Three years ago my boss sexually harassed me for being gay.
At the time I worked for a large, multinational corporation based in Asia just after graduating from Harvard. I was thrilled to be there; the company was a formidable competitor in its industry by measures of global revenue and brand recognition, and I wanted to gain international experience at a top-tier company. Days after graduation, with little understanding of what I was signing up for, I packed my life into two bags and boarded a plane across the world.
My arrival was an abrupt awakening. Aside from what I’d gleaned by listening to pop music videos on repeat, I didn’t know anything about the culture. I didn’t speak more than a few words of the local language, and had only been to visit once before.
Despite these clear barriers, I was eager to prove I’d do whatever it took to contribute. I immediately asked for anything I could do to help — printing, getting coffee, spell-checking English copy. I taught myself to read and write the entire alphabet in the local language. I scavenged for familiar ingredients at a corner store to make home-style cookies that I brought to the office as a means of introducing myself to everyone on the team and asking for more work to do. Yet, despite all my efforts I wasn’t handed any real tasks, large or small. I failed to integrate and felt like a token member of the team, there to fill the “foreigner” quota.
I quickly fell into a rhythm of day-in, day-out silence. I tried to keep busy by inventing tasks like formatting slide decks that no one would look at or studying the company’s history. Sometimes I’d go an entire day without speaking a single word, only talking to say good morning to my mom on the phone as she woke up in America. As a naturally outspoken leader, it was torturous. I pushed through, though, thinking that quitting so early on in my months-old career would be a sign of weakness.
One afternoon, the vice president of my team arranged a luncheon to recognize his 20+ associate-level employees for their work. I adopted my typical lunchroom manner and sat quietly during the meal, nodding my head as if I understood what was going on. As the festivities concluded, the VP asked a few other men on the team and me if we’d like to walk with him back to our desks. We politely agreed and followed as a group to the elevator.
As the elevator doors opened and we stepped inside, the vice president suddenly reached his hand into the opening of my button-down shirt and began to caress my chest with his fingers.
He chanted “gay, gay, gay, gay, gay,” while egging on my co-workers. The moment seemed frozen in time as a flood of emotions overwhelmed me.
Is he touching me? I thought to myself in disbelief. Does he know I’m gay? Maybe it’s just a joke. Or maybe this is normal here? Perhaps he’s treating me like just one of the guys.
I’d grown used to kids pointing at me in the grocery store, or people asking to touch my hair because I looked different, and for a split second I thought nothing of it. In a flash of perverse denial, I actually thought it was a good thing — for once in my life, I was passing as a straight man. I could just be normal. This is what straight guys do, right — make fun of gays? I scanned the elevator hoping that someone else’s cues would give me a hint about what to do next. I saw nothing but blank stares as we zoomed skyward, so I instead focused on the patterns of the tiled floor below my feet in stunned silence.
For the rest of the day I withdrew into the depths of my mind, waves of confusion washing over me. My default reaction was to to question myself. I asked myself if I had deserved it, or if somehow it had been my fault. Surely I’ve done something wrong, I thought. I was thousands of miles away from home in a place completely foreign to me. I’m gay. I’m the outlier. It had to be me who didn’t understand.
I messaged a colleague who’d previously spent a good deal of time in that region of Asia and like me had recently relocated from America. “That’s sexual harassment,” she said in plain text after I described the scenario. “Really?” I replied. “I’m not sure.”
Unsure what to think I turned to others for help. Within a few days of the incident I’d consulted my parents, lawyers, LGBTQ activists, and university professors. We found that the company had a “zero tolerance” policy for “any type of behavior that may offend.” Accordingly, the unequivocal, resounding response from those I consulted was that the vice president had violated the rules. But the company, which despite its policies had displayed clear intolerance toward similar cases in the past, wouldn’t believe me if I brought the case forward. There was no chance I’d make any progress trying to fight it out there all alone, one advisor warned me. Saying something might actually make the situation more hostile. It would be easiest to find another job and leave quietly.
I pushed myself to my limits to find my next position. I spent a month waking up at 2am in the middle of every night to take job interviews with employers in other timezones before heading to the office. I cold-emailed my resume to companies’ customer support email addresses pleading for a response, scheduled numerous networking phone chats, and wrote more cover letters than I can count. I thought a job offer was my ticket out. I was ready to leave.
On a Monday morning I emailed my human resources business partner and said I’d be quitting in two weeks for “personal reasons.” Taken aback by my sudden departure notice, she immediately called a meeting to find out more. At that point I felt I had nothing to lose. So, as we entered the meeting room I asked for formal confirmation that my case would not be shared outside our discussion without my explicit consent. She agreed, and I told her everything.
Afterward I decided to file a formal complaint against the vice president, which set in motion a trial-like series of talks. I recounted my tale over and over through held-back tears and in broken English to hordes of disbelieving, questioning colleagues. “Are you sure that happened?” they’d say. “Not at our company!” they’d declare. I simply “didn’t understand.”
I’d been asked so many times if the incident had actually happened that I felt like I didn’t know anymore. But the case was crystal clear. Black and white. There was a company policy against this. I had objectively been wronged. Even so, nothing was enough to convince me it definitely wasn’t my fault. To this day I pass through the world wondering, is it me?
By the end of the ordeal, I just wanted to leave and start my new job, to make it all stop. When it finally did I ended up with a plane ticket home and a promise that the vice president would write an apology letter to me. I was exhausted. That felt like enough.
As I was waiting at the airport for my flight out of the country, an email from the vice president appeared in my inbox. Maybe I’d finally won, I thought as I opened it. But among many half-apologies he wrote a justification of his behavior:
“[I] just want to make it more clear that different gestures may be interpreted in totally different ways in different culture.”
It took me days to find the courage to respond. Once I did I told the vice president that I didn’t come to his team expecting that everyone, regardless of their culture, would accept me as gay. I told him that I didn’t even think he should understand me for being gay. I did, however, expect that as a senior leader of a global corporation he would adhere to his company’s policies, policies that explicitly forbade behavior like his. I told him that what occurred wasn’t a matter of cultural difference. It was a matter of lacking respect and proper conduct and that when it came to the rules, he was wrong.
To my harasser, should you read this: I didn’t actually fight you to be right. I fought you because you’ve built a team where people like me can’t live a single day without questioning and policing ourselves for who we are. We’re actively held back by your hate. We’re constantly dragged down by the psychological weight that your world bears down on us when it constantly reminds us that we don’t fit in. So, if for a month, week, hour, or even a minute, perhaps as you wrote out the words “I’m sorry” in your letter to me, you felt uncomfortable with what you did to me, then I’ve succeeded. Maybe now you understand what it feels like to be forced to feel ashamed of who you are.
And to anyone who reads this and knows the all-too-familiar feelings of doubt and self-hate: know you’re not alone. Know that we’ve got a long way to go and countless battles, more severe and more important than mine, to fight. Please see what I wish I had been able to see from the beginning: a strength in the unity of our experiences.
If you’re experiencing a similar situation and are looking for help:
Very few resources in the U.S. are available just for advice and support. Someone who feels harassed should look carefully at your company’s policy and complaint procedure to find out if asking HR or a manager automatically launches an investigation. It’s also worthwhile to find out if an ERG can maintain confidentiality when behavior which violates policy (and probably the law) is discussed.
Outside of the U.S. it is much more common for organizations to have an Ombuds — a third party neutral who offers advice and support but does not launch an investigation except under unusual circumstances (e.g. if someone is likely to harm themselves or others.)
Project Include has a sample policy which outlines an informal complaint channel that co-exists with a formal complaint channel.
Mary Rowe served as an Ombuds at MIT for several decades and evolved a very helpful guide to writing a letter to someone who has harassed or offended you.
Here are a few additional resources: