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Dearest Akshay,

I haven't checked but I don't think they make a hallmark card that says what I've been trying to figure out how to say. I don't have the right words yet, but if I did, it would read something like this...

I want you to know that I'm sorry - I know you're not mad at me but I believe I owe you an apology. While I never meant to hurt your feelings or tell you who to be, my implicit heterosexual bias led me to make jokes and comments to you about looking for a "girlfriend" and so on, over the past couple of years. I know that you don't hold it against me in anyway, and yet, I am aware of how callous or ignorant those remarks were. If any of these remarks ever hurt or offended you, I want you to know that I am truly sorry. And even if they didn't hurt or offend you, I still feel responsible for unknowingly putting you in a box. If heterosexual orientation was not a matter that we took for granted, no one would ever have to come out of the closet, or, put another way, we would all have to take the time and effort to discuss our true sexual orientation, so each and every person would have to come out of the closet and acknowledge who they are. And then, their friends and families could stand up and cheer them for the courage it takes to discover who you are. I truly applaud you for being who you are.

As I think back, I could easily make the excuse that I didn't know, but that's not a good excuse as far as I'm concerned. Unknowingly, I took you and your sexual orientation to be a certain way, and in doing so, imposed an arbitrary heterosexual bias upon you. In this way, I didn't really make room to see who you are. If I had been paying attention, I would have known all along and you would never have had to announce to me who you are. We never make heterosexual teenagers announce their sexual preference, and yet, we constantly expect that gay youth will "come out" to us. How ridiculous is this double standard! For my part, I'm sorry I made you participate in this double standard by having to come out to me.

I don't feel horrible about myself or guilty, and I'm not beating myself up about all of this
- but I do want you to know that I acknowledge that unknowingly, unthinkingly, unconsciously, I participated in society's and out family's heterosexual bias. And I also promise you that I will support you in whatever way you think it appropriate, so that we can help our family be more inclusive.

I think you are an incredibly beautiful human being and I am so proud to call you my brother and my friend. And I truly love you for who you are.

Xoxo

I'm still thinking about the bias against women working in science and technology. In particular, I keep thinking of a conversation I had with my supervisor just after days I started working for the IT help desk at a very large university late in the summer of 2004.

"We never thought we'd actually have a woman working here," my supervisor told me. He was the boyfriend of my roommate, and so I'd had him helping me into the stressful, poorly-paid job, inside assistance that other women desperate for work after the .com bust did not have. I considered him a friend.

"In fact, one of the staff here was moved here after he got busted for sexual harrassment," my supervisor continued, voice lower. "The higher-ups figured no woman would ever get hired here, so this was a safe place to put him."

I must have looked worried, or something, because then he said, "I can't tell you who he is. Sorry. Federal privacy stuff."

"Oh. Okay," I replied. What else could I say? If he said he couldn't tell me, his friend, I took him at his word. I had to, right?

But the "gift" of his incomplete information was a slow grenade.

I couldn't look at my male coworkers without wondering who the convicted harrasser was. And what had the harrasser done, anyhow? According to the rules in our staff handbook, harrassment could cover anything from inappropriate joking to stalking to sexual assault. I wanted to believe that the university would have fired him if he'd done something seriously rotten, but part of me worried that a big school will keep a bad apple around if he's useful. I'd look at each man and boy, trying to figure out if his friendliness was genuine, or a predator's mask.

Every day, a small part of me would wonder: am I safe around my coworkers?

There was already a wedge between me and the other guys at the help desk: I was older, in my mid-thirties compared to their early 20s, and the only woman. My fear drove the wedge deeper, hurt my low chances for ever being promoted out of that dreadful place because I dealt with the uncertainty by hiding in my cube, keeping my head down and not mixing with the guys. I didn't go to their after-work parties, and I didn't get invited to their lunches.

It seemed like just another thing I had to swallow to do the job; I was constantly worrying about bills and stressed out either because I'd been yelled at by customers, or because I was dreading being yelled at. My worry that I was working with a sexual predator was eclipsed by my fear that I would get fired and end up losing my house and being unable to pay for my husband's health care. Every day, I came to work half-believing they'd pull me into the office and tell me I was gone. I didn't fit in and I knew it; I might have been necessary, but I never felt particularly wanted.

Seven years passed, and another friend helped me escape to a better job in the corporate world.

About six months after I left the help desk, I ran into one of my former coworkers at an indie comics convention. He shared current office gossip, and the gossip turned to the sexual harrasser. My former coworker, who'd been hired on the same time I was, immediately revealed his name.

"What, you didn't know it was So-and-So?" he said, incredulous. "I thought everybody knew that."

Great. His identity had been kept a secret from me, the one person who really needed to know for peace of mind, but was common knowledge to all the men in the office.

File this one under "Bad Management 101: Effective Ways To Undermine Your Lone Female Employee".

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