Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | April 22, 2015

COMING OUT AT WORK (1993)

1992.office.1In the early 1990s I spent 3½ years working as a paralegal for an attorney in a small northern California city. I was doing family law, which is basically a euphemism for divorce. In fact after spending 3 ½ years doing that I don’t think I’m ever going to get married. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone tell me that I can’t of course, but once I have the right to get married I don’t expect to ever use it.

I officially “came out” in mid-1990 after I went through detox and stopped drinking. There having been such a close relationship between my denial of my sexuality and my drinking that it seemed natural to come out once I dried out. When I began working for this attorney I presumed she knew I was queer. Back then I thought I was so obvious that everybody knew, in time I learned different. I wasn’t the only one motivated by denial, friends could also fall under that spell.

This attorney and I got along pretty well. She’d had a somewhat wild youth of her own in the bohemian haunts of New York City and I was just emerging from mine. One day she asked me if I’d ever heard of a photographer named Gary W, who she’d known and for whom she had posed back in her New York days. When I told her that indeed I had and that he was quite famous she asked me what I thought an original print of his might be worth. Well, W was well known for shooting film but not processing or printing (there were hundreds if not thousands of rolls of undeveloped film in his refrigerator when he died). I explained that he didn’t print that many photographs and most of what was available of his had been printed by other people. I told her that, in my humble opinion, if she had an original print of his, and was sure that he had printed it himself, it was probably worth a substantial amount of money. The next day she brought the photograph to work to show me. It was a nude. I didn’t know how to react. This was my boss showing me a photograph of her younger self, naked. I took it to mean that she liked and trusted me and thought of us as friends. The corners were a little dog-eared but otherwise it was in pretty good shape, not a bad print though not exactly Ansel Adams. If my memory serves, it had, if not a signature, some indication that W had printed it himself. I told her to take care of it. A week later she came in with it beautifully but simply and tastefully framed. She was suddenly proud of it. To my great relief she did not hang it in the office, but took it home.

Later, when it came time for the local Bar Association to assemble small portraits of all its members to hang in a framed display in the law library they hired a professional photographer to do this. The attorney did not like the photograph he took of her. She bought the copy in to show me and then asked me if I could shoot her picture for the bar display. I was flattered, I had done portrait photography before and made my own black-n-white prints, but I was not at all comfortable with the idea. Besides, to be honest not modest, I was not all that good at it. She pressed and I gave in and produced a stark, almost chiaroscuro black-and-white portrait, the solemnity of which was broken only by her wide, almost inappropriate smile. She loved it. She submitted it for the Bar Association’s display. Because it was so different from all the others they were not initially open to using it. But she insisted and eventually they gave in. The last time I looked that display was still in that county’s law library with my portrait of her standing out from the mediocre uniformity of the others. I tell you all this just to show that we appeared to have a fairly good relationship.

One day, after I’d been working for her for about 2 ½ years, I was standing behind her chair as she was seated and going through some recent work I had done. One of my jobs was to ghostwrite declarations for clients and witnesses. She took one of them and handed it back to me over her head saying: “rewrite this one, it sounds like some faggot wrote it.” I was shocked. I never expected something like that to come out of her and I wasn’t sure what to do. She just kept handing me things with her comments. Because I’d been standing behind her chair she could not see the look on my face. So she didn’t know anything was amiss.

I was really upset by what she’d said but I just could not say anything. My father drilled into me a fear of authority figures that I still struggle with. Whenever something would happen, some conflict with a teacher for instance, if I went to my father for support the first thing out of his mouth was always: “So, boy, what did you do? You must have done something or that nun wouldn’t have done that.” The assumption was always that I had done something wrong because the authority figure was apparently not capable of doing anything wrong. I grew to feel that my father was not supportive of me, that he would not stand up for me even if I was right.

A prime example occurred in 11th grade. I was taking algebra III, an advanced math class, and another student and I, his name was also Joe, were getting A’s on all the tests. Therefore we decided that we didn’t need to keep doing the homework assignments, which were just basically the rote copying of formulas. I don’t remember Mrs. Loucks, our teacher, ever saying anything to us about what would happen if we failed to turn in homework. I imagine it had all been explained at the beginning of the semester but we just kind of brushed it off and happily went on figuring we had an A in this class because we had aced all the tests. However, several weeks before the end of the semester she held us back after class and explained to us that for every homework missed she would drop us a letter grade and we were already deep into the alphabet. The other Joe told her she can’t do that. She basically responded: “try me.” At this point she told us that if we wanted to make up the homework we could do that. We agreed and she gave us a list of a week’s worth of homework. We got together after school, did the homework together and turned them in the next day.

Each homework had the date due and the assignment number in the upper right-hand corner. When we handed the first week’s worth of homework in to Mrs. Loucks she just went through and checked the right hand corners, marked them off in her book and handed them back to us along with the next set of assignments. When we saw that she hadn’t even looked at them we just went out that night and changed the dates and assignment numbers on the homeworks we had turned in that day and turned them in again the next day as another week’s worth. She just checked off the assignment numbers like she had the first day and handed them back to us. We did that until we had all the missing homework made up. At that point she informed us that any homework turned in late was only worth half value and so she was still flunking us both. That got me mad. I went home and told my dad what had happened. I wanted him to go to the school and tell them I had been a jerk for not doing the homework but I still had aced all the tests and that woman could not flunk me. Instead the exchange went something like this:
“Well, boy, did you do the homework?”
“Well, yeah.”
“When did you do it?”
“During the last two weeks.”
“Is that when it was due?”
“No.”
“Then it’s your own fault. You deserve to flunk. You should’ve done the homework when you were supposed to.”

Yes, it was a wiseass thing for me to do but still I knew the material and I aced the exams. I did not deserve an F. I’d earned an A. But dad did not see it that way. And that was that. He was not going to go talk to the school. He was not going to stand up for me. I suppose this was intended to be some kind of learning experience. Was he trying to teach me to blindly follow the rules if I want to get by in this world? If so, I think I learned the wrong lesson. I learned that I could not depend on my father to take my side.

After the attorney was done I went back to my office to do the work she had assigned but what she said started festering. I didn’t know what to do about it. The idea of approaching her and telling her my reaction was just not part of my experience. This woman had my life in her hands, or at least my job, so I had to tread carefully.

This occurred just a few weeks before the winter holidays. I had already scheduled time off to go to my first New Year’s Billy Club gathering at Heartwood Institute. It was to be a life-changing experience for me. The Billy Club is a Radical Faerie inspired gay men’s group which I had only recently become involved with. Many things would happen at this gathering but one of the most important was finding myself with my bedroll on the floor of the Sunrise Classroom next to David L. I don’t think we’d met before but we became fast friends. At some point during the gathering I told him about the incident with the attorney and what she had said. He had no hesitation. He told me I had to confront her about it. That I could not tolerate it. We talked about it quite a bit and by the time we were done I was determined to have it out with her.

When I returned to work after the gathering she came into my office and asked me how it went. I told her it was transformative. She said, “Maybe my husband would enjoy it.”
“I don’t think your husband would be comfortable there.” I replied, hoping she’d ask me why not. Instead, she let it drop.
She then gave me the assignments she had come in with and went back to her office. I sat there seething. I knew I had to confront her but I was terrified of doing it. That coward inside my head kept telling me how hard it would be to find another job and how uncomfortable it was sleeping under bridges, especially with 3500 vinyl record albums and hundreds of books. So I got up and went into her office.

“Let me tell you why I don’t think your husband would be comfortable with my men’s group. It’s a gay men’s group. I’m gay.”

She appeared stunned. Then she said something I’d never heard addressed to me before. She said: “But you don’t look like one. You don’t sound like one. My best friend in college was one.”
By this time I was cringing, to be honest I think it was more with embarrassment for her because of what she was saying and how utterly stupid it was. Then she looked at me and said: “So after over two years why do you suddenly feel compelled to tell me this now?”

If I wasn’t already sweating I certainly started then. “A couple of weeks ago you said…” And I reminded her of what she had said and explained how I had reacted, how it made me feel and how offended I have felt ever since.

She said: “All I meant was…”
I cut her off right there, “I know exactly what you meant, and it was very offensive.”
She then tried to excuse it, to claim some special right to insult me. “My friend in college and I used to faggot this and faggot that all the time – he was never offended.”
“Maybe that was okay between you and your friend in college. And maybe it’s okay with me and my friends up in the mountains. But I do not think it’s appropriate in a law office.”
By this time I was shaking and she had to have noticed unless she was so wrapped up in her own narcissism that she couldn’t see anything beyond her own discomfort, which is likely.

Finally she said she wouldn’t say anything like that again if it made me feel better. I said it would, then thanked her. After another awkward moment or two I went back to my office and sat down. Still shaking but suddenly feeling like I’d done something very important for myself. I had finally stood up to an employer, to somebody in authority, to somebody with control over my life. And on top of that I had told that person I was gay.

By the next day I had gotten over the shaking and the fear and I thought everything was going to be fine. But it wasn’t. Slowly we began having more and more conflicts and slowly I began voicing my opinions more than I’d ever done before. I disagreed with her when I felt she was wrong about something and I let her know when I thought something wasn’t right. We began to butt heads. I didn’t connect any of this with my coming out to her.

One particular incident comes to mind. A friend of mine died under somewhat unusual circumstances. He was masturbating with a plastic bag over his head while huffing cleaning products. His roommate found him in the morning, dead. Somehow the attorney I worked for wound up handling the probate of his relatively substantial estate. Since we didn’t do probate law this surprised me. It turned out that she was going to be depending on me to handle most of it because I’d recently taken a probate law class. She was also thinking of expanding the practice beyond family law and this was her first step.

The problem was that she kept coming in my office periodically with a copy of my friend’s death certificate. Each time she would read out loud to me the corner’s conclusion as to the cause of death and then giggle like a school girl. The official cause of death was “accidental asphyxiation during act of auto-eroticism.” She found that remarkably funny. Now this guy had not been a close friend of mine. In fact we were probably more acquaintances than friends, although we might have become friends the way we were going. Nonetheless I found her actions offensive. I thought it was really unprofessional to laugh over this guy’s death certificate. I explained to her that he was a friend of mine, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. Eventually, when my reluctance to work on the case became clear, she stopped involving me in it. She was clearly displeased, but then so was I. We were not getting along very well anymore.

She used to complain about not being taken as seriously as an attorney because she was a woman. That the preeminent divorce attorneys in the area were all men or so people claimed. Then she came back from court one day and told me that the opposing counsel, a man, had called her a barracuda. I told her that was wonderful. She was a little shocked by that. She said it was an insult. I told her I thought she wanted to be seen as a tough opponent and so being characterized by opposing counsel as a barracuda should have been a complement. She didn’t think so. She wanted to have it both ways. She wanted to be Ms. Nicey-nice and a take-no-prisoners hard-core attorney at the same time. It’s just that it was hard to reconcile those two.

After a number of months she said she was hiring an efficiency expert to come in and tell us how to run the office better. I actually thought that was a good idea. Her office was always a mess. She would stack files up on the floor along the wall under her windows. There would be stacks of files on her desk, always threatening to fall over, mixed in with old food wrappers and paper cups of coffee with mold growing in them. My concern was that this haphazard approach to law would lead to a malpractice suit when some deadline, and there was always some kind of deadline in family law, should pass without our noticing because the file was lost in the miasma of her office.

One day she announced that the next afternoon she and I would be meeting with the efficiency expert as a mediator to try and sort out our problems. I was a little taken aback by this because I thought things were going pretty good all in all, now that I was asserting myself more. Apparently my asserting myself more was not going down well with her. In fact that basically was the problem.

We sat at a small table in my large office and the efficiency expert started off by saying, “So when did the problem begin?”
“I guess it started after I made that Nellie remark and he took offense to it.”
“‘Nellie remark?’ What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.” And suddenly I did. She had not actually used the word ‘Nellie’ that day or since, but it was certainly what she meant. I just hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms.
The meeting went downhill from there. She began complaining about the arrogance I’d exhibited since that happened and how I needed to learn, or perhaps re-learn, who the boss was. Sitting there I realized that this is exactly what I had expected to happen before I’d opened my mouth. If I stood up for myself, I would get punished. At the end of the meeting we had a set of working agreements. In addition I understood that I was to stop disagreeing with her, although that was not set out in writing.

One of the things that was specifically set out was that she agreed to leave the office one afternoon a week and allow me to go through everything piled up on her desk looking for potential malpractice suits. This was how I learned about the moldy paper cups of coffee. One day while doing this I ran across a notebook full of dated handwriting. It quickly became clear that it was a diary of a husband’s transgressions to be used in a divorce case. I was reading through it to try and figure out which file it belonged to, since there was no name or file number on it, and realized that it was the attorney’s own divorce diary. Clearly she was planning on divorcing her husband. He was an attorney in a different specialty whose office was in the next small city up the road and he would not know what was coming. When it came to divorce that was her territory, not his.

One afternoon, after she’d filed the divorce papers, she sat down in my office. She said that she would be cutting my hours because business was down and her income had dropped. Well, I knew better. I knew the business was just fine but I also knew why her income had dropped. She was doing a lot of trade arrangements with clients whenever she could. So if she was representing a carpenter and she needed some work done on her house (which her husband had by this time vacated) she would swap legal fees for his expertise. In this way the business stayed approximately the same but her income, on paper, took a nosedive. It was clear to me that she was suppressing her income so that when it came time for the court to assess child support and determine if spousal support was appropriate she would be in a position to obtain more from her soon-to-be ex-husband. I didn’t quite think this was fair but it was none of my business, so I stayed out of it.

She cut my hours and then a couple weeks later cut them again, and then cut my days. Soon I was only working 20 hours a week. So I began drafting Marital Settlement Agreements out of my home for couples referred to me by friends and acquaintances. This was what I knew how to do now and she had reduced my hours to where I could barely pay the bills so I started doing it on my own. My mistake was to recommend to each couple I worked with that they pay for an hour of attorney time and have them review the final papers. My attorney was one of the ones on a short list I gave to them.

When she found out I was doing this out of my home she flipped out. She called me into her office and told me I was to stop immediately because as long as I worked for her people would presume she was reviewing everything I did. I made it clear to her that I made it clear to my clients that nobody was reviewing my work, especially including her. That is why I suggested they take it to an attorney for review before filing it with the court. That was how she found out I was doing it. A couple I had done paperwork for took it to her for review. And there is the essence of my mistake because once a perfectly amicable divorcing couple get into an attorney’s office the attorney whips them up into a froth of indignation and anger and before you know it two attorneys have new clients.

What I would do was talk with the two people who came to me with their agreements and draft legal paperwork saying what they wanted to say. What the attorney did was to sit down with them and say: “Why are you letting him have that boat? Half of it belongs to you.” Or, “Don’t you think it’s a little generous to just let him pick up the kids whenever he wants? Don’t you think you should be able to have a clearly defined schedule so you know how to plan your own life?” And by the time she was done with them the amicable split had become a vicious fight. This is one of the things I really didn’t like about family law.

Eventually she laid me off entirely, a nice way of saying she fired me. I went on unemployment and after four months got work with another attorney in a different area of law: her husband. The joke was that they were dividing up the community property and he got the paralegal. To his great credit he never once asked me anything personal or financial about his soon to be ex-wife’s business. He kept me completely out of the divorce except to help him draft forms, which I was pleased to do.

After I’d been working for him for a year or so, and the divorce was heating up, he told me one afternoon that she had been wanting to fire me for at least a year before she did. She held off because she was afraid I would sue her for sexual orientation discrimination. That threw me for a loop. It never occurred to me that might’ve been behind her slow cutting me loose. I thought it was entirely to do with my new attitude. I was grateful to the husband for telling me this because it helped me put the last year working for her into perspective. And, while it endorsed my fear that coming out would have dire consequences, it confirmed my determination to do so and to keep doing so in spite of those consequences.

Every job interview I’ve done since working for her has been a coming out. And after every job interview I’ve had since working for her I was offered the job. Changes in attitude, both in myself and in society at large, have made it safer for me to be open about who I am. And after spending the first half or more of my life hiding from who I am, that is a sweet relief.

 

begun 03/29/2015
version completed 04/22/2015
Sebastopol, CA

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