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April 15, 2013 / brockportsociology

The “Paradox of Comfort” in Gay- and Trans-Friendly Workplaces

By: Peter Rydzewski

Peter RMovements for equal rights and recognition in the U.S. have achieved a great deal over the latter half of the 20th century.  Conversations about equal rights have become ubiquitous in mainstream media outlets.  Interested in research related to contemporary forms of inequality, I decided to focus on the workplace. Specifically, I was interested in learning more about the experiences of gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals in work settings they define as gay- or trans-friendly.  Was inequality related to gender and sexuality absent in these work settings?  If not, what new forms of inequality have emerged and how have they been studied?  I was interested in learning more about the changing forms of inequality choosing one specific location as a case study—the workplace.

My presentation for Scholar’s Day was an adaptation of a paper I wrote for the Sociology of Sexualities taught by Dr. Tristan Bridges—”From Bashing to Bumping: The ‘Paradox of Comfort’ in Gay- and Trans-Friendly Workplaces.” The following semester, we decided to develop a presentation that introduced a few new ideas, elaborating on some of the insights I made in the initial course paper.

Deciding how to study this topic was a challenging issue.  Due to time constraints, Professor Bridges and I agreed that meta-analysis would be a good methodological approach.  Meta-analysis is a method that relies on previously published research, treating previous research as data.  So, I looked at previous research on gay and trans experiences in the workplace, searching for common themes and patterns that cut across diverse research on the topic. The most compelling pattern I found related to emerging forms of inequality in work settings more sensitive to previous forms. For the purposes of my study, I concentrated on gay, lesbian and trans experiences related to appearance (dress, style) and performance (tasks, roles) at work.  Both of these topics illustrate the subtlety of inequality.

Previous research on elusive forms of inequality—namely appearance and performance—was a common concern in the research I reviewed. The most consistent findings stressed how heteronormativity structures the workplace. By using the word “heteronormativity,” I am discussing the ways that heterosexuality is institutionalized in ways that frame it as “natural.”  Findings related to appearance and performance norms in the workplace consistently dealt with this idea. Heteronormativity is the basis of workplace inequality, even—as I found—in spaces defined as gay- and trans-friendly. Due to these beliefs, the workplace becomes riddled with expectations of conformity to normative ideals that uphold systems of power and inequality in new ways.

One interesting focus of my research describes how gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals experience workplace inequalities differently. Although inequality exists for both parties, workplace expectations related to both dress and performance affect gay men and lesbians a bit differently than transgender employees. For instance, according to Williams et al. (2009), gay and lesbian workers are expected to remain “visible”—typically through norms related to appearance. Expectations and invitations to dress in ways that conform to stereotypical of gay and lesbian individuals were common among research on gay men and lesbians.

In contrast, trans workers are subjected to expectations of “invisibility” in the workplace, meaning that both appearance and performance norms are defined by the gender expectations of their co-workers. Trans experiences in workplaces are a profound illustration of how gender subtly structures workers’ experiences in the workplace.  As one example of this, a man might be expected to carry boxes in a factory, whereas women might be expected to work in the office of that same factory.  Subtle expectations like these are, in fact, common assumptions and they structure many people’s workplace experiences.  Trans workers are in a unique position, potentially enabling them to see these gendered norms in ways that cisgender workers are less able.  Expectations of performing in gender-appropriate ways perpetuates inequality, and may prevent mobility in regard to job placement as expressed in the quote below.

Before [transition] no one asked me to do anything really and then [after], this one teacher, she’s like, “Can you hang this up? Can you move this for me?”… Like she was just, “Male? Okay you do it” (Schilt and Westbrook 2009: 448).

I argue that, as a result of the workplace inequalities presented above, new forms of emotional regulation are placed upon gay, lesbian and trans workers. From this concept—defined by Arlie Hochschild (1985) as “emotional labor”—I found that workers actually face a subtle form of emotional conflict that seemed to be inescapable.  I define this as “the paradox of comfort.” The paradox exists because of twin pressures that face gay, lesbian, and trans workers in gay- and trans-friendly work settings.  If workers conform to workplace rules, they risk becoming alienated from their actual feelings. When workers decide to ignore these rules through the expression of their genuine emotions, on the other hand, they are subtly, but continually expected to conform.

As conforming or ignoring heteronormative workplace rules are the only two options, these forms of emotional regulation affect gay, lesbian and trans persons in ways that appear unavoidable in contemporary work settings. Thus, even as equality is increasingly supported, my research illustrates the ways that inequality is not necessarily disappearing.  It would be much more accurate to say that contemporary workplace inequality is taking new, less obvious forms.

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