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Entering the workplace drove me back in the closet – until I switched employer

Attorney James Reed: ‘By the end of the first month of my job, I had retreated so far back into the closet that I began to lie again, just like I had in high school.’

Entering the workplace drove me back in the closet – until I switched employer
Courtesy James Reed
After graduating from law school, James Reed was shocked by the attitude of his first employer

In law school, I stopped deceiving myself, my family, and friends and came out of the closet.

This journey culminated at graduation when my boyfriend, parents, and friends celebrated my achievement together. I left law school unburdened by the weight of being closeted. I was at peace with myself and my place in society as a gay male professional.

At that time, the country was in a deep recession. Although I held a degree from one of the nation’s top 25 law schools, I received only one job offer before graduation, from an employer in a small Amish community in the rural Midwest.

Since most of my fellow graduates were still searching for employment after graduation, I felt lucky to have secured a job even if I had to work in an environment that was not known to be friendly toward gays.

The interview with my new boss was brief. He knew and trusted the judge for whom I had clerked while in law school. So, the judge’s high recommendation virtually cinched the offer.

During that first meeting, I thought that my new boss was quirky and a bit odd, but he seemed to be an intellectual and a legal scholar. I figured that he would be like the judge, although outspokenly conservative, he would engage in academic discussions and respect my liberal opinions.

Day after day, I listened to my boss’s ultraconservative and intolerant opinions

From the day that I arrived at my new job, however, I realized that my first impression was dead wrong.

This man was a very powerful right-wing politician and active in local, traditional religious organizations. I could have handled the political and economic conservatism, but his views on social issues, especially LGBT issues like gay marriage and adoption, were nothing short of offensive.

Day after day, I listened to my boss’s ultraconservative and intolerant opinions. My desk was just outside the door to his office where he spent many hours each week, holding court for local judges, attorneys, and politicians.

Their discussions were colorful and lively and, because my boss refused to close his door, I heard every bigoted, offensive word.

Each conversation that I overheard pushed me further and further back into the closet. I was certain that my boss would have fired me if he had discovered that I was gay. I needed this first job not only to pay the bills, but also to launch my legal career. I believed that he was so politically connected that he could make or break my future.

By the end of the first month of my job, I had retreated so far back into the closet that I began to lie again, just like I had in high school.

I conveniently changed the pronouns to describe my weekend dates with men in nearby towns. Because the office where I worked was so insular, my deception became increasingly difficult to perpetrate.

The two other employees in my immediate office invited me to dinners and parties at their homes. I quickly learned that if I didn’t bring a date, they usually had an eligible young lady waiting to meet me upon my arrival. Little did they know, but I was much more interested in the only openly gay person in town, the local hairdresser.

At least twice each week, my boss invited me to join him for lunch in his office during which he listened to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and often complained that Rush’s views were ‘too mainstream’ or ‘softening.’

Most days, just before noon, I would disappear into the bowels of our building and sprint out a side exit to avoid these invitations. On days when he caught me, I was afraid that I would offend him if I turned down his offer, so we would sit at his conference table, eating Pizza Hut pizzas listening to what I considered to be offensive talk radio.

He seemed to use each trial as an opportunity to remind me of how much he hated ‘fags’

The lunches, however, were nothing compared to my boss’s rants against gay people when he participated in child molestation trials. He handled most of these cases in the county.

One of my many duties was to remain close to my boss to research legal issues as they arose during trials and hearings. After working with me for a couple of months, my boss felt comfortable enough to start making highly offensive comments during child molestation trials when he and I were alone in the courthouse halls during trial recesses.

He would identify the accused predators as ‘faggots’ and ‘fucking gay perverts.’ Even though he had listened to and questioned multiple trial experts who testified that homosexuality and pedophilia are not synonymous, he seemed to use each trial as an opportunity to remind me of how much he hated ‘fags.’

At the end of my tenure with my first boss, when he offered me a second year, I was very thankful and relieved that I had already received and accepted an offer from a much larger urban employer. For 12 very long months, I had placed my career ahead of my personal well-being, happiness, and serenity.

As a new attorney, I had feared the future, so I subjugated myself to an offensive small-minded employer. I retreated back into the closet and spent the entire first year of my legal career hiding who I was in the name of becoming a successful attorney.

Within a few weeks of starting my new job in a large, diverse office, I met my husband

Although my first job taught me a great deal about litigation, presenting evidence in court, and developing negotiation skills, in addition to presenting me with the opportunity to meet the attorney who recommended me for my next job, the emotional strains of the closet outweighed all of these career benefits.

Within a few weeks of starting my new job in a large, diverse office, I met my husband (he was a colleague).

Since we were peers and handled our own cases, our superiors allowed us to date and grow our relationship while working in the same office. From that point forward, I vowed to never again work in a homophobic environment.

At times, I have earned less money in exchange for working in an accepting and supportive office. I learned that disclosing my sexual orientation to employers and discussing it with them before accepting an offer has led to tenures in some of the most comfortable and progressive employment settings possible.

A few years ago, when I received an offer from a renowned medical center, to serve as in-house counsel, I knew that I had progressed considerably in my career when I asked my soon-to-be boss whether I would feel comfortable in his office as a gay person and he responded, ‘I am so sad that you feel that you have to ask me that question.’

This is one of many personal stories from LGBT lawyers that appears in Out and About: The LGBT Experience in the Legal Profession – a new publication from the American Bar Association (ABA), in collaboration with The LGBT Bar.

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