AS I PLACED THE Tupperware container in the microwave, I could already hear my co- workers in the next room chatting and snickering away. I start pressing away at buttons and let out a labored sigh. I had already made sure to start my lunch late, trying to time it perfectly so that they were wrapping up as soon as I was just starting mine. I could quickly and pleasantly put in my brief face-time without feeling obligated to take part in whatever mindless gossip they were discussing that day. Judging from the sound of their excited chatter, though, it didn’t sound like they would not be wrapping up any time soon. My eyelids closed, concealing the gigantic eye roll taking place underneath. On the one hand, I’m starving and anxious to eat my food. On the other, I know that the second that microwave beeps they’ll be expecting me.
I carry my Tupperware container into our combination file/conference/break room just as the group is caught in one of their fits of laughter. One co-worker, an inane recent divorcee we’ll call “Denise,” is the first to spot me. “Hi, R.J.!” she calls out just a little too enthusiastically, strained smile beaming across her face. This prompts muffled greetings from the rest of the group in between bites of Lean Cuisine and cafeteria meatloaf. My eyebrows perk up as I force a placid smile on my face. “Hey guys,” I say softly, as I find an open seat at the massive wooden table. The group’s ringleader, a large and boisterous small-town woman we’ll call “Mary,” asks me, with a playfully aggressive tone, “So whatcha got today?” I sheepishly reply, “Spaghetti squash with chicken and paleo pesto.” The group rolls their eyes and chuckles, shooting glances to each other that say “Who does this guy think he is?”
Another colleague, a rotund but demure Southerner named “Vicki,” slides a sheet of paper over to me. It’s just then that I notice that the entire group has been passing around sheets of paper. Sometimes, when members of the group find humorous jokes and anecdotes online, they’ll print them out for all of the others to read. These are, no doubt, what the group has been laughing about. I pick it up, thankful for the opportunity to sit in silence and not make conversation.
I pour through various bland, watered- down anecdotes and jokes, half of which I’ve already seen in various chain emails throughout the early 2000s. “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present!” The paper mistakenly attributes the quote to Ronald Reagan, and I chuckle quietly to myself for all the wrong reasons. “If you’re not liberal by the time you’re 18, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not conservative by the time you’re 30, you don’t have a brain.” I know that the quote isn’t by Winston Churchill, which is what the paper says, but I decide not to say anything.
I take a look at the next paper, which contains those little pseudo-philosophical observations that still puzzle us as adults. “Why does the sun make your skin darker and your hair lighter?” “Why is it that, in order to get a loan, you have to first prove that you don’t need one?” “If we supposedly evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”
“I know the answer to this one,” I announce before I can stop myself.
Everyone stops and looks over at me. “Which one?” asks Mary. I know I shouldn’t answer, but I’ve already opened my mouth. I search the rest of the page, looking for another question that I can make work. “How does Jell-O go from solid to liquid to solid again?” I remember Googling the answer one day, but can’t remember it well enough to explain it now. “If time heals all wounds, why does it eventually kill us all?” People spend their whole lives answering that. Finally I break down. “This one, the monkey one.” I point to it on the paper and slide it over in Mary’s direction. It takes her a second, but I know the instant that she realizes which one I’m talking about. “Well yeah, because we didn’t,” she laughs, as if she just solved 2 + 2. I look around at the rest of the group, all sending looks my way that say “Yeah, of course” and “Didn’t you know that?” I take a deep breath.
Do I really want to start this conversation? I can’t see it ending particularly well. They already expect an answer from me. Besides, maybe if I can articulate my position a certain way, it’ll help change their perspective a little bit. It’s a longshot, but I’m already committed.
“Well, you’re right in that we didn’t evolve from the same monkeys that exist today. We came from a common ancestor. So it’s not like we came from chimpanzees or anything. We’re just related to them because we share a common origin.”
“So why did we start evolving to be different?” challenges Mary, almost before I can finish. I can tell that she expects me to concede after this one counter-argument. I know that I made a mistake already, but now I’m to the point where I’m continuing the argument to save face. “Why do any two species evolve differently? Most of the time, it’s because two large groups get separated and then adapt over time to their new separate environments.” My answer prompts a quiet hiccup of laughter from Vicki. Mary jumps in again: “So then where’s the missing link?”
“What do you mean?” I ask back. Mary looks emboldened, convinced that she’s cornered me. “The missing link. Where’s the missing link that connects us to monkeys?” I can’t help but fire back a look that says: “Are you serious?” “They’ve found evidence of like four or five already. Have you heard of Lucy?
The one that they found some years ago.” The room is silent. There’s a mixture of expressions staring back at me. A couple seem amused by my response. Others look convinced that I’m trying to stir up trouble. “Haven’t you guys seen any of the diagrams where they compare the different skull shapes?” Silence. I know I’m fighting a losing battle now. No one in the room seems to be at all receptive to anything that I have to say.
There’s a long and excruciating pause. I retreat to my leftovers, powerless against the wall of willful ignorance in front of me. I hear shuffling as Vicki gathers the papers that are scattered about the table. Meanwhile, everyone else is gathering up their things and leaving. The conversation isn’t finished, though, until Mary adds a coy “Oh well, agree to disagree” before leaving the room. I get out my phone and hop on Twitter, trying to dull the frustration that’s currently boiling in my brain.
When you look at Florida’s state government from the outside, it’s a pretty grotesque sight. I come from a state with a governor who was elected after running the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the state’s history. His campaign, which preached fiscal responsibility, was largely financed by funds from a healthcare company that forced him to resign after it was being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services. The governor’s biggest accomplishments thus far include rejecting federal funding for high speed rail and forcing welfare applicants to submit drug tests (a program that proved both illegal and ended up costing the state money). The state’s Attorney General is a former Fox News analyst whose most noteworthy accomplishment is unsuccessfully suing the federal government and repealing the “Obamacare” law. They also oppose same-sex marriage, for what it’s worth.
Imagine my apprehension, then, when I first found out that I would be working for the Florida’s Office of the Attorney General. As a gay Latino who came from immigrant parents and a pretty modest background, it seemed like one of the worst places on Earth for me to work. Believe me, I wouldn’t have taken that job if there were any better options available. Unfortunately, when you graduate college in the worst economy since the Great Depression, you’re not exactly swimming in job offers…especially when you double major in Media Production and Creative Writing. Still when confronted with the choice between working for Republicans and being a barista at Starbucks, I definitely had to give it some thought. At least the gig at Starbucks could’ve landed me with some kind of health care or benefits.
But suffice it to say, spending two years making lattes after graduating Magna Cum Laude does not look good on a resume. As much as it would pain me to serve the very politicians who seemed hell bent on screwing me over as often as possible, at least I wouldn’t have future employers turning up their nose at my prior work experience.
I’d love to say that my two years inside gave me an intimate knowledge of the sinister inner workings of the state’s Attorney General or the Governor’s master plans. I wish I could say that I now know what sort of sinister and incompetent schemes they’re about to set in motion. The truth is actually far less swashbuckling and far more depressing than I originally thought, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less troubling.
See, the Attorney General doesn’t even work in the building that’s dubbed the “Attorney General’s Office.” Her office is safely removed, two blocks away at the State Capitol building, where she and only a very select group of staffers get to do their work tucked away from everyone else. To say that the staff is removed would be a bit of an understatement, since we peons weren’t even allowed to send them emails without approval from two bosses up. One could easily spend years working for the Attorney General’s office without ever actually meeting the general face to face, or even physically laying eyes on them.
During my two years there, I interacted with the Attorney General about six times, only four of which were in person and two of which were in the actual office. Just about every time I did see her, she was always flanked by at least two members of her staff. While I know that bringing an entourage is common among politicians, hers seemed to be poised at all times to step in, just in case she started saying something a little too dense or airheaded.
The Attorney General’s removal from her staff didn’t stop a few pieces of information from trickling over. I know that she brings her St. Bernard, Luke, with her to work just about every day — to a building that doesn’t allow any animals except service animals. Word has it that she was also using her interns to walk and clean up after Luke until she was finally told to hire her own handler. I’ve also heard independently from multiple co-workers that the woman is a bit of a pill popper, despite being a champion to end prescription drug abuse.
These are idle bits of gossip, though, and they are certainly not what I found to be the most troubling during my time as a state employee. However sinister or blatantly incompetent people like them may seem, they all come and go. Meanwhile, all of the low and mid-level drones stay behind, often for decades upon decades at a time. The thing with conservative governments is that they care more that it’s being run cheaply than they do about it being run well. State government doesn’t aggressively recruit the best and brightest — they don’t have the money. Any young and talented person I encountered at the Attorney General’s office was in my situation. They were facing bleak career prospects, simply biding their time until they could move on to something better. This reality was made worse by the fact that the state abuses a classification called OPS (or Other Personal Services). On paper, OPS employees are supposed to be like independent contractors, and are only supposed to be used for jobs that are temporary and related to a specific task that needs to be completed. That’s how the state can justify not giving them any sort of benefits whatsoever and keeping them as completely at-will employees who can be fired without reason at any time. As an OPS employee, I worked the same full time hours as my non-OPS counterparts and was expected to put in the same effort without enjoying any of their benefits like health care, sick leave, or any sort of paid time off. The guy who had my job before me was there for four years before he left, and my same position still exists even after I left two years later.
Of course, no one cares about the blatant misuse of OPS employees except OPS employees. Any complaints typically fall on deaf ears. A vast majority of other employees are too indifferent or complacent to care. “No one forced you to take this job,” they’ll typically reply. “If things are really so bad here, then just go and find a job somewhere else.” These responses are, of course, coming from employees who have occupied their same seat for years at a time. If you’re not the few elite employees at the very top, the only way for you to obtain a stable pay rate with benefits and such is to stay put for as long as you can. Look around state employees’ offices, and you’ll notice that merit awards are in extremely short supply. Instead you’ll see various plaques and nick-nacks that read “5 Years” or “10 Years” or “20 Years” or “25 Years.” The system rewards loyalty and mediocrity rather than achievement, creating a culture that embraces one mindset: “Sit down, shut up, do what you’re told, and don’t make any trouble.” Plop someone like me — someone who is gay, Hispanic, liberal, opinionated, and outspoken — in that system, and it becomes very clear that being different can be dangerous. Having lived it for two years, I can say that it’s been one of the most frustrating, draining, and alienating experiences of my life.
First off, Florida is one of the 34 states where it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. While the Attorney General’s Office does have a policy that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, there’s no real law that would protect you should they choose not to obey that policy. Not to mention the fact that the policy doesn’t really matter when you can already be fired at any time for no reason whatsoever. That is not to say that I was at all closeted during my time as a state employee. As a matter of fact, most of my co-workers knew my boyfriend personally and were perfectly cordial when it came to our relationship.
That said, I would certainly get some sideways glances any time someone saw me reading The Advocate’s webpage, which was one of the very few LGBT news sites that wasn’t blocked by our system. At one point, I even had to explain that The Advocate was a news publication and not the kind of “inappropriate website” that some of my co- workers were whispering behind my back. A vast majority of my supervisors and colleagues didn’t care at all about my gay relationship.
That said, when our local news wanted to interview me and my boyfriend on the day of the DOMA and Prop 8 rulings, I was told explicitly to keep my status as a state employee completely under wraps.
I’m not saying that I was singled out by my colleagues for being gay, or for being Latino or Liberal or anything like that. All of these characteristics were simply reasons why I was “different,” and when you’re a state employee who has been used to business as usual for the past one or more decades, people who are “different” can also come across as threatening. This is how we arrive at scenes like the one that I previously described.
Sure, it’s easy to find such differences in opinion amusing, but when your opinions and education only serve to single you out even more, you can see just how potentially precarious they can be. This is especially true when certain co-workers are already sowing seeds of discord behind your back. Over and over, I found myself called into my supervisor’s office so that she could tell me to “tone down” my demeanor — because it was somehow proving problematic for my co- workers. However, insulting talks like that may prove to be, they can be especially stressful when you’re the one wearing the red shirt on the Starship Enterprise. They’re even worse when you’re underpaid salary and lack of healthcare and benefits leaves you with virtually no financial safety net should your superiors finally decide that you’re too much trouble and decide to get rid of you.
Every morning, when I traversed the bleak, taupe hallways, climbed the bleached- white stairwell, and navigated the cluster of drab, gray cubicles to finally arrive at my own desk, I could always feel my pulse quickening.
Government buildings, or at least the one I worked in, typically aren’t the teeming beehives you see portrayed on movies and TV. Mine was quite the opposite. It was a filing cabinet packed to the brim with low and mid-level slaves just counting down the hours until they could finally be set free. I used a polite veneer to gloss over my feelings of frustration and anxiety. Those emotions will continue to plague you until you finally allow them to “break” you, and convince you that it’s easier and clearly better to resign yourself to the imperfect system rather than do anything to change it.
Dealing with that kind of oppression day in and day out gets to you. I would find myself returning home from work and already snapping at my boyfriend within the first few minutes of my arrival. For several months, I found myself in a depressive state and in a creative roadblock, unable to do any of the writing at home that had previously brought me so much joy and catharsis. My health started to deteriorate, worsening my anxiety — since every sick day I took would already eat away at my financial well-being. Every meeting or “coaching session” with my supervisor put my heartbeat in my throat and would sometimes even cause fits of nausea and vomiting. God forbid my fits of nausea would keep me away from my desk for too long, though, lest my co-workers start to ask questions about my extended bathroom breaks.
Over and over, my boyfriend and my other friends would ask me why I took everything at work so personally. I couldn’t help it, though, since I’m the kind of person who throws himself into everything that he does.
I wasn’t the only gay person working for the Attorney General’s office — not by a long shot. However, there were plenty of gay people there who weren’t nearly as open about their relationships or personal lives as I was. I knew of at least two fellow gays who didn’t feel comfortable revealing their orientations to their bosses. The AG’s office does have a policy in place that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it can only do so much. These co-workers of mine still felt like it was easier to stay closeted than risk being singled out as “different,” especially those who could already be fired at any time, with or without reason.
My situation, unfortunately, was not particularly uncommon. Time after time, I watched plenty of young and talented people, many far more intelligent and talented than I, jump ship. Almost none of them were even gay; they had just managed to be singled out by their co-workers for other reasons. Many had bosses who mistook their competence for arrogance or saw their new ideas as a threat to the status quo. This environment is designed to make you expendable, so the people who are able to find better opportunities elsewhere leave as soon as they get the chance. Some, like myself, are even willing to take a substantial decrease in income just to get out. All that remains are the people who aren’t qualified to find better work elsewhere and have to face the reality of either conforming or continuing to put them at risk.
The thing is, I don’t really fault a lot of my former co-workers for perpetuating a mindset that’s hostile to change. After all, they’ve been indoctrinated into this mindset throughout the entirety of their careers. It’s a kind of pack mentality that can overwhelm any person’s most benevolent tendencies. They are right, after all — it is easier to go with the flow. It is easier to go along with a flawed system than it is to try and fix it. A vast majority of them meant no ill will be anything that they said and did. A vast majority of them are truly good people.
It’s extremely easy to examine the hijinks of people like Governor or the state’s Attorney General or other politicians and condemn their actions and the actions of those working beneath them. But know that, in reality, there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people working underneath them and that they may simply be steering ships that have already been sinking for years. Fixing a system like the one in Florida requires more than simply electing the right leaders, which is already a tall order for your average American voter. Many times, there’s no way to tell that a ship is sinking until you’ve ridden on it and seen the water level creep up, and even then, the water may be creeping up too slowly for you to notice. It’s even worse when you’re on a ship that’s sinking, but warning other passengers can very well get you thrown overboard.
I knew that, when I first took that job, that I would become part of a broken system for a brief period of time. I had absolutely no how endemically flawed that system would be. Worse yet, most of the people who know that fact have already abandoned ship.