I’m self-employed and recently took a job as a personal assistant to a woman who works in the entertainment industry. It’s been about four months and she and I have developed a good working relationship, although sometimes she can be a little much.
For the most part, she treats me with respect, and claims to be very liberal/open-minded and an LGBTQ+ ally. I think she believes this, but there have been a few times now where she’s made off-handed comments that I’m not sure how to take.
For instance, she likes to refer to herself as a “f*g hag” and doesn’t seem to know that the phrase went out of fashion a while ago. She’s also said that she “doesn’t get” the whole “they/them” pronouns thing and she’s made passé jokes about bisexuals not being “real.” But what bothers me most is when she calls me “princess”. She literally sometimes introduces me to other people as, “This is my assistant. He’s my little princess.”
I think she thinks it’s a term of endearment, but I don’t think she would refer to me that way if I weren’t gay. I also don’t know how to address it with her since she’s my boss and it’s just me and her. There’s no HR department to go to. I would like to keep this job, but I also don’t want to constantly feel uncomfortable when she tries to be an “ally.”
The Princess Diaries
Dear The Princess Diaries,
Everyone deserves to feel like a princess… unless, of course it’s because you were bestowed an uninvited, patronizing, and homophobic pet name!
Cringe-worthy moments happen in the workplace, but careless insensitivity is another story, especially when coming from a supervisor. It’s never okay for someone to make you feel uncomfortable because of their own biases, whether they are consciously doing it or not.
It happens way too often where someone we know claims to be fully accepting of queer people, but their actions and words say otherwise. Your boss seems to want to perpetuate certain stereotypes about what it means to be gay, and invalidate the identities of the very people she says she’s in support of.
Does she have bad intentions? Probably not. She really may see herself as an ally, and think that by giving voice to stereotypes that she’s somehow bonding with you or being funny. What she doesn’t realize is that these comments may be coming from deeply ingrained homophobic messages that’s she’s absorbed, probably beyond her awareness.
If your boss were truly affirming, she would treat you like a whole person, and get to know you as a fully-formed individual, rather than treating you like her pet. Doing so can trigger old wounds and traumas, when we’ve worked hard to shed those limiting beliefs about ourselves. No wonder you feel uncomfortable!
So, how do you handle this, knowing she cuts the paychecks? It’s all about healthy communication.
Most people like your boss simply don’t know better and they need someone to educate them. If she wants a good working relationship with you, she will ideally be open to hearing how certain things she’s saying are making you feel.
Without being critical, or making it seem like she is in the wrong, you can simply discuss how certain comments feel when they land. You can politely explain how using words and phrases that stem from sexist or homophobic stereotypes can be painful, or don’t align with how you feel about yourself.
Just as she probably wouldn’t have appreciated being called “sweetheart” or “honey” by a male boss as she was rising in the corporate world, it’s not okay for her to do the same thing to you (at least without having a conversation about it first).
You might also want to suggest she keep some of her unpopular opinions about things like pronouns and bisexuality to herself, as they can be invalidating to those living in the experience.
Sure, as gay people we sometimes like to reclaim derogatory or sexist terms that have been bestowed upon us in the past, as a fun way to take back our power. But if we want to go all “guuuuuuurl” or “queen” in our vernacular, we need to be leading that charge ourselves, and dictate what feels right for us.
The workplace should always be a safe and supportive environment. If there’s no HR department to make sure of that, you’ll need to take matters into your own hands. After all, a princess deserves her happy ending.