Look, I’m never going to judge anyone for judging others. Being judgey is one of life’s simple, easy pleasures, and what you do in the privacy of your own mental palace ain’t hurting anybody. But there’s a fine line between judging other people for their poor life decisions, and acting on your judgement — and that’s where we all need to tread carefully. ESPECIALLY IN THE DANG WORKPLACE. As today’s reader is about to find out!
[Reminder: Got questions? Need help? Drop us a line at [email protected] and we’ll definitely read it. Then we’ll probably judge you, quietly, amongst ourselves. And then we just may answer you, helpfully (???), in a future column!]
Here’s our question for the week:
Hi Tori and the Overlord gang,
Thanks for fielding this; I have one I’ve been a bit stumped on lately.
-I live in a country where LGBTQ+ awareness is relatively low but growing. There isn’t a lot of animosity, but deviations from traditional norms can get side-eyed enough that a lot of people don’t come out.
-I am fortunate enough to work for a company that’s publicly progressive and supportive of LGBTQ+ causes and offers good benefits for LGBTQ+ employees, at least on paper.
-Even so, awareness on the ground is pretty low, and the community keeps itself to more of a whisper network except for a small employee resource group (ERG) of queer workers and allies who try to be a go-to point and increase visibility.
The tricky thing:
As I am somewhat involved and semi-visible, sometimes people approach me individually. That’s cool. Recently, someone rather more senior than me (in both status and age) brought up her girlfriend in a conversation with me. Totally great. Then she let slip that her girlfriend is significantly younger and in fact barely legal, even younger than her previous still-a-student girlfriend, her tone clearly expecting me to continue my enthusiastically supportive part of the conversation. Less rad.
Thoroughly creeped out, I managed to sort of drift out of the situation, but I’m not sure how I should have responded. Technically, all parties involved are consenting adults, but there’s a clear power imbalance. I know she has also sometimes name-dropped the ERG in other conversations, and the last thing I want is for this to tie into the stigma of gay=pedophile, especially with general awareness still so low.
Is there something I should have said? Is there a policy I should push the ERG to make internally in case anything further comes of it? (For the most part, I’ve been met with shrugs and “well, they’re adults and I think gay guys do it all the time,” which hasn’t been helpful.) Do I just not choose this battle right now?
Call Me by No Name
Dear No Name,
Let’s tackle your questions one at a time. Is there something you should have said? Probably not, unless you personally want to dig deeper into your colleague’s love life. You know — ask clarifying questions, and then maybe make an “ew, gross” face when you find out just how young their partner is, just to really make it clear that you’re not a sympathetic ear for this person’s dating conquests. If you have strong feelings about a person’s decision to date someone young, then you certainly have the ability to share your concerns with your colleague, I suppose. Or, if you really want to go above and beyond, offer them unsolicited advice on how to be a respectful partner to a young ‘un. Assuming, of course, that this is a bridge you don’t care about burning at work. Honestly, I don’t necessarily recommend doing any of the above, but the point is that you could. Or you could do exactly what you did, and sort of glide right past the topic entirely. Ultimately, I side with your friends on this: these people ARE adults, and it’s not really any of your business. As it stands, your colleague made the choice to open up to you, and while you don’t need to approve or even condone their shitty life choices, you also don’t need to shit ON their life choices. Unless you feel like it, for your own sake, in which case… cool, I guess?
As you say, this girlfriend may be very, VERY, young, but they are, in fact, of legal consenting age. But it doesn’t sound like they are an employee at your company, which means that any power imbalances are social and not an HR issue. And look — I don’t disagree with your concerns, at least fundamentally. You have every right to be creeped out, and not just because this person clearly crossed some boundaries in bragging about their love life with you. There definitely can be power imbalances between mature and young, inexperienced partners — imbalances that can be exacerbated in same-sex relationships, depending on the circumstances. If someone has needed to suppress their sexuality due to pressures from family or their community, or lack of options, they may actually be joining the dating pool a bit behind the curve. Of course, that can be true of heterosexuals as well. I didn’t start dating or lose my virginity as early as some people I know, and I had friends who started even later then I did (especially if they didn’t even come out openly until they were in college). So while I do think it’s always important to be sensitive to young partners who are still finding themselves, and may not have a lot of experience, the fact is that it’s impossible for an outsider to know just how inexperienced someone is based solely on their age. Your colleague could be dating the world’s most self-possessed, experienced, and mature 19 year old woman. Or, hell, your colleague could be the world’s most immature 50 year old (or whatever), and their young girlfriend could be taking advantage of them! But since you are neither partner in this scenario, you just don’t know — and it’s none of your business as long as they are happy.
Far more interesting to me is your question about pushing your employee resource group to enact a policy regarding dating ages, because… what would that even be? I don’t think it’s the place of any company — let alone an internal employee organization within said company — to be enforcing moral guidelines on employees, because that’s a slippery slope. Dictating partner ages isn’t that far from dictating partner genders, and if we’re talking about perceived pedophilia — well, it’s not like heterosexuals don’t date young people, too. If you truly believe that people should be allowed to live their lives as they choose, to love and be loved freely, then this shouldn’t be a problem. I think that the positive to be gained from a happy, visible, and proud lesbian couple might outweigh any perceived negative that could come from people judging that couple for one partner being young. But more importantly, I don’t think your colleague, or ANYONE, needs to be a poster child for an entire community. Again, as long as we’re talking about two consenting adults deciding to date, then it’s really not anyone else’s business.
So, no — there’s no “policy” necessary, here. Nobody is doing anything wrong, necessarily. However, if the issue of power imbalances within relationships is one you feel seriously about, you could always do some research and make it a discussion topic for your ERG in a future meeting — in a way that doesn’t put your colleague in the spotlight. Provide educational resources to the group, or simply open it up for discussion so people can share their experiences if they want to (making it clear that dating someone young isn’t wrong, but that it can be challenging, and there are things to be aware of, etc etc). And make sure you’re encouraging the group to tackle other LGBTQ+ issues as well, so this isn’t a one-time thing! But beyond that, I don’t know how else you can possibly deal with this topic in a work setting. Your colleague made the choice to open up about their private life to you, but that doesn’t mean their private life is now fodder for the entire company to pick apart. And if you’re the one that drags your colleague’s private life into the workplace, then YOU’RE the asshole.
As for your last question: yeah, I think you should skip this battle. Because, frankly, there is no battle. Maybe your colleague does have a clear preference for dating younger women, but as long as they aren’t dating actual children then it’s really something they should probably talk to a therapist about. Or not, if they find their current relationship pattern to be fulfilling! Not everyone is looking for a forever partner, or an age-appropriate partner either. And just because you aren’t lecturing them, or getting the ERG involved, it doesn’t mean you lose your position on the moral high ground. Feel free to continue judging this person’s love life, since they took the time to bring it to your attention. And because — let’s face it — we’d ALL judge a middle-aged person dating someone barely old enough to drink. We’re only human. But until your colleague does something illegal, that’s as far as your involvement should go: silent, self-satisfied judgement.
Oh, how sweet it is!
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