This text was initially published in CUTE magazine #4. Translation by Jonathan Turcotte-Summers, original text by Charlie Savignac and Sandrine Belley.
While attempts at organization in the workplace are becoming more popular, there is an apparent absence of discussions or demands concerning LGBTQIA+ issues. Unfortunately, to this day, these issues are still labeled as liberal and individualist, which makes them secondary to the struggles of workers. This pushing of our demands into the closet thus leads us to retreat into affinity groups, outside the world of work, in order to have our rights respected. And not just any rights: these are reproductive and marital rights that are claimed, that is to say, those very rights that serve to reproduce the labour force useful to capitalism. Although it may seem easy for some to separate sexual identity, sexuality, and work, this division is absolutely impossible! Our workplaces are rife with aggressions against our identities and force us to camouflage ourselves and submit to the ambient heteronormativity.
The movement that has been most successful in raising awareness of the link between sexuality and work is, without a doubt, that of sex workers. In fact, in fighting to be recognized as workers, sex workers have managed to shed light on the free sex work done by all women on a daily basis. This work does not refer only to the sexual act as such; it includes all forms of labour, performed in a heteronormative setting, that aim to make women more sexually desirable. Makeup, hair removal, weight-loss programs, hairdressing, dress codes, and many other examples come to mind. It becomes clear that this dimension of sex work, which is central to sex workers’ demands, is present in many, if not all, of the jobs occupied by women at different levels. In this sense, being straight/cis-passing can also be seen as an act in the field of sex work.
Straight/cis-passing and respectability politics: Why is this a workers’ issue?
For LGBTQIA+ communities, this work is done in particular to camouflage aspects of our identities in order to protect ourselves from aggression or discrimination related to gender identity and sexual orientation. The way we present ourselves is therefore modeled on what is expected by the workplace; it might include how we dress, speak, even move. We have to keep mum about our personal lives; discussions about living arrangements, friendships, and partners are kept off the table, and a significant amount of time and energy are invested so as not to offend colleagues, bosses, and clients/the public.
Even when we allow ourselves to affirm our identities in the workplace, certain constraints remain. The image we project of ourselves is still restricted by a certain respectability politics; we thus try to silence the elements of our queerness that might shock others and to tie ourselves to gender and relationship norms. We are asked to say little or nothing at all about our sexuality and, when it does come up, it is the object of ridicule, contempt, or the fantasies of heterosexual male colleagues (especially in the case of lesbian relationships). They claim to accept our identities, but their well-wishes reveal repressed desires: marriage with a stable partner, thought of and expressed in a way that is at once specific and independent of our gender(s), corresponding to the expectations of the hetero and cisgender majority. The effort put into being a "good queer" remains a limitation on the full exercise of our authenticity and requires of us a considerable amount of emotional labour.
This emotional and sexual labour is very similar to that performed by women on a daily basis, while taking a particular form. We notice that it is the most precarious workers who are expected to do the most sex work. The example of waitresses is one. Deprived of several rights, like a minimum wage, and largely un-unionized, many are forced to dress a certain way, wear makeup, and more in order to attract customers and satisfy the demands of their bosses. It is hard to imagine such constraints being imposed on a university professor or a doctor. Along these lines, we believe that the more rights workers have or, consequently, the more their work is respected, the less the work of being straight/cis-passing is implicitly required.
The example of internships
My mental health has really suffered the past few years from a lack of recognition of my identity (gay or queer) and my experience in internships. To be told that I have professional learning to do to be able to better intervene, without taking into account the oppressive issues related to my identity (I worked with men in vulnerable situations), only increased my anxiety and my symptoms of depression while significantly reducing my ability to learn and to intervene. I mean, you don’t learn when you have to leave your internship early nearly every day because you can’t keep from crying. Also, hearing comments that one of our residents might be gay because he has always found his sex life frustrating prevents me from being able to bond with the staff, especially when the whole team really believes it. My sexual orientation is not a response to your heterosexual frustrations; it is just as valid and real.
Interns are among the most precarious workers. We complete several weeks, even months of work for free, and without being covered by labour laws, the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, or measures against workplace harassment. In addition, we are parachuted into a workplace without having the status of a full member of the team, which significantly reduces solidarity between colleagues. Paid employees can change jobs when there is harassment or discrimination based on gender and/or sexual orientation, and receive employment insurance benefits in the meantime, but leaving an oppressive internship means having to take on even more free work. In fact, a change of internship setting, no matter the reason, entails an obligation to redo all the required hours.
Many interns are thus forced back into the closet when they enter a workplace, either because it is directly required or because they feel they will not have the support of their colleagues. In fields of care work like social work, childcare, or teaching, it is sometimes suggested that we should avoid shocking the "clientele" or that this is a private matter, while our colleagues can feel free to talk about their partners.
A salary for straight/cis-passing in internships
We think that unpaid internships force us to do more free emotional and sex work when we are not hetero or cis. Obtaining the status of worker, and by the same measure a salary, would give us some of the tools we need to organize and refuse performing this work. One consequence would be to give us access to the same rights as other workers. Even though these rights are unlikely to protect us completely against aggression and microaggression by a heteronormative system, they will surely have the effect of allowing us to better organize to defend our identities in the workplace.
There is a very high probability of a strike this winter, and it will be an opportunity to raise awareness about this work we do in our internship settings, but also within the movement. It will be an opportunity to organize so that our personal lives are no longer obscenities in the eyes of our colleagues, so that refusing to be misgendered on a daily basis no longer causes a stir, so that we no longer have to worry disproportionately about how we speak, dress, carry ourselves, and perform gender.