My problem arises with the fact that I grew up in a very homophobic environment. I'm personally bi (so most people just take me as straight). Yet, I have homosexual friends with whom I'm very close, so I understand their struggle on a personal level (having gone through some forms of it myself, albeit never as intensely). It is commonplace to make rude comments about someone for being gay (such as implying a gay man is just a wannabe girl or that they're dirty or very sex-focused, which is not at all the case most of the time). Thing is, in my workplace, such conversations will start around me, and people seem to seek validation from me, probably because they've been used to having like-minded people around them.

In a couple occasions, I've actually tried telling these people why their prejudice is wrong. They wouldn't say these things in front of our gay coworker, so I don't understand why I have to endure that passively. Yet, it's often dismissed as "just a joke" or me not knowing any better. I won't go into much depth about their logic, as it seems like there is none. I find it insufferably grating to have to listen to their insulting remarks, yet find it almost as equally infuriating to try and educate them when otherwise poking fun at them is so much easier and everyone else gets a laugh at their expense. So I've come to the conclusion that it's not healthy for my mind to stress too much either educating them or ignoring them. Instead, I want to remove myself from the equation altogether, as effectively and quickly as possible, without causing much hassle. I know this might seem like Mission Impossible, but I no longer care about whether they have prejudiced views or paint stereotypes over every otherwise unique and distinct individual, because of their sexual preference. I've faced similar issues with xenophobic and racist people, but I'm focusing on homophobic people for this question, as it seems rather recurring.

I don't want to take this to HR, as I find it neither necessary nor practical, and I'm admittedly scared they might not take it seriously. I'd also rather not start up arguments in the workplace. They don't know I'm bi and I don't want to be seen as the "other queer". I'm not afraid to stand up for myself, but I'd rather not have that every time someone makes a joke of poor taste.

So I guess my question is: How can I quickly cease, or cut myself from, a conversation of homophobic nature, without driving it further or having to educate people?

While I'm asking about this on the workplace (so I can't just go about ranting/complaining), a more general approach could be welcome for outside-work situations. I am planning on changing jobs, but my current one (front-end web development) is very good compared to what I've had in the past, so I'm not too keen on the quitting approach just yet. For the time being, I'd rather not get answers that suggest I might have to educate them. I understand some of the extent of the problems of ignoring these issues - as explained earlier, but I don't think I'm psychologically able to stand these confrontations too often. If it's relevant, I'm a 24 years old bisexual woman who lives and works in the US.

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    Not a duplicate question, but this answer may be useful to you in your current situation. – scohe001 May 14 at 18:04
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    Are you asking "How do I get people to stop speaking in a homophobic manner so I can continue to be present and engage in conversation, as if nothing had happened"? Or are you asking "How do I walk away?" – Harper May 14 at 23:12
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    How do I walk away, or redirect the conversation to another topic. I can't just leave all the time because I'm supposed to work. They come here to chit-chat (even though they shouldn't) with nearby coworkers about these subjects and seem to like involving anyone around. I don't want to participate in these conversations, whether by quitting myself or by stopping the subject at hand – Slapped Penguin May 15 at 13:38
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    You should be aware that knowing of this (repeated/continued) activity and not reporting it to HR may leave you liable; if someone else complains to HR and the offenders say "Well [Slapped Penguin] never said anything!" you could find yourself facing some disciplinary training. You might not get punitively disciplined, but it may well go on your HR record or otherwise. It might not happen, and HR might not care since you didn't actively participate, but I can almost guarantee they'll be unhappy to find out that you knew and did nothing. – Doktor J May 15 at 18:06
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    @DoktorJ: There is a more than reasonable assumption that not speaking up is a matter of not "poking the bear" (or rocking the boat, whichever you prefer). HR cannot reasonably punish OP unless they have proof that he actively furthered (or contributed to) the homophobic conversation. Supporting something and not loudly protesting it are not each other's complement. Not loudly protesting something is not the same as agreeing. – Flater May 16 at 8:19

11 Answers 11

I realize this may not be the way you wish to go about it, but I did admire one way a fellow coworker handled these situations; with every type of prejudiced joke.

What he would do is pretend not to understand. "I don't get it. Why is this funny?"

Having to explain a joke is bad enough, but having to explain a (usually bad) perceived characteristic of any group (whether they personally believe it or not) makes most people extremely uncomfortable.

It pretty clearly conveys that they won't get any approval from you for those kinds of jokes, and you don't end up actually trying to "prove" anything or starting an argument.

The hardest part of this tactic is not letting on that you know of the stereotype (if you know it), so it's still not a strategy for everybody if you have trouble holding back anger when it comes to injustice or putting yourself as that person drawing attention to something.

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    I like this answer but be aware people just wants get approval from audience and can get angry just for not getting it from you. Anedoctal: for that kind of conversation I pretend to be a 5 years old and shots lots of "why?". Example: "Why cannot gay couples be good parents?" and brace yourself because you will got lots of "Why God that! Are you dumb?". Just keep the 5 years old routine until the "God said it to me" gives up. – jean May 18 at 13:58
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    “The hardest part of this tactic is not letting on that you k ow the stereotype” — if you do, you can still follow the same approach, just explaining the stereotype in a way that portrays as unfunny. “Sorry, I don’t get it. Is it because people say that gays have AIDS?” (with a disgusted face) – Alpha May 19 at 11:51
  • However, this might not always work if you are part of the prejudiced group in the joke. When I tried this tactic against homophobic or sexist jokes, people have answered along the lines of "well of course you wouldn't get it, you're gay/a girl/..." – usernumber Jul 23 at 12:15

What I find helpful when I have to deal with similar things in my workplace is to shake my head to indicate "no" and walk away.

It's a simple gesture of disapproval and then an exit.

Even when I'm stuck working in the same room with people who are pretty awful, I can usually get away with leaving to go to the restroom or out for a quick smoke break, and by the time I return the conversation has usually shifted.

It seems to give people a strong indicator that what's going on isn't ok with me and it seems to reduce recurrences. Admittedly it doesn't eliminate recurrence, but most people seem to get the idea.


These situations are pretty awful. If, or when, you decide to change jobs it's probably worthwhile to mention the situation to management. There's no guarantee that they'll decide to take any action, but if you have the opportunity to make the place a little less awful on your way out, please do.

As a first step, I would highly recommend that when someone seeks validation or otherwise pressures you to respond, you should if you do not want to continually find yourself in that situation.

But, as far as interpersonal communication goes, you are correct in that it's not the best idea to escalate and argument or lecture people, especially in the workplace.

However, when someone says something like:

[Homophobic comment/joke], am I right?

Just say:

No, you're not.

With a stern expression, perhaps a headshake to let them know you really don't approve. If you do nothing, they could take it as passive agreement.

Then, you might want to leave. If anything to make it less awkward, but ultimately to avoid any escalation if one of your coworkers can't handle not being validated and get defensive (those people exist).

If you allow them to think you're passively agreeing, it will continue around you. In fact, the mere absence of negative responses could encourage this behavior. At least this way they won't be horrible around you. Maybe they will even be horrible less often, who knows.

A simple, non-escalating, non-critical response is likely the most effect "mild" way to handle these situations, if your primary goal is avoiding conflict.

  • I like this. People will keep doing this validation to get others to agree with them. The fact that they are still doing it means they need a reality check. A simple one would be like this. It does not have to be a drama. Just a stern reply like "I don't like it. Please do not talk/discuss this topic with me" and turn away or put on your headphones etc. You may have to do this a few times before they actually learn as once or twice may just not cut it. But when you stick to your response, sooner or later, they will avoid talking to you just because you are in disagreement with them. – KNP May 15 at 20:05

I would raise my eyebrows while gaping at them for a second, then go silently to another task.

That should make your position clear without having to say anything, and make them feel embarrassed of their weird sense of humour.

In my opinion, doing nothing (like going to the bathroom every time) will make you feel even worse.

  • Or, better yet, just place a passive aggressive note on their cubicle when they are not there. – Max Vernon May 15 at 18:56

If someone makes an objectionable statement like:

a gay man is just a wannabe girl

You could say

That's certainly an interesting perspective. I'll go think about that.

And then just walk away. Now you have escaped the conversation without driving it further or educating anyone.

As a bonus, you have called a small amount of attention to the offending speech itself and perhaps they will consider what they've said.

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    This sounds a lot like agreeing with the objectionable statement. – Erik May 15 at 13:57
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    @Erik, in my experience, "interesting" is neither positive nor negative. In fact, there is an apocryphal story of a Chinese curse https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_you_live_in_interesting_times that implies "interesting" is not good at all. I felt that its ambiguity was a benefit since OP wished to neither further the discussion nor engage the offender. – Forklift May 15 at 14:32
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    @Forklift except "I'll go think about that" implicitly lends credence to their statement, as if it were actually worth spending time to think about instead of immediately dismissing it as a crude and inappropriate comment. – Doktor J May 15 at 17:46
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    One could just as easily conclude that it means I'll go think about what a bigot they are. The point is that it is vague and non-confrontational and opens a door to an exit, which is what OP requested. – Forklift May 15 at 17:48
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    @Forklift The question is what the co-worker concludes when they are seeking validation for their excellent and totally funny joke/statement. Do they weigh both possibilities or are they more likely to hear what they want to hear‽ – BlackJack May 17 at 10:48

The other answers are generally good if you want to inspire conflict. Giving stern looks, lectures, setting traps, or trying to put people on the spot are great ways to whip everyone involved into self-righteous fervor.

Given the question, though, it sounds like you're interested in avoiding conflict. And the easiest way to do that is to just do that - avoid it.

When someone makes a joke you don't like, just give a very neutral "mmm" with a head bob, and then a second or so later, smile and make some excuse to exit the conversation, say farewell, and leave. Be polite, don't agree with them, and they'll understand you don't appreciate that humor. This makes it abundantly clear that you weren't even pretending to play along, but you're also not going to try to proselytize.

This strategy applies to literally everything anyone could say in a casual conversation that you don't like. Their politics? Their taste in sandwiches? Their baseball team? Their vacation plans? Even to people who drone on incessantly and are just boring. If there's something that you don't want to hear - just nod, say "mmm", and then leave.

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    a "head bob" is not a good idea, certainly not in the US at least, as it could be perceived as a nod which would imply agreement with or at least consideration of their statement. I would instead suggest shaking one's head ("no", or disapproval), omit the smile (can also be perceived as a non-verbal indication of agreement), and walk away. For things that are less offensive that you just disagree with (sports teams, sandwiches, etc) that's fine, but for something that is explicitly offensive you need to ensure you're not expressing anything that could be perceived of as approval. – Doktor J May 15 at 17:49
  • The nod and smile are specifically there to prevent the other person from getting the impression that you're stomping away in a huff. As i noted, anything less will start to create a scene, but OP has explicitly stated they're not interested in that. (...also if you think people don't get offended over sports teams, you must not know many sports fans :P ) – Knetic May 15 at 18:28

First, this is a form of harassment. Comments and conversations that are forced upon you by other coworkers which make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in your workplace should not be tolerated and by law in the US must not be tolerated by HR and management. From the eeoc.gov website:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee. The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

And from usa.gov:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. These laws protect employees and job applicants against:

  • Discrimination, harassment, and unfair treatment by managers, co-workers, or others in the workplace because of race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation), pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information

Emphasis mine

I would absolutely encourage you to talk to your HR department or your manager about the situation. You don't have to state your own sexual orientation when reporting the inappropriate conversations of others.

HR/Management should be able to address the problem generally without singling out individuals or referring to you specifically as the complainant. Frankly, if you are uncomfortable with these conversations my guess is that there others around you who are as well. I'm a straight white male, and I would complain if it was ongoing since I don't appreciate working in an environment that is toxic toward people who are different from me.

If you decide not talk to your manager or HR and would simply like to avoid becoming embroiled in these conversations when they happen in your vicinity while working, can I suggest a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones? I have worked in environments that were just plain noisy due to open office floor plans and it was generally accepted that you didn't interrupt someone with headphones on unless it was very important. This way if they shoulder tap you to join the conversation you can merely shrug, point and your headphones and tell them you are focusing on work.

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    Hello and welcome to Interpersonal skills, would you mind providing a source for the legal aspect of this answer? – King Graham May 15 at 14:49
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    While this technically might qualify as hostile work environment harassment, the question seems to suggest it's fairly minor, which makes legal options difficult and even possibly counter-productive depending on what the OP wants to achieve. – Clay07g May 15 at 16:34
  • @KingGraham dol.gov/oasam/programs/crc/2011-workplace-harassment.htm -- second and possibly sixth bullet points under "hostile work environment". It sounds like the comments meet points 1 and 2 of whether it violates the law, and while the other factors are lesser, it sounds like 1 (the frequency) and 5 (the effect on the employee's psychological well-being) are definitely an issue. Most HR departments would rather nip such behavior in the bud before it clearly crosses the line into illegality; for this, OP will need to look at their employer's policy for clarification. – Doktor J May 15 at 17:54
  • The link above specifically refers to the DOL's internal harassment policy; for more general legal coverage, see eeoc.gov/eeoc : "The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits." (emphasis mine); note that the EEOC overview explicitly lists sexual orientation as a protected class -- thus homophobic jokes/comments/etc meet the definition of harassment. – Doktor J May 15 at 17:57
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    It also seems that nobody is aware of the poster's sexuality, and these remarks are not made to her known gay coworker. (If someone thinks it doesn't matter what the colleagues know, people who are wrongly believed to be gay are exactly as protected as people who actually are gay. So while the poster quite rightfully dislikes what she hears, I don't think it is harassment. – gnasher729 May 15 at 21:58

Are these people relevant to your daily life? Friends, coworkers that you need have a relationship on a daily basis? If not, a simple "Later, i have something or X to do" might do the trick. Going to the bathroom seems like a good excuse too. If you cant leave the place, trying an isolated conversation with someone else will also work.

As they don't see it as an important matter they will not inquiry on why you are leaving.

  • If they “don’t see it as an important matter,” they will keep on doing it. – WGroleau May 15 at 11:59

Well, people are offensive - and it is well within their right to be offensive. But you don't have to hang around. If and when they are being so, your reaction is totally up to you. If, as you say, you just want to exit the conversation then what is usually best is

"Nice chatting with you, I gotta go"

For your own sake, it was nice that some person that makes homophobic jokes outed himself so you can write him off the whitelist of people whose opinions you actively seek out. Whether it is enough to put him on the blacklist of people you generally avoid is your call to make.

That is the single most effective way to end the conversation as soon as possible. A lightly "bored" body language will help.

Any attempt of derision, scorn, education, argument... will (by design) cause friction. I mean, anyone whose opinions are challenged will respond. And the passive-aggressive "just walking away from the conversation" IS a challenge. Challenging their opinion will likely lead to a not at all short conversation either now or in the future and never be as effective as just (silently) ignoring it. Most people also have a white and a black list mentally of people they seek out, or avoid. Adjust your preferences, and move on.

For me, it depends on whether it is a joke or serious. For a joke, see someone else’s “why is that funny?” answer. If it’s a serious remark, I might say something like,

“Whatever you may think about the wisdom of their behavior, they are still human beings and entitled to respect as such.” Depending on details, I might even add, “Furthermore, saying things like that is a great risk of someone less charitable than me getting you in hot water with HR.”

  • from the context I'm thinking this has gone on every day for a long time, and at this point there is not much confusion about the nature of such discussions – user1306322 May 15 at 12:01
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    In which case, I would still have that response, but add something like, “I regret that I have been too tolerant of this in the past.” – WGroleau May 15 at 12:06
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    While I appreciate the answer, my question requested specifically an approach without confrontation or conflict. – Slapped Penguin May 15 at 13:42
  • Understood. To me, that's less confrontation than it deserves. :-) – WGroleau May 15 at 14:19

I wanted to add that I have not always been perfect, and one of the things that did help me during my transition from moron to me was to internalize the "why is it funny, precisely" notion. I would argue that this tidbit is more effectively placed into conversation at a later time. That way you give the person the chance to not feel shamed or to perceive you as an adversary. Just drop into conversation, something about how you ask yourself why something is funny, exactly, and how that's made you more diplomatic or able to sell more plastic crap to more people. That way you're not saying it's wrong to say something, you're just saying "by not saying offensive crap all the time, I benefit both socially, and economically". This could also circumvent the backfire effect, because people change their mind because they want to, not because someone said they should.

One last thing. I grew up in a part of the US that is theatrically racist. I'm a white male. When I am in groups of other white males, more often than you would think people say some truly hair-curlingly offensive things assuming everyone else is in agreement. This is free information that you can't even pay money for, and I never agree, but I also don't usually do anything that would reveal my status as the enemy to everything they believe. I may never use it against them, I may never see them again, but I know the score, and I know what these boys are really thinking. When people in mixed company talk about how they're not racist, or sexist, or some people are just looking to be outraged I'm silently thinking about what I hear those guys say when no ones looking.

It's like in The Godfather when Vito tells Sonny never to let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking again. Don't let the homophobes ever have anything on you, but let them tell you everything awful inside them. They'll think, based on nothing really, that you're an ally, right up until the point where they realize they've made one false move too many and they're ruined.

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