Dear Prudence

Help! My Co-Worker Keeps Insinuating That I’m a Creep.

I’m worried about this catching on.

Man in a jean jacket brushing his hair with a hand pointing at him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ladanifer/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Q. Not a Pedophile—And Tired of Trying to Prove It: I have a new job (I am about 6 months in) that I quite enjoy. It’s a new career and industry for me and I feel like it’s one I would like to pursue for the remainder of my professional life. I’m a single, gay man (he/him) in my mid-30s and came out at my workplace after a month or two there. There were no problems, although it is clear many of my co-workers haven’t had much contact with gay men. I am in a part of the South where politics are mixed and some of my new co-workers are very much wrapped up in the more conspiratorial fringes of the right wing. For the most part, everyone voices their opinions only to other fellow-minded people.

But there is one woman—one who I would almost call a friend in some respects—who seems to think that I could possibly be a pedophile and has brought it up in very indirect, but pointed, ways more than a few times.

She is never directly accusatory; the tone of her voice is often that she is “just checking” or “just making sure” that I am, I don’t know, not interested in anyone who isn’t age-appropriate. If I say something like “Obviously he is around my age,” she’ll then do a kind of Southern “OK…” which indicates a lack of conviction in someone’s denial. Or she’ll nod her head like “OK, this is good, he’s consistent about NOT being a pedophile.”

Worse: I have an opportunity to do a program for younger kids. It would look very good on my resume and I theoretically think I would be good at this kind of program. I would enjoy being around kids and teaching them about something I really enjoy. But she is definitely weird about it at times! Other times, she is not at all and is very encouraging. It seems some days I trip her warning signs and other days I do not. I am tired of it.

If I imagine taking this to HR or to my boss, I would feel like I had nothing concrete to fall back on. Her questions or comments barely merit the term “insinuation,” and I have not been keeping records of them, in any case. But at the same time…I know exactly what she is “checking on” and the fact it always seems to be an open question for her is starting to wear on me. I don’t really know how to address this or if I should. Weirdly, other than this, we have a fairly good and even humorous working relationship and I am loath to disturb that. Our shared sense of humor is one of the few things keeping a mixed political team working well together. But I’m tired of having this question kind of, sort of, but also constantly raised, around me, and she has a few other far-right, conspiracy-minded co-workers who, if this catches on, could make my life very difficult.

A: I truly hate it when I catch myself sounding like the unhelpful parent of a middle school student, urging them to “just ignore” the bully who’s making their life miserable. But I’m tempted to tell you to please just ignore this woman and her strange, gross, deeply offensive comments. Seriously, create some distance. Limit the information you give her. She doesn’t need or deserve to hear anything about your personal life. Don’t react to her remarks. I’m sorry there’s such a decent person drought at your workplace but she is not your friend. She is fixated on your potentially being a pedophile! “Politics are mixed” does not mean “I have to endure people treating me like shit.” Pop your headphones on, do your work, and find actual friends who see your humanity.

But fine: You say you enjoy your relationship with her, and I have to take your word for it. So at the very least, call her out on what she’s doing, a bit indirectly—in a way that makes her a little uncomfortable but won’t cause her to cry and say you accused her of being a bad person and didn’t respect her views: “Oh my God, Susan, the way you asked that question was almost like you thought I was a pedophile! I was so confused for a minute. But you were just making fun of some of these wacko conspiracy theorists we work with and their gross and ignorant ideas about gay people, right? You were being funny, as usual. Right?? [Hard stare].”

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