, in your own case claiming that you’re a Martian. I’d have to go out of business to avoid all of the possible lawsuits. Anyone could claim they are “gay,” or a Martian, and then get unwarranted special legal protections based on a wholly unproven notion.
S: Wait! Stop right there. Tom, I did tell you how difficult the workplace environment becomes when I hear Martian jokes and all sorts of other derogatory remarks made about Martians. Those aren’t unsubstantiated claims. They are based on real-life accounts.
T: But, Steve, your accounts of these events are not what’s unsubstantiated. What’s unsubstantiated is the basis of those complaints. No doubt off-color jokes are told. I’d be happy to reprimand any employee for telling off-color jokes in the presence of someone who did not invite the joke-telling. But I’d have very little leverage in enforcing such a reprimand if the basis of it were your being a Martian. Are you willing to come out, without any proof, and tell them that you’re a Martian?
S: I was thinking about it. That’s why we’re in here talking.
T: Okay then. Let’s open my door, walk out on to the catwalk, look down on the foundry floor, stop all work for a moment, and announce that you’re a Martian and that you don’t like all of the Martian jokes and, from this time forward, no employee will mention Martians in a derogatory manner. And then, as soon as I can get everyone to stop laughing …
S: That’s enough.
T: You get my point, don’t you?
S: Yes, I can see where you’re coming from. You’re right, without substantiated proof, claiming that I am a Martian is about as meaningful as claiming that I’m something called “gay.”
T: Right. When I use that contrived word “gay” to describe homosexual sex, we have something to hang our hat on. But when I use that word to describe make-believe, something made up out of whole cloth, like some innate predisposition to engage in sex with men or some self-impression or perception, it’s not only meaningless in the eyes of the law, it would make me seem very foolish. You know, Steve, I at least have a basis to make a company policy about homosexual sex in the workplace.
S: Of course, a policy that would prohibit any kind of sex in the workplace!
T: Well, your being a Martian raises the same questions. Show me what that means and then I have something to hang my hat on as your employer. Lacking that, I just have to think that you are making it up.
S: But why then would I willfully torment my soul with this question? Tom, I’ve gone through hell. Why would anyone go through what I have and not be sincere?
T: I don’t know. Why do people do anything?
S: Some answer.
T: Come on, Steve! No one knows why people do things like self-mutilate themselves or willfully stay in a destructive relationship or eat pickles but not tomatoes or keep repeating one mistake after another. It’s easy to say that we’re “born that way.” A more relevant question would be, what do any of these activities have to do with the workplace? As your employer, that’s what I have to think about every day. I already spend enough time on employee behaviors that affect the workplace. I just don’t have any more time to think about someone’s innermost beliefs, unless, of course, those beliefs turn into actions that begin to conflict with production. For instance, like right now. We’ve spent the last half hour talking about something which I’ve concluded has nothing to do with your work. So …
S: Okay, I’ll get back to work. But one last question.
T: Fine.
S: Let’s turn the tables. Why am I the one who has to prove that I’m a Martian? How come you don’t bear the burden of proving that I’m not?
T: Easy. You’re the one with the beef. You are the one driving this discussion. Any more questions?
S: No, not for now. You know, Tom, I can’t promise you anything. I feel compelled to come out and announce to the whole world that I’m a Martian.
T: You do what you feel you have to. But, just like with every other human action, I can’t predict the consequences of your behavior. I think that you realize that thinking you’re a Martian has no relevancy to the workplace. When you can come in here one day and prove to me that you’re a Martian, only then can I help you on the legitimate basis of your race or national origin. But until then, proceed with caution. Steve, real friends tell each other the truth. I’ve tried to do that with you.
S: I know you have. Of course, I don’t like what you’ve told me. But I know it makes sense for now. The last thing I need is for a so-called friend to indulge me in a flight of fantasy … like this “gay” thing you made up. Just wait until I tell Kazoo how “gay” he is the next time we’re having sex! He’ll keel over laughing.
T: See ya, Steve.