Building on Arlie Hochschild‘s now famous conceptualization of “emotional labor” (which documents the gendered care work that is required but not requested in many occupations), a new literature in the sociology of work deals with what scholars are calling “aesthetic labor.” Aesthetic labor refers to the embodied performances subtly (and not so subtly) required at work.
So, just as Hochschild studied the ways that the job of flight attendants went beyond providing refreshments and safety information, scholars are now discussing the ways that certain aesthetic performances of self are required at work as well.
Increasingly, the questions “What does a [insert your occupation here] look like?” or “How does a [insert your occupation here] act?” matter as we consider how to behave, what to wear, and how to look in the workplace.
Much of this literature focuses on inequalities related to aesthetic labor in terms of race and gender, a small but interesting group of studies have begun to document sexual aesthetic labor as well. It’s not surprising to learn that workplaces that are deemed unfriendly to gay and lesbian employees might require aesthetic labor some might find at odds with their out-of-work selves. But the more interesting findings have to do with gay-friendly workplaces – prompting the question: Are gay-friendly workplaces actually gay-friendly?
The answer, it turns out, is a qualified “NO.”
Many gay and lesbian employees in occupations they describe as “gay-friendly” also describe an intricate system of workplace expectations associated with their sexuality. For instance, Christine Williams, Patti Giuffre, and Kirsten Dellinger found that gay employees at businesses devoted primarily to gay clientele “are expected to look, act, and work in specific [homosexual] ways, not always in a manner of their own choosing” (see also here and here).
It seems that many gay and lesbian employees at gay-friendly workplaces feel obligated to perform commodified stereotypes of homosexuality to meet workplace expectations. While recognition in the workplace is an important issue, this body of research illustrates the ways that the aesthetic labor required to be recognized may be at odds with the politics of recognition desired.
The question becomes less “Can gay and lesbian employees be comfortably ‘out’ at work?” and more “What kinds of new workplace demands are placed on them once they are ‘out’ at work?”