How I mishandled what I saw as homophobia from another board member, and re-learned some old lessons.
I did not see it coming. Henry and I had enjoyed a workable relationship since he’d joined the board. At a meeting in March he responded rudely to a question I asked. He and another board member had already clashed with the Executive Director. One board member said “those two act like a separate party”. As we left that meeting, I asked Henry what was going on. He smiled, patted me on my shoulder and said: “I hope I didn’t upset you.”
His behavior bothered me, so I called him. Unsure, of his issue I asked him how he felt about my effectiveness as chair, the emerging split, and his comfort around me as the only gay man on the board.
He quickly picked on the last point: "of all people, diversity is everything to me”, asserting: “I have no problem with you being gay”.
I tried to keep the conversation on what he had said and done, not who he was. He thought I was questioning his identity. A call that I had expected to last 15 minutes lasted almost three hours.
A while before Henry had asked: “Are you really a homo <pause> sexual?” and then changed subject abruptly when I said that I was. In a meeting discussing diversity he had said: “I know, Jon, that you have a problem with your homosexuality”. He seemed to think he was speaking on my behalf. At the time I’d brushed it off.
Two weeks later Henry called back to clear up the “misunderstanding”. He apologized for my hurt, not for anything he had said or done. He sounded distressed, so we spent another hour talking. He told me that he only knew one other gay person, a colleague, but that he had never talked to this colleague about his life. He said: “I would not bring up the pain of being gay”. Henry often talks about his own wife and kids.
At the next board meeting, Henry complained that I had accused him of being homophobic, just for using the word “homosexual”. He felt he was a victim, and brought in support. Two agreed that my “accusation” was unfounded.
Henry stood over me demanding that I walk outside with him now to “settle this once and for all”. I lost my cool. He complained about my reaction.
Other board members were shocked and baffled. Haqim, a straight Muslim man offered to take us both out for a short walk. Henry maintained that it was a misunderstanding. Haqim asked me what I had heard. I gave a couple of examples.
Haqim then asked: “Henry, what is the pain of being gay? He replied: “I would think coming out would be a terrible process”. Haqim pondered, and then remarked: “I would have thought that it was quite liberating, actually”.
After a short walk, Haqim suggested three agreements: that neither of us will make demands on the other; that we’ll work on this ourselves outside the group, so that the board could get back to work; and that I share more of my life to Henry, when he wants to learn. We all shook hands on the deal. We went back into the meeting, and finished all of our work. It was ultimately a very productive afternoon.
But looking back at the meeting I now realize that I had made two big mistakes. I had tried to tackle him alone without straight allies, and I had missed quite how Henry might feel like a victim.
Tackling homophobia alone can create more heat than light. It can entertain bystanders. But the drama of the fight diverts attention from the cause.
Once straight allies stepped in the tide turned. Duane, another board member, had watched the whole interaction with bemusement. We met for a drink later. He said that the look on my face reminded him of how he felt as a kid being bullied at school. He asked what had happened. I told him the tale, and how I had planned the meeting. He laughed and quoted Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth”.
He suggested it was unfair on me to have to chair the meeting, and to handle a complaint, all at the same time. “This is an equalities issue. You have a right to air your complaint, as the offended person, in a hearing with someone impartial, who can hear from the offender, too.” He took it upon himself to make sure that our policies and procedures were up to scratch. He also urged that I not meet with Henry again without a neutral third party.
If my first mistake had been not to engage straight allies earlier, my second mistake was to miss quite how Henry might feel like a victim. I was feeling like a victim of his aggression, and he was certainly being aggressive. At the same time he was upset that I refused to agree that it was all a “misunderstanding”.
He spoke from a position of superiority. He interrupted frequently. He seemed to think I that I wanted his approval, by reassuring me that he “did not mind” and offering a hug. He felt comfortable making broad assertions about me, and my life. He had a view of my place in his world.
If you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. He acted as if I had oppressed him. Anger is what we feel when we see that the world is not the way it should be. I had lit a fire inside him. He had the rage and righteousness of a victim. At no point had he tried to understand fully my point of view, or even acknowledge it. He thought that a group of straights could be the final judge how to treat LBGT people.
I thought I had justice on my side, and still think so. But I stuck too long with the hope that I could make this a teaching moment on my own.
The next day Henry sent an email to the entire board in which he thanked me for my “openness to finding a way forward for us to start resolving our conflict”. This seemed to break the agreement. I was furious.
Henry pressed for another meeting to meeting to “clear up the misunderstanding”. When asked what might “resolve the conflict” he could not answer, other than to say that for each of us “it would feel right”.
Henry, Haqim and I met again. This time I was prepared and supported. I asked that, for the sake of the organization, we keep agreements. I let him know that from here on I would treat this as a professional equalities complaint. Haqim backed me up.
Duane worked with the board to clarify our policies and procedures for equalities, and then led Henry and me through the process. I laid out my professional complaints: that I found that some of what he said and did was disrespectful to me as a gay man; that his reaction to my complaint had been unprofessional; and that he not kept his word to the board.
I was exhausted. Tolerating homophobia can grind us down. Fighting it can knock us down. If we get angry, we are seen as the problem.
I could have handled it better. The bystanders and straight allies stepped in before I invited their help. I’m sad that I’d seen it as my problem, when they were seeing it as our problem. I took me a while to realize my power, even though I was the chair of the board.
I should have known better. I’ve been out for decades, and I’ve chaired a few boards. I helped found an employee group at a large company that is now treasured by the firm.
I’ve learned these lessons before. It’s best to bring in allies, or they feel left out. And beware that a well-intentioned “learning experience” can blow up. We have to pick our moments.
Note: names and identities have been disguised for privacy