References

They were exciting times. I was about to move back to Europe to finally live with my girlfriend after five years in the field and almost two years of long distance. I also seemed to be very close to a job offer.

After three rounds of challenging interviews including a presentation on a topic nobody seemed to have researched before and an automated interview where I had the unpleasant task of talking to myself on a screen for about an hour, I received the hope-inducing email requesting contacts for my referees.

In the next couple of days I started hearing from my referees, making jokes about whether I was being interviewed for a CEO job as the reference process seemed to be as complex as the interviews. And then, one morning, I got an email that made my heart sink and flare up with rage all at the same time. Clearly, in the long list of questions they had sent to all of the referees, they had forgotten to include one: Who does Martina like to sleep with?

Had I – one of the referees asked – informed my prospective employers of my sexual “preference”? If so, how had they reacted? She seemed to be worried that, if she failed to mention this fact in the references, they would one day get back to her and, I don’t know, sue her.

Where to start? Within seconds of reading the email I had already contemplated yelling, throwing my laptop out of the window, crying, curling up in a ball, calling a lawyer and changing careers completely.

Let’s break it down. Here was someone I worked with closely for two years. Someone I had enormous respect for and who had a significant influence on my life and career path. Someone who actually reached out to me when I got together with my girlfriend to say that she was so very happy I had found love.

Someone who supervised and appreciated my work while I lived in Uganda, one of the most homophobic countries in the world, and since then had seen me be promoted and be successful at my job in other not so gay-friendly places like Iraq. Somehow however, this did not seem to matter. This person thought that my sexual orientation had such a significant impact on my ability to do a job (and a job based in a European capital at that!) that not mentioning it in the references could represent an act of negligence on her part.

The email also implied that my prospective employers would of course be completely in their right to use information about my sexuality to make a choice on whether to hire me or not. So, where to start?

After a few hours of ranting and mulling over, I set out to write my response. First things first, we don’t call it sexual “preference”, because it is not an ice cream flavour. No, I had not informed them about my sexuality because it did not in any way affect my capacity to do the job. I had lived in rabidly homophobic countries and, while I never enjoyed that, I did survive it and managed to remain competent and successful in my job throughout. Finally, I felt worth mentioning, it would be illegal for any employer in this particular European country not to hire someone because of their sexual orientation so this type of information was completely useless to them.

I received a very gracious email back, full of apologies for not using the correct terminology and for not knowing much about these things. She understood now and felt relieved. After all, a great educational moment. One of those moments where I felt that by just being gay and letting people know about it I had made a small change. I helped someone think about the issue for the first time and probably talk about it with her husband, maybe her friends. Who knows where those ripples of change will end?

But after all of that “silver lining”, this experience remained a punch in the stomach for me. Another reminder that none can be trusted, because even those who seem to be your allies can hurt you and put you in danger with a careless word or a misjudged attempt to be helpful or honest. Most importantly, and sadly, yet another day in which I was made deeply aware of the fact that my sexuality still was a big deal in this sector, still was something that people would use to judge me and to assess whether I am the right person for a task or a job. And that for many, the answer to that would still be “no”.