As employers in Ottawa fine-tune their return-to-office schemes, I’ve been thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic and the early absurdities of work-from-home life. Banal things, such as the long moments I spent contemplating whether to include the ‘dialing in from a phone’ instructions when sending out my first Zoom invites. Gross things like my cubicle mate’s abandoned mug, its half-inch of spare coffee more resemblant of cracked leather every time I went in to pick up hardware or use the printer. And nice things, such as the daily post-work walks that my partner and I made a habit of.
On those early-pandemic walks, social bubbles were always apparent — people either walked alone or with their spouses, side-by-side. I remember being cognizant that, by walking directly beside each other, my male partner and I were outing ourselves: two men, one household bubble. I remember sharing this observation with a friend, who rolled her eyes: “Nobody thinks much about the people they walk past on the street,” she said. “And besides — who are you not out to?”
She was, of course, completely correct. People don’t pay much attention to strangers on the street, especially during the most consequential health emergency of our lifetime. And there is nobody from whom I actively hide my membership in the LGBTQ2IA+ community. When interviewing for a new job mid-pandemic, I even let my partner’s pronouns slip without much thought. And now, at that job, when I’m talking about what we did over the weekend, I don’t avoid using his name.
But I have also found myself in environments where the easiest, or safest, approach is to remain closeted. With each new city, classroom, or employer, I have been faced with this decision, and like every queer person, I’ve weighed my options at each juncture. Increasingly, I seem to determine that the benefits of speaking openly about my life — a sense of liberty, logistical simplicity — outweigh the present risks.
Part of this, I’m sure, is the confidence that comes with age, and improvements in my own ability to locate social settings that align with my taste and comfort level. But part of it is external. Ten years ago, I had a manager who openly applied the most shocking gay slur to anyone who annoyed or disagreed with her — and once to a pylon she tripped over. A decade later, I find that scenario harder to envision (though not impossible). It remains, to various degrees, dangerous for those who are BIPOC, trans, non-binary, or living with disabilities to exit the closet at work. That said, I’m still amazed by the quickness of this cultural shift. It used to be the queers who felt a need to keep their truths quiet; now it’s often the people with hate in their hearts who feel that pressure. There are cracks in the rainbow ceiling. They are slim, but they change the quality of the light that falls through.
It’s too easy to think of this as an advancement that was always fated. It wasn’t. First there had to be strength, from others, in the face of violence and ignorance at the institutional level.
The contrast between then and now reminds me to be mindful of the victims of this period, and to be grateful to those who carry out their legacy.
Between the 1950s and the 1990s, gay members of the public service faced workplace discrimination in many disgusting forms. They were traumatized by arcane efforts to prove their differentness, interrogated as potential enemies of the state, and fired on the grounds of their identity. I didn’t learn about these events at school — I owe this knowledge to friends in my community. But with the construction of the LGBTQ2+ National Monument, it will become better known to Canadians.
Created by the LGBT Purge Fund using money from a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, the monument’s form is currently being determined. One candidate incorporates gardens, sculptures, and “an overwhelming wall of concrete representing the authority of the government’s oppression”. Another is a giant tilted ring that “defies gravity in a feat of active resistance.” I like the proposal that features soundscapes of recordings from the notorious fruit machine tests, during which male public servants were shown gay pornography by their employers, who measured their subjects’ pupils for concerningly disproportionate levels of interest.
This sounds made-up, but history is often preposterous. The contrast between then and now reminds me to be mindful of the victims of this period, and to be grateful to those who carry out their legacy. The monument, whatever form it takes, will be found just west of Parliament Hill. Office workers will pass it on their commute over Portage Bridge, and remote workers like myself might consider it an attractive destination for their post-work constitutional. In no time it will become a ubiquitous component of the scenery. That’s a fitting destiny for the cause the monument represents — an ugly and irrefutable antecedent of everyone’s office life.
Ben Ladouceur lives and writes in Lowertown with his partner and their poodle