Being Black And Gay In The Workplace: “Be The Best You As Possible, But Also Just Be You.”

by Joseph Harris

I’m Joseph Harris and I’m from Kansas City, Missouri.

One time when I was in fourth grade, my mom picked me up to go to parent teacher conference. We arrived and we got to the classroom, I knew one of the – this class, in particular, was one that I didn’t do exceptionally well in. The teacher told my mother that I got a B in the class for the quarter. I knew from a time ago, my sister got a C and she was also put on punishment for weeks and couldn’t have a TV or anything. I just kept thinking to myself, what am I gonna get in trouble for this time?

We leave the classroom and the school, we get in the car and we were kind of joking about what kind of – what punishment seemed appropriate for getting a B. When we got in the car, we were kind of joking about it and then she looked – she looked straight forward and kind of stopped talking and turned to me very, very slowly and gives me a really stern look.

She kind of cringes and looks at me and says, “You’re gonna have to do everything twice as hard to get just as much as what one white person will have to do for doing half as much as you did. So you always have to be just as good or twice as better as them just to even be considered.” So that was kind of something that stuck with me for the rest of my life.

Through middle school, through high school, I got excellent grades. I always had honors. I got a scholarship to go to a really great school. Continued through there, kept my scholarship the whole time, and maintained great grades.

So I had graduated and it was time for me to start my first job out of college. I was – got hired for a job that I thought I was too young for and also under-qualified for, but I was very excited to put my best foot forward. But those two things kind of weighed on me as well, along with the idea of me being able to be myself at this job.

Fast forward to the first day I get there, I’m excited to start. I have great ideas, great things to do, but I want them to all be welcomed. So like I said, I kind of kept to myself and kept things in my personal life on a need-to-know basis, because I didn’t want to be, you know, found out about anything that makes someone think less of me.

I get there and the guy who hired me along with another guy who was also a manager at the club with me, we were all sitting down in the office, kind of going over some basic routine things to just onboard us. The guy who was starting with me started typing his email or something and I think the word was “fitness”.

The guy who hired us looks at him and he goes, “Hey, honey. ‘Fitness’ only has one T.’”

And then the guy who I started with, who typed “fitness” wrong, looks at him and goes, “Don’t come for me this early in the morning.” I was just taken aback. I was like, wait, everything that I had been afraid of at this point in time, these two clearly didn’t care about. I kind of looked at both of them and kind of laughed and we continue to go out throughout the day.

It was a health club, so you can see beautiful people come in and out of the club, and they are both commenting on a guy and I kind of just chimed in and agreed with them, kind of as my way of basically saying, “Yeah, me too” without being very direct with it. I worked there for awhile had great success and, after that, I never felt like I needed to hide who I was due to being discriminated against.

If I could think to what to tell somebody who is also a gay Black man, that’s 21, just graduated from college and going for their first job, is make sure you do your work and be as best – the best you as possible, but also just be you. As long as you can do really good work, there will always be opportunity for you. It might not be at that place but there will be opportunity for you.

Looking back, I kind of learned two things. One, from my mother, about making sure I work just as hard or harder than someone else, to make sure I’m giving my best effort and allowing myself to maximize my potential. And two, those guys that I started with, who were unapologetically themselves, allowed me to kind of be more comfortable in that space, and so that taught me to also take that same energy and be unapologetically myself wherever I go, to allow me to be visible for others who might feel uncomfortable in a space and allow them the opportunity to be who they are, open, and connect with other people.

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