You may not know or care that my career began in retail. In light of this historic Supreme Court Decision for LGBT civil rights, I couldn’t help but recollect all the LGBT people I had the pleasure and privilege of working with in retail over the decades.
I worked for Neiman Marcus in Atlanta in the early 1990s, and I was actually in the minority as a straight person. The majority of the associates were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Of course, officially, everyone was straight. But, also unofficially, retail is a world of mixes and matches and unassuming eccentricities, so it wasn’t unusual gays find sanctuary there.
I had recently divorced, and was living in the heart of Midtown Atlanta – the unofficial gay part of Atlanta. Decatur, GA is the unofficial part of Metro Atlanta for lesbians. On a side note, I could never figure out why the two groups were deliberately separate. I never thought to ask. But I digress.
I chose to rent an apartment in Midtown because a) I had a big black Labrador Retriever and this building allowed me to have him, and Piedmont Park was right across the street and I could walk him there. Plus, mhy new employer, Neiman Marcus at Lenox Square, was only 10 minutes away. It was an ideal situation – except that I would never meet a straight guy there. But, I had just divorced, so I was not exactly anxious to get in the game yet anyway.
In the interest of brevity, let me just put it out there. Everyone knew who was gay at work. The staff knew, the customers knew, the whole mall knew. And the whole mall probably employed at least 70% LGBT.
Yes, some of the stereotype “look” was apparent. Impeccably groomed, incredibly well-dressed, and exceptional in grammar and speech. And of course, wonderful design skills. But then, they were also what was known back then as DINKs – Double Income No Kids. So they had more expendable income than the straight world – and more time to appreciate the finer things in life. I daresay we straight ones were jealous of said lifestyle were it not for the conventional struggles of straight family life.
So why, despite the predominance of a gay population in the area, and most certainly in the stores, why was their sexual identity kept hush-hush?
Because this was still Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1990s, where white bread still ruled and God was only on a straight person’s side. It actually hurt me physically sometimes to watch so many try to hide it. Some were strong enough not to care what anyone thought. But most of them were also hiding their sexual identity from friends and family, so they were caught in a bridled existence.
It was at Neiman Marcus I was trained in the most excellent customer service and in the highest of standards in quality goods and apparel. But more importantly, I learned about the struggles of those who were LGBT.
One of the (gay) men in my department had recently lost his partner to AIDS. He had not been entitled to properly maintain vigil at his partner’s side in the hospital, much less publicly mourn. And yet, there he was, at work everyday. Stoicly full speed ahead.
There was another who refused to acknowledge he was gay. We all knew he had a male partner, but we weren’t allowed to mention it. He appeared to think it would hurt his future career to be outed.
The rest were just working under the presumption that while it may be surmised they were gay, they would rather not come out. It was just too hard in Atlanta. Their only sanctuaries were Neiman’s, Midtown, and Piedmont Park.
I often thought to myself, if I were gay, and life were always so hard because of it, wouldn’t it result in resentment of those who were straight and had every civil liberty and comfort? But I didn’t experience that. They accepted me for who I was. Perhaps because I was open to their right to live as they saw fit.
Why was I so open? Because I never saw anyone try to impose their lifestyle on me or anyone else. No bias, no prejudice, no hatred. Just a quiet and anonymous existence without any ill intent. “Just leave us alone in our private lives, please.”
I wished I could have been closer. I was in my own anti-straight-male world having just been through an uncomfortable divorce.
I treasure the times I had working there. We all had very demanding positions – nothing but the best at NM – so we were all close because of the rigor. But I never knew of their personal trials. While we straight ones were frequent in expressing our malaise over issues at home, “they” perhaps didn’t feel at liberty to discuss relationship quibbles as it might reveal too much. It just didn’t make sense in a “modern” world.
And it was a strange thing to watch both the LGBT Supreme Court decision jublilation and then paradoxically, President Obama’s eulogy at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston all in the same day, today. Two civilly maligned groups reaching for the same 14th Amendment rights this country promises.
2015 promises to be a year of change for the better.