Being Harassed & Not Knowing It

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by LA Jamison

Many of us who are in the working world have taken training for our jobs that includes videos and info on topics like sexual harassment. But, do we really pay attention? Do we really understand that harassment covers more than just blatant sexual advances?  A larger question that I'm considering and asking of you, my readers, is how much harassment do we allow in our personal lives, outside of work? You might be surprised after reading this article that you are taking more harassment than you realize. In my present job training for the summer, I've been surprised not only how much harassment I put up with (while also not even considering it harassment because it is not "on the job"), but that I also border on harassing others and that many of us do but don't see it as such because our culture separates work from personal lives. Be prepared to be surprised! You too might find, even small ways, how you have given yourself permission to harass others.

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Never in my wildest dreams many years before today, when I took the usual job training for my umpteenth time with a very well-known retailer, did I ever imagine I would be a victim of sexual harassment but that is exactly what ended up happening. It felt like a waste of my precious time to even sit through the videos. "I've seen this before..blah blah blah". It is really only in hindsight that I saw I had been a victim of sexual harassment with this retailer.  The first sign that I ignored is that it was happening to another gay employee. He left for another branch because he knew the management didn't like gay people and he revealed how they made the work environment difficult and impossible for those they wanted to get rid of (I didn't believe him until I heard this again and then when it happened to me). Then there were 2 lesbians that came through in training and never stayed (well maybe it was their performance, I wondered).  It was hard for me to believe because honestly for three years we were an awesome team. For the worst pay ever, but an awesome team.  And then it happened to me.

I developed a crush on a person in security for this store. Whether he knew I had a crush on him or not wasn't the issue.  The issue was he verbally assaulted me every day with taunts about being gay, graphic homosexual taunts and jokes. He began pressuring me to say I was gay to the point I crumbled and confronted him.  Of course, he apologized and considered it "typical guy joking" like that done in a locker room.  Sound familiar? Something someone in our highest branch of office right now excused his words as being?  Despite this person's repeated apology, no doubt based on fear that I would report him, it was right after this that I became a nervous wreck and could hardly physically walk into work. See, in addition to taking this sexual harassment at work and being unconscious what it was, I was also taking an equal amount of harassment outside of work with a non-profit organization I was part of (ironically centered on healing and communication).  I pushed through but was harassed in different ways once the word spread I was gay. My work was sabotaged after 3 years of a spotless record and I was fired in a matter of months from that initial incident.  An incident I never reported because I never saw it as sexual harassment. I thought I knew better than the videos and I would know what it was if it ever happened to me.  You always expect the perpetrator to be someone you already despised, not someone who is charming, even sexy.  The company went on to fight me tooth and nail for my unemployment benefits. They showed no mercy. (In a clever bit of twisted irony, this company is a major supporter of the TV show Ellen DeGeneres but that doesn't mean every manager is). 

So what is harassment? You might have read the above story and think that's "obviously harassment". But you might be surprised on what else constitutes harassment. There were co-workers who started to ignore me, wouldn't speak to me, would keep items I needed to do my job away from me. Is that harassment? Believe it or not, it is harassment too and it is called non-verbal harassment.  Many of us belong to organizations outside of work where people act the same way, stare us down, sabotage our attempts to get things done or treat us like we don't exist. The question becomes just because it isn't "employment", how much of that should we put up with just because are complaint is met with "oh, that's how Person A and B is?". This basically the same as saying "get over it" because it isn't going to change.

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First, the definition of a hostile environment. Please don't just think about your work environment, but where ever you are engaged in with people.  A hostile environment is defined as conduct that "unreasonably interferes with an individual's performance" or creates an "intimidating, hostile or offensive environment"

Here are some characteristics:

You are a target of negative behavior due to your "protected status". Here "protected" means legally protected. So for just a moment, we are going into a legal definition. Your legal protected status includes race, color, sex, age, disability, genetic information, pregnancy, national ancestry, religion, weight, height, misdemeanor arrest record, marital or veteran status or any other characteristic protected by law.  Keep that in mind as we go along.

Let's start with some examples of Physical Harassment that might surprise you and you might experience even outside the job: 

Blocking a person’s path or cornering a person

Inappropriate touching/bumping into a person

Destruction or defacing of another’s personal property 

*I think this is interesting because inappropriate touching/bumping into a person in a bar and in gay culture also is pretty tolerated and seen as "fun" or "funny" or "flirtatious" when many don't even know the boundaries of the other person they do this too. People often don't ask and just begin touching or giving you a kiss square on the lips. If it's welcomed, okay, but people don't often bother to find out if it is.*

Here are some examples of Verbal Harassment that also might surprise you and happen outside of the workplace too:

*Racially derogatory words, phrases, epithets,

*Negative comments about a person’s religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs), including negative comments about a religious holiday a person recognizes

*Expressing negative stereotypes regarding a person’s birthplace or ancestry

*Negative comments regarding a person’s age

*Derogatory or intimidating references to a person’s mental or physical impairment

*Negative comments about a particular gender or about pregnancy or related conditions.

 *How many times do we make fun of a person's age without the knowledge of how they might feel about it?  Isn't it interesting that seeing the above list occurring in our places of employment would outrage most people and yet our current president used all of these forms of harassment against people who don't agree with him and yet people voted for him?

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Sexual Harassment is only one form of harassment but often misunderstood. It is defined as by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”. Another way of saying it is anything of a sexual nature that is unwelcome by you. This includes Words, Actions, Touching or Hugging, Music, Photos, calendars, or screen savers of an offensive or sexual nature.

I think of particular interest is nonverbal sexual harassment so let's start there. Here are some examples:

*Looking someone up and down (elevator eyes)

*Staring at someone’s body

*Blocking a person’s path or invading their space

*Following a person

*Giving sexual gifts

*Making facial expressions, winking, throwing kisses, licking lips

*Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements.

This wouldn't be allowed on our job but in how many circles are you in presently where one or two of these happen or even you engage in it because it's the cultural norm of the people you are with or the place your frequent or the group you belong to?

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Examples of Sexual Harassment PHYSICAL:

Touching a person’s clothing, hair or body

Stalking a person

Hugging, patting, kissing or stroking

Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person

Standing close or brushing up against another person

*How many times have you had someone in your personal space or they jokingly press up against you while passing by, assuming you "get the joke" or like it? And maybe you do. There's nothing wrong with that but would if someone doesn't like that? Would if that reminds them of the relative that used tactics like that to control them? Molest them? And every time you come along that stuff their feelings because they don't want to offend you.  We just don't know without asking and it is time we care to know.  Its' as simple as "Is it okay if I give you a hug? A kiss?"  If we want to be "aware" and "authentic" people, it is our responsibility to ourselves and others to know before we just assume it's "okay" with the other person. Otherwise we could be perpetuating harassment. 

Here are some examples of Sexual Harassment VERBAL

Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, babe or honey.

Whistling at someone, making cat calls or kissing sounds

Making sexual comments about a person’s body

Making sexual innuendos

Telling sexual jokes or stories

Asking a person about or sharing your own sexual fantasies, preferences or history

Asking prying questions about a person’s “social” or “sexual life”

Repeatedly asking out a person who is not interested

Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s sex life

*So some of these we do outside work and they aren't harassment as long as there is consent for this stuff. Here's the thing yet again...do you have that consent? In my community, the LGBT community, it is interesting because it is almost automatically assumed that many of these items just listed above are not only okay but just par for the course, like a secret handshake or linguistic fornication.  There's this belief that everyone enjoys it so you have to get used it and if you don't, keep it yourself. You'll come around eventually.  

I am not just victim of harassment though. I am a harasser too which isn't easy to say. I cannot tell you how many times I call someone "Hun" "sweetheart" "babe" probably without paying attention to it after I get to know them.  But I have never asked if it is okay with them that I use that term of affection.  Sometimes I slip at work on occasion with "hun". It is a natural overflow of my affectionate nature.  It is probably not a big deal with most people but again how do I know?  Also, other times I joke around in sexual terms or jokes and sexual innuendo, squeeze a shoulder, pat a butt. Again, it's only people I know but I realize I don't ask. I will laugh when someone is uncomfortable with it. Boys of my era at least know this: it's sort of a right of passage to get a reaction from farting, burping or jokes.  It is a notch on our belt.  We have been trained almost like Pavlov's dog for the reaction of laughter mixed with outrage.  I don't know about you but when I was young if you were uncomfortable with something a peer or older boy was doing that was considered being part of the "boys", they pressed in more. You were teased for your own uncomfortability as a sign weakness and to wag it in your face even more, to smell, to taste it, to hear it repeatedly until it didn't bother anymore, was seen as a way to toughen you up. Initiate you into some concept of 'manhood'.  It has taken me some time and I still can make people blush or cringe with jokes and I realize after this training that have to watch that and not see it as a sign to go in for more.  I never saw that as harassment before. 

Don't get me wrong. Terms of affection aren't bad or even sexual jokes aren't bad in and of themselves. But I was reminded in this training and I say to you, do we pay attention to what the boundary may be for someone else who isn't comfortable with that? As the LGBT community, we have been stuck in underground club scenes where this kind of harassment goes on without a blink of an eye. It is a sign of welcome "you are a part of us".  Fortunately, now that there is more acceptance and we are out in the community more, we don't have to accept this "as normal".  We can mature as a community.  I wonder when that will start happening?  Many of us in the community have subjected ourselves to being harassed. It has all we have known and we too become the harassers.  Only through awareness can that change.