Generational Divide Among Gays/Lesbians

Generational Divide Among Gays/Lesbians

by Dan Woog

Chrissy (not her real name), a recruitment manager for a major TV network, came out of the closet at age 44. For her entire career, colleagues knew her as a married woman with children. Suddenly they had to think of her in a different way, and nearly half a decade later, the process continues. Many coworkers, including some of her closest friends, ask why she "chose" to become a lesbian.

Meanwhile, Chrissy sees younger hires come into the company openly gay/lesbian. No one questions their "choice."

That easy acceptance of sexuality by gay/lesbian employees and their straight colleagues illustrates a generational workplace divide that mirrors national polls on such questions as gay/lesbian marriage, gays/lesbians in the military and gay priests.

"The people we've worked with for years just don't get it," Chrissy says, referring not just to herself but also to others of her generation who came out after long periods in the closet. "They want to know how we became gay, rather than understanding this is who we always were, but that we chose a straight lifestyle. They think they don't know us now, so they're not as friendly as before. It's not that they don't approve; it's that we're different."

Youthful Outing

Younger colleagues who are out are viewed in another light. "When they talk about their gay lives, no one bats an eye," Chrissy says. "But whenever I mention something, I see people going through all kinds of mental gymnastics."

David Frishkorn, 48, agrees there is a generational divide -- to a point. "A lot depends on the infrastructure in the workplace," this Xerox manager says. "If company loyalists -- the people who have been there for a long time -- take on gay issues personally, the atmosphere will be understanding." That has been the case at Xerox, he notes.

Lingering in the Closet

Joe DeCola, 66, is a former producer at NBC News. One of the first members of his department to come out, he sees the divide mirrored among gays/lesbians themselves. "We're not frozen in amber by our generational identifications, but we are who we are. A surprising number of older people linger in the closet. It's a combination of self-protection, shame, and the feeling that this is something we don't talk about." Older gays/lesbians react to younger out colleagues with puzzlement, discomfiture -- even amazement.

When he first came out, DeCola fought for gay/lesbian rights, because managers and executives were "prejudiced and unaware of their own biases." As awareness has increased, the need for activism has lessened. Younger, openly gay/lesbian employees now feel "assimilated," DeCola says. "I wanted to take the company on, but their attitude was ‘let's party,' and that's fine. Over the years, things change."

Tom Donato comes from a different generation. The 31-year-old editorial director for a market research firm does not talk as openly with older colleagues about gay/lesbian issues as with his peers, but adds, "I don't discuss the latest reality TV show with them, either."

Yet after seven years with the same company, Donato feels himself changing. "I don't care as much about GLBT stuff as I used to. When you're young, you think you're the center of the universe, and your coming-out is of interest to everyone. As you get older, you realize that's not true."

Age vs. Attitude

Some people see a divide along attitudinal rather than generational lines. Edward, a 46-year-old real estate agent, says the most important consideration is whether someone is gay-friendly. He believes that has less to do with age than with positive exposure to gays/lesbians.

Anne Campbell, a 40-plus manager for an insurance company, agrees. "If someone has a gay relative or gay friends, they're very accepting. If they think they don't know any, that can be a problem."

Sometimes there are surprises. When Campbell arrived, a 60-year-old woman took an instant dislike to her. Anne assumed the issue was her sexuality. She later learned the older woman's best friend is a lesbian. "She just didn't like me," Campbell says with a laugh. "But she's gotten over it. On New Year's, she invited me to a party to meet her lesbian friends."