WINNIPEG is a progressive city on the issue of sexual orientation in a country progressive in its attitude to the subject, but yet... "Winnipeg is a little more closeted and homophobic" than some smaller Canadian cities he's worked in, Patrick O'Reilly, former chief operating officer for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, told business students at the University of Manitoba Tuesday.
O'Reilly said he was shocked to discover how many gay and lesbian people in Winnipeg are not out.
It's a good city for gays and lesbians to live, work and marry in, said human resources consultant Brad Tyler West, but there are far fewer same-gender displays of public affection than he's see in Toronto or Vancouver.
There's not one junior associate who's out in any Winnipeg law firm, and only one senior partner in a Winnipeg law firm who's out -- and that lawyer is her partner, said University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby.
Straight talk, so to speak, the kind that may not have been heard in a Canadian business school before.
Commerce student Matt Boisjoli led a group of students who organized the panel at the I.H. Asper School of Business on being out in business in Winnipeg. Participants who had scoured the Internet said it appears to be the first time a Canadian business school has held a public discussion of sexual orientation in the workplace.
"Things have changed in workplaces around the city. The world is a safer place than it was 20 years ago," Busby said. Safer, but not entirely safe; once you come out of the closet at work, you can't go back in the closet, she said.
West, who now works for Legacy Bowes Group, said he was the only openly gay employee at the Royal Bank of Canada in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and northwestern Ontario when he first worked there 11 years ago. When he left five years ago, there were 700 co-workers out, he said.
"I assume everyone is gay until proven otherwise. It's worked very well for me," West said to laughter from more than 100 students and faculty.
But "I still see reluctance," he said.
Busby said she came out in a national TV interview by referring to gays and lesbians as "we" rather than "they."
She credited former U of M law dean Harvey Secter for being supportive in the workplace when other deans were not. "Even though he was straight, I knew he was an ally," she said.
She said while sexual orientation is a personal issue, it is stressful to not be able to be yourself on the job, and it does not help job performance. Many gays and lesbians over 50 have never spoken about their spouses or what they did on the weekend in casual workplace conversation.
People in the closet can seem standoffish or loners, O'Reilly said. He once worked as a gay man in a job alongside RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service staff, "a real tough-guy environment."
He was hired because federal officials "wanted people who think differently than everyone else at the table," O'Reilly said.
Tricia Hill, respectful workplace adviser for Manitoba Public Insurance, cautioned the students that no employer will hire someone just for being a minority or to increase diversity.
"You have to bring something to the table as well," she said.
How to come out
STUDENTS attending Tuesday's panel at the I.H. Asper School of Business on being out in the workplace asked repeatedly how gays and lesbians should come out on the job, and how straight people should indicate it's a welcoming workplace.
Patrick O'Reilly, former chief operating officer of the Manitoba Museum for Human Rights, said the best way for straights to react is to say: "Thank you for sharing that with me."
The worst way for straights to react, said University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby, is to say: "Do you find me attractive?"
Legacy Bowes Group human resources consultant Brad Tyler West advised gays and lesbians to come out "in a way that resonates for you. Do it in a respectful way for you."
O'Reilly said that, as a gay man, he's had a lot of experience in listening to co-workers' language to gauge if it's a safe environment for him. How straights talk about gays and lesbians and sexual diversity in everyday speech sends clear signals, he said.
"Straight people around you are going through a process too, to get used to it," O'Reilly said. "It really comes down to bringing your life into your work."
Put a photo of a same-sex loved one on your desk, he said, and when colleagues ask who it is, proudly tell them.