Early in my graduate career, a colleague made a severely hurtful comment to me at a work event.

A dead fish.

I’d like to tell what happened, explain in detail why it’s inappropriate, and share how I’ve felt and acted since.

I aim to present this writeup in as positive and constructive of a manner as possible, in order to

  1. help everyone better understand, recognize, and avoid hurtful behavior at work, and
  2. share validation and perspective with others who have had similar experiences.

🔗 The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Yucky Thing

Last spring, my boyfriend and I attended a work dinner party. We sat together on a small sofa in the front living room with a few others, waiting for dinner to be served. Someone else’s kid — 1█████ — ran in and started playing around with people seated around the room. He turned his attention to my my partner and I, climbing all up and over the back of the couch and tumbling around. At one point, he almost fell headfirst into a coffee table and I caught him by the leg of his pants.

Then, dinner was on, and we all moved out to queue up in the dining room. En route, I was singled out by 2█████. I don’t think anyone else heard what they said.

Here’s what I wrote about the exchange a few days after,

Last weekend, after Nathan and I had been playing with 1█████, 2█████ told me I was “living the dream” having a “young man crawling around and taking off his clothes in your lap.” I was too surprised to say anything. I said I needed to make a call and went outside. I didn’t make a call.

To this day, that remark still upsets me. I feel a strange mix of disappointed, totally disbelieving, and straight pissed-off. Even after half a year, sometimes I felt so strongly that I’d just get up and leave a room.

There are several dimensions to this comment’s hurtfulness, and I’d like to take the time to unpack them.

🔗 Why It’s Yucky, Part 1: Workplace Sexualization

This first aspect is pretty straightforward: being unwantedly sexualized in the workplace sucks.

  1. It’s demeaning.
    • News flash: I didn’t go into academia to get or give lap dances.
  2. It evokes gross power dynamics, especially with someone higher up the ladder than you.
  3. Even one comment makes you wonder if you’re being seen that way, even when nobody says anything at all.
  4. It makes you feel insecure about how you present yourself.
    • Did I do something out of line to provoke being seen this way instead of as a professional colleague?

How do others see me, and how do I see myself? Looking in and looking out.

If you feel yucky after a remark that projects an unwanted sexual cast onto you, even if it’s written off as a “joke,” you are 100% justified. Feeling yucky and upset is not a selfish or self-centered reaction.

🔗 Why It’s Yucky, Part 2: Pedophilia Is Not a Punchline

Also early on in my graduate career, a close relative was convicted for sex offenses against children.

This leaves me and my family with a lot to process. Most of all, I feel sadness and anger for the harm he inflicted on survivors and their families.

The first question I asked my mom when she called was was whether my brother or I had ever been treated inappropriately. She told me that she didn’t think so, that she had always carefully supervised us around this relative. Re-assessing my own memories as this was explained, some retroactively gained a watchful eye outside of the frame.

At some point, responsibility for this relative’s arrangements will fall on my brother and I. I have a basic idea of what logistical responsibilities that might entail, but I haven’t at all worked out what that relationship would look like or mean. I have at least 38 years to think about it, though.

What I want to emphasize by sharing some parts my own life I don’t usually talk about is that, especially in the context of the classroom and workplace, you really don’t know what difficult situations others are managing in other spheres of their lives — and almost everyone has other pots cooking. So, just be kind.

(Shout-out to Ms. Works for hammering this important message home on syllabus day every single semester in high school.)

In the wake of revelations on our own campus at Michigan State, it also goes to say that — whatever the audience — making light of sexual abuse is inappropriate. In my time here, I’ve overheard a few distasteful jokes about sex abuse, like a PhD student telling a prospective student not to worry because “we won’t rape you here!”

Please, think twice.

🔗 Why It’s Yucky, Part 3: Gays and Kids

The idea that gays aren’t safe or appropriate around kids is unfounded and hurtful. Unfortunately, this idea has a long history and continues to persist.

Despite the vapidness of these concerns, I’m very sensitive to them. Often, I’ll hold my hands behind my back when I’m talking to kids. At a table, I’ll sit across, rather than next to, kids. I worry about making parents uncomfortable more, I think, than most other people do.

What made 2█████’s comment so upsetting, in part, was that I was making these calculations about what others might perceive as improper while 1█████ was playing around with Nathan and I. I figured that it was okay because there were other people in the room and that 1█████ had been playing with other people in the same way. Still, though, playing with 1█████, I felt a little uneasy about what might be projected onto my intentions.

Self-portrait with stress hives.

The idea that others see routine interactions I have with kids in a different light — that I’m getting a strip tease and a lap dance instead of just playing along like anyone else — is very, very disturbing and hurtful. For a time after 2█████’s comment, I started breaking out in stress hives at Elementary outreach events.

Worrying what others will project makes being around kids much less fun.

🔗 Why It’s Yucky, Part 4: Gays in Schools

The unfortunate notion that gays aren’t safe or appropriate around kids comes to a head in primary schools, where LGBTQ people often choose to — or are expected to — only represent part of themselves and their lives.

The middle school I studied at and the middle school I volunteered at. The middle school I studied at and the middle school I volunteered at.

I remember, in particular our beloved middle school English and Student Government teacher Ms. S, who cryptically, and obviously cautiously, would only yield to us that “my dance card is full.” Even as a kid, her response struck me as unusually cagey. Of course, today in the age of Facebook, I now know about her wife and wonderful family. It’s only in retrospect that I understand how delicate and treacherous that conversation — which, to a straight person, would be unremarkable — might have potentially felt to Ms. S.

As an gay adult volunteering in middle school classrooms, I, too, must navigate how to represent myself there. At school, I never shared about my personal life. In situations where, for example, I was telling about calculating unit price at the supermarket, I would simply describe my partner as “my roommate.” Staying closeted felt especially fraught in situations where kids were struggling, and failing, to come to grips with what gay means and what it doesn’t, throwing around slurs like “faggot.” How can you truly explain the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior — except to fall back to the prattling line, “that’s not a nice thing to say!” — without bringing your whole self into the conversation?

Of course, how adults are most comfortable representing themselves at school is ultimately self-determined, but paranoia about gays around kids is detrimental to both teachers and students. To that end, insinuating that I, or any other gay person for that matter, enjoy lap dances from five-year-old boys is deeply harmful. To allow openness and authenticity to thrive in schools, we need to establish exactly the opposite atmosphere.

🔗 Why It’s Yucky, Part 5: Gay Families

The unfortunate notion that gays aren’t safe or appropriate around kids also encroaches the realm of family life.

My partner and I Moving on through life together.

Career considerations, radical lifestyle changes, and inherent uncontrollable variables make starting a any family a difficult, nebulous, and sometimes painful process. Non-traditional families — not just gay families, but also transracial families, adoptive families, single-parent families, and several-parent families — already face difficult-enough additional financial, legal, and matter-of-fact biological complications.

We should provide all families with unequivocal support, not incessant scrutiny and suspicion. The capacity to love and provide for young people is universal. It’s a shame to cast doubt on the basis of contextually superficial aspects of identity or situation.

Questioning the fitness of any person to parent based on their identity is unacceptable. Acting this way doesn’t just step on toes. It can make incipient non-traditional families doubt whether this part of life, so fundamental and just plain normal, is really for them. It confuses and hurts kids. At best, suspecting and scrutinizing instead of supporting non-traditional families simply piles on to difficulties already faced. At worst, we might cut fundamental stepping stones out of lives and deprive our communities of unique and loving families.

For myself, concrete answers to questions about family lie five or ten years out. Even now, though, my partner, myself, and our inner orbit already discuss and prepare for a range of possibilities. Whatever happens, I’m sure there will be plenty of second looks at the grocery store and questions to answer about fertility partnerships/treatments or other arrangements: for ourselves, for well-meaning acquaintances, and perhaps for skeptical traditionalists.

Insinuating that I, or any other gay person for that matter, am unfit to be around kids or to parent is unacceptable. We must give non-traditional families support, not suspicion and scrutiny.

🔗 Responding to the Yucky Thing

Two days after he made the comment, I sent 2█████ a message. Here’s what I wrote.

Hey 2█████ your comment about playing with 1█████ last night before dinner made me feel upset and uncomfortable. I just want to let you know so you can be a little more careful about that kind of thing in the future.

2█████ responded, apologizing sincerely and letting me know he had figured he had offended me. I am glad I made the decision to confront 2█████ about the comment. For me, the comment would have festered much worse without any rebuke or acknowledgement. 2█████ appreciated that I brought it up too. In a very thoughtful aspect of their response, 2█████ wrote

I’m glad you said something, because it gives me an opening to apologize without worrying that I am making things worse by doing so.

After I received the apology, I wrote that it was “water under the bridge.” I didn’t really feel that way, but I think that’s how I expected to feel in the next few days because, in a general sense, that’s how I believed I was expected to feel.

2█████ also took the initiative to follow up in person. I thanked them for the apology, but wasn’t very receptive otherwise. I think this is when I began to realize how deeply I was offended and that it really wouldn’t be “water under the bridge.”

🔗 Processing the Yucky Thing

I wrote this about a week after the comment was made.

The last few days, I’ve been avoiding 2█████ on principle. This puts my aptitude for shallow, petty, insecure, self-important, self-absorbed behavior to good use.

So, really, what on the surface is an exercise in cataloging and despising 2█████’s shortcomings actually amounts to wallowing in my own. I’m conflicted as to whether to interpret this thought as deep self-understanding or a symptom of how fucked-up the situation is. My gut says the latter — interacting with 2█████ feels gross, which makes me feel less bad for acting like a little bitch.

To others who feel conflicted about feeling upset over colleagues’ inappropriate comments: realize this; if you’re upset, you’re upset. You’re not upset because you want to be upset. Being upset is not a reflection of weakness, pettiness, poor temperament, or lack of professionalism on your part.

Processing deeply offensive and inappropriate comments isn’t just about securing an apology, although that’s an important step. For me, feeling put-off after an apology was unfamiliar and somewhat confusing. It took me a while to figure out why I still felt put-off, and realize that still feeling put-off isn’t wrong.

An apology essentially affirms the absence of active hostility. A good apology also shows that the offender, in retrospect, thoroughly understands why their actions were inappropriate.

By my reckoning, part of feeling put-off is a subconscious estimation of expected payout for future interactions with someone. I trust my subconscious as a judge of character. Among a few very minor incidents that occurred before being told I enjoyed lap dances from five-year-old boys, I remember in particular feeling upset after 2████ remarked on my wrist exercises, “So your forearms just aren’t big enough?” I didn’t feel nearly as offended by this comment — and I never brought it up — but it still felt significantly yucky in a way that stuck with me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t put my finger quite on why I was upset, and — again — I felt a little badly about it. “Am I overreacting?”

Now, though, I realize that I was starting to clue into 2████’s occasional failure to track important social cues and norms, perhaps in particular around me; that’s why I felt upset.

A series of murky silhouettes.

Don’t gaslight yourself: being upset evidences someone else’s poor judgment, not your own. Me telling you not to gaslight yourself probably won’t fix whatever you might be experiencing, but I hope you at least know you’re not alone in feeling that way.

🔗 Reaching Out About the Yucky Thing

I briefly considered bringing 2█████’s comments up with others at work, in order to make sure that I had my shoes tied in case of further issues. However, I decided against it, concerned that it might unfairly negatively impact 2█████ . Instead, I just wrote down what happened and tucked it away.

At this point, I want to be clear: what happened is not harassment. Harassment involves a repeated pattern of offensive interactions. It is simply a single disturbing remark made in astoundingly poor judgment and poor taste in the context of a handful of other (much more benign) odd encounters.

Several months later I, along with much of the rest of our lab group, began preparing to travel together in Japan for work. I decided it would be a good idea to grease the gears to avoid any further incidents, so I reached out to a friend outside the lab who was traveling with us.

This is probably a little out of left field, but I’m hoping you can be my wingman to help me avoid getting left with 2█████, especially alone, when we’re traveling. Earlier this year and last year, 2█████ said several things that made me really upset and uncomfortable. I don’t think they made the comments maliciously but more out of poor judgment. I brought it up with them and they apologized very sincerely and has been much better since. I definitely don’t want to push them out of any social circles and in principle feel open to giving them a fresh slate but really do still feel put off around them. If it comes to it, I’ll just say that I’m not interested in interacting with them and leave, but I’d like to avoid hurting his feelings as is possible. (I really do think he feels bad about all this already). I didn’t have any problems feeling cornered with them yesterday but am just thinking ahead to the trip. 🙂 I really hope this doesn’t change whatever relationship you have with 2█████, I just am hoping you can kind of discreetly help things go the right way in Japan.

To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one who had had uncomfortable experiences. I didn’t share details, and neither did she, but validation — even of the vaguest sort — goes a long way towards making you feel less singled out and more confident in your own judgment.

Traveling in Japan was a blast.

Being discrete about sensitive situations, in some aspects, just makes life easier. You retain control of who knows, what they know, and — for the most part — get to retain normality, which feels good. However, discretely averting situations you’d rather avoid requires some effort and foresight. Also, and I think this is what has bothered me most, feeling like you should keep hush in order to protect someone else is also kind of yucky.

🔗 Living with Poor Judgment in the Workplace

This isn’t my first rodeo.

I encountered a much, much more extreme case of lapses in good judgment without (to my knowledge) malicious intent back at a college summer job. I want to use anecdotes from this experience to contextualize a more general reflection on this issue.

Me and co-workers from my college summer job. Me and co-workers from my summer job, having a good time in the field.

My second or third summer, our supervisor hired a high school co-worker named 3████ into our crew of five or so field hands. Due on his upbringing, 3████ had had very little exposure to progressive social ideas (except, perhaps, enough for reflexive disdain). I only worked part of the summer, taking two months off for an REU, but when I returned in August everyone — the ladies in the crew, especially — was frustrated from fielding uncomfortable and offensive, particularly sexist, remarks from 3████ for the whole summer.

Here are a few, for flavor.

  1. Many, many remarks to the effect of “I just can’t believe I’m here on a farm and I’m the only man, this is just so funny” in a way that prompted the rest of the women in the crew to remind him that they’re doing the work just as (or more) effectively as him.

  2. 3████ is alone in the van with the women on the crew on the third or fourth day of work. 3████ explains that he’s excited to be working with so many women because he’d walk away at the end of the summer with so much great dating advice, seeming to insinuate (a.) women run a cabal on dating secrets and (b.) breaking this antagonistic cabal was the primary anticipated benefit of interacting with women.

  3. Waiting alone with him in the work van, out of the blue sky 3████ asks me “how did you know you’re gay?” I’ll skip explaining how strange, on the spot, and nebulous that question is. The fact that it seemed to come, at least in part, from a place of genuine curiosity almost made it more difficult to parse. I said something trite and ended the conversation quickly, figuring it would more likely end up somewhere unfortunate rather than somewhere productive.

  4. In a conversation about teacher mistakes, after a co-worker recounted how during a screening of the very 90’s Romeo + Juliet (you know, the one where machine guns are “broad swords”) the teacher had forgotten to fast forward through the scene with partial female nudity 3████ immediately responds: “Is that what made you gay?”

  5. Covering which blackberries to pick and which to leave on the plants, our supervisor explains, “If they’re not completely black, we don’t care about them yet.” 3████: “Affirmative action!!!”

Where does the line get drawn for who we want in the workplace? We would be extremely remiss to exclude all people with tendencies towards occasional poor social judgment. These people, like everyone else, can make unique contributions to the business and vibrancy of the workplace.

A comparison between 2████ and 3████ is instructive. 2████ displayed genuine understanding of their mis-steps and demonstrated regret. Although certainly not actively hostile, 3████, on the other hand, didn’t seem to put together how his actions affected others (especially women) even when confronted about it. After a Real Big Chat about it with our supervisor, my co-workers didn’t feel like 3████’s behavior improved. In contrast, 2████ has been much more careful since we talked.

Stepping back, handling people with poor judgment might be approached along the lines of any other workplace issue. If they understand the issue and are working to fix it, we should give them a chance. Another year back at that summer job, we had a crew member with some instability in his living situation from a much more rural part of the county. From time to time, he lacked reliable transportation to work. Our crew benefited from accommodating him as he cleared his hurdles. He was a good worker — completely straightforward and upright — and a really fun to be around.

In the context of colleagues with poor judgment, though, being patient does not mean acting like nothing happened. Managing workplace issues isn’t just about providing space for employees to work to fix their own problems. It can also be about helping colleagues grow. Protect yourself (and maybe help co-workers help themselves) by steering clear of situations and conversation topics colleague s with poor judgment might stumble in. In retrospect, should I have been waiting in the van alone with 3████? Maybe it would have been a better idea to have someone else along or wait back at the Quonset hut. Should we have discussed politics or relationships around 3████? Probably not.

This type of accommodation can only so far, though. Many of the poorly-judged comments I’ve related here appear to have materialized apropos of nothing.

🔗 Takeaway Messages

A road ahead and a cat thinking.

  1. Write down what happened and how you feel about it contemporaneously.
    • Knowing that yucky things happened, but not being able to clearly relate them is unempowering.
    • Even though, at the time, we frequently discussed yucky things 3████ had said, reaching back for specifics several years on was slightly difficult.
    • An easy way to generate time-stamped evidence: send yourself an email.
  2. Tell the person who offended you that you’re upset and give them a chance to apologize.
    • You can do this electronically.
    • It might make both of you feel better about the situation.
  3. Consider sharing what happened.
    • It will likely validate your experience and perhaps give others a chance share their own experiences.
    • A heads-up will help you and co-workers watch out for each other.
    • You don’t have to share exactly what happened and/or who was involved. I’ve found people close to me to be very receptive, even without details.
    • Without details, it can’t go up the ladder out of your control or cause undue fallout to the person who said the yucky thing.
  4. Forgive, but don’t forget.
    • Act with courtesy and kindness, but you have no obligation to trust or engage unreservedly with everyone at work.
    • Use your memory to steer clear of potentially problematic situations.
  5. If you’re upset, it’s not because you want to be.
    • It’s not your fault that you’re upset.

🔗 To Whom it May Concern

I aim to promote an environment of openness and growth — not fear, shame, and hostility. In order to keep this writeup as positive and constructive as possible, please avoid saying hurtful things (including with respect to anonymous persons) or speculating on the identity of anonymous persons.

I’m unsure who might page through this, so I’d like to additionally address a few messages to specific readers, just in case.

🔗 To the Person Who Said the Yucky Thing

I appreciate your apology and I know it’s sincere. I see you as a valuable and positive member of our professional community.

I hope, looking back, we will both appreciate this episode most of all as a learning experience. I’d invite you, and everyone else, to update your priors — not just on my humor patterns, as it were, but more generally on where to draw the line in a professional setting.

I look forward to carrying on a productive professional relationship.

🔗 To My Co-Workers

Our lab group.

I’d be happy to chat one-on-one, if it would make you feel more comfortable.

I’m looking forward to carrying on as usual.

🔗 To My Advisor

Thank you for your kindness in our discussions. Thank you, also, for treating this project in a productive and straightforward way — much like anything else I work on — and helping me keep this process, as much of it as possible, on my own terms. My draft benefited from your comments.

🔗 To My Summer Crew Friends

Thanks for lending me your stories. I hope I put them to good use.