By Tara Cavanaugh
Somewhere in Michigan, a young man in his twenties – let’s call him Mike – is working hard for the betterment of youth as a leader in the kind of organization that does that sort of thing. It’s work he believes in, and work that demands certain sacrifices. He made one of those sacrifices when he first got the job, by going straight back into the closet – sort of.
“As long as I work for the organization that I do and they have the politics they do I won’t be out on Facebook,” Mike said. “My personal and professional life are very much integrated.”
Mike is quick to note that he’s been out since he was 14, so it’s not like he told his friends and family he’s no longer gay. But on Facebook, which he uses almost constantly to keep up with the youth he serves and his employees, he’s completely mum about it. He has hundreds of friends on the website, including the people who hired him.
“They clearly say that I can’t be a homo and work for them,” Mike said. Some of his colleagues have been fired based on suspicions about their sexuality. So he works with a high level of paranoia: “Certainly when you’re in this kind of organization you’re always hiding, worrying about something,” he said. “You don’t trust anyone.”
As long as Mike has his job, his Facebook page will stay straight. Even if he isn’t.
The Facebook effect
For some LGBTs like Mike, the Facebook profile is a separate identity to be managed. For those who decide to wear their sexuality on their profile, the reaction from hundreds of acquaintances can be a personal and professional disaster.
Tobey Brock, a 49-year-old from Flint, used to be closeted on Facebook. He came out late in life, after growing up in a religious family, teaching at a religious school and getting married and divorced twice.
He was relieved when his family took his coming out surprisingly quietly four years ago. (He thinks they may have been too stunned to fully come to grips with it.) But he remained closeted on Facebook for another year, because of the parents and former students he was friends with.
“I wanted to be careful about doing it, but I felt I just needed to do it for my own peace of mind,” he said. “I just got to the point where I was tired of hiding it all.” Coming out on Facebook wasn’t an impulsive decision; he considered it for a while and tried to prepare himself because “once you push the button, it goes out.”
Brock quickly discovered that he wasn’t prepared for the e-mails and Facebook messages that followed his declaration of being in a relationship with a man. Although some of his friends were OK with it, the ones who were upset left quite the sting. Brock tried to explain himself, but some wouldn’t even engage him in conversation.
“Some parents said it was the worst thing I could do,” he said. “It was as if my being gay changed everything.”
In a way, it did: Brock lost his job as a teacher at the Christian school, which he said was the result of coming out online and in real life. He was “laid off” and told that the school was cutting back because of budget problems – but it hired two new teachers that fall.
“People need to think this out carefully … a private employer can fire you for any reason,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project. Being out on Facebook is “basically making a public declaration,” he said.
There are no explicit federal or state protections for LGBT employees of private companies. Some state legislators have tried to amend the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and identity as protected classes, but they’ve been unsuccessful, Kaplan said.
Some companies and cities have non-discrimination policies or human rights ordinances that protect LGBTs. But many companies don’t have such policies, and they can fire someone for a photo or a relationship status that suggests the person is LGBT, Kaplan explained.
On the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has languished in committees since 1994. If passed, it would “(extend) federal employment discrimination protections currently provided based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability to sexual orientation and gender identity.”
These failed legislative attempts means that Brock’s being “laid off” can’t be challenged. It also gives Mike a good reason to stay closeted on Facebook.
‘Not a big deal’
Brock thinks his age played a big role in how his Facebook friends reacted. “If I had been in my twenties, things would have been different,” he said.
For Chrissy Growchowski, a spunky 19-year-old, coming out on Facebook wasn’t a big deal at all. When she first signed up for Facebook while attending a small-town Michigan high school, she identified as straight. When she came out as a lesbian, she decided to tell the “important people” in her life in person first. A few months later, she posted online that she was “in a relationship” with her girlfriend.
And the reaction she got from making that change? “I don’t think anybody really said anything. Everybody who was close to me (already knew),” she said, and even though she was talking to BTL on a cell phone in Nebraska, her nonchalance was crystal clear. “It really wasn’t a big deal at all.”
Growchowski said many of her fellow students and co-workers are gay, so she’s comfortable being out, even though she knows that not all jobs are as welcoming. “It’s really awful how (an employer) can use your Facebook against you, but personally I wouldn’t want a job that was like that,” she said. “It was important to have every aspect of my life accept me … and it was like why would I have to worry about the Internet then? I’m not going to hide myself.”
Lauren Anthony, a 19-year-old University of Michigan student, can’t even remember exactly when she came out on Facebook. She said people don’t often look at the “Information” section of a Facebook profile, where relationship status and romantic preferences are displayed. “I did an experiment once and changed my religion to Amish,” she said, “just to see if anyone would notice.” One friend did notice – six months later.
Risky, but hopeful
Mike acknowledges that his Facebook charade sets “a certain level of risk.” He once went on a rant about gay marriage on his profile, and he heard rumors that it flagged the attention of his superiors. He hasn’t posted any pro-gay rants since then.
Even though he has many more Facebook friends than the average person – some who do know he’s gay – he said he’s selective about those friends, so he trusts them, and thus far his charade is working. “Thankfully, I have a Facebook app for my (phone), so I can see what’s posted and delete it right away if necessary,” Mike said. “It’s worked out for six years.”
If he’s in a relationship, is it hard to keep that hidden from his online profile? No, because his partners tend to understand: His past three relationships have been with co-workers.
“If I didn’t love (my job) I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t really stay and subject myself to this mental and personal strain. It adds five extra steps to the already complicated process of forming relationships,” Mike said.
On the job, Mike has helped stop three kids from committing suicide – one who wanted to die because he was gay – and you just don’t have that kind of influence elsewhere, he said.
Mike hopes to stay at this job, move up the ladder, and become the kind of leader that brings about change on a company level, maybe even making it more gay-friendly. “At one point I know I want to come out,” he said, “because it’s a powerful thing for people to see a leader and realize he’s gay.”
It’s a heartwarming statement, and a slightly strange one too, because Mike is already out. Just not completely.