Coming out at work, it’s terrible isn’t it? On your first day on the job you do up your tie, check that you haven’t left Grindr open and leave your gayness at the door. Before long, the “partner chat” starts to begin. Most of your colleagues love for some inexplicable reason to talk about their kids, or the place that they’ll move into when they’ve had their kids, or the person they’d like to have their kids with. And all the while, you stay quiet, not really knowing how to broach the subject. Blithely dropping “my boyfriend” into conversation all seems a bit casual, and what do you do with the gaping hole in the conversation that follows? Will coming out adversely affect your career prospects, particularly in a conservative workplace?
With all the uncertainty around coming out, it’s no surprise that many of us choose not to bother. According to a 2014 study conducted by the advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, 53% of LGBT employees in the U.S. are closeted at work. There are also only a few openly gay company executives in the UK and the US. Tim Cook is the only openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and not all of us work for companies as trendy and progressive and cool as Apple.
But why is coming out at work seen as such a big deal, and how can you tell your colleagues you’re gay without making a massive deal out of it? It’s easy to imagine your sexuality being turned into the butt of jokes at work, but how do you approach that? How do you let people know that you’re openly gay, but that it’s just another facet of your professional identity? If you have leadership aspirations, how do you square those with being openly gay?
All of these concerns are understandable, and the mood music around diversity issues is definitely a little tricky right now. We’ve just had the Google Diversity Memo, which openly discussed the idea that “biological suitability” may make different people more suited for different roles. You might be the first LGBT person to come out in your workplace.
The first thing that you can take heart from is that the workplace is likely to be more friendly to gender and sexual freedom than society at large. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 91% of the Fortune 500 provide protection in their own policies on the basis of sexual orientation, and 61% protect employees based on gender identity. While this may feel like cold comfort if you know that you are the first person to come out in your company (or even in some cases your industry!), but you can at least know that you’re unlikely to be coming out without at least some sort of safety net.
If you are the first to come out in your company – great! You’ll now be able to bring your full identity to work with you, and leave the uncertainty of having to manage what you say behind you. When I came out in my first role, I was the first person in the company to do so, but I was able to take a role in educating the workforce on LGBT issues, and it ended up being a really positive thing for my career.
Far from being a negative experience for me, it’s actually helped me stand out. I’ve learned about networking groups such as LGBT Interbank and London LGBT Professionals, and have found myself part of a much wider network than I previously thought possible. I used to see being LGBT and involved in leadership as a contradiction, but now I see them as one and the same thing.
One of the really negative trends in recent years has been the tendency to reduce everyone to labels. “Oh that person is trans, that person is bi, that person is genderqueer,” without really getting to know that person. My networking with LGBT professionals (and with straight allies) have helped me and them remember that we are all people at the end of the day, and that we have lives beyond the labels we give each other. Learning from the experiences of others has really helped me develop as an LGBT leader.
For that reason too, there’s a lot to be said for just standing up and being counted. By being a visible LGBT presence in and around the office, you’ll be making it easier for other people to come out, and helping your colleagues better understand LGBT issues. It may feel daunting to be the first one, but all change begins with one person, and you’ll be doing your part to create a more productive and positive work environment for everyone.
But what can you do to make the process of coming out easier? Here are some top tips:
Know Your Context
It sounds obvious, but yes, you do need to understand what your work environment is before you take a decision to come out. Although the situation is rapidly changing, some work environments and some industries are going to be less friendly than others. You may well get a different response to coming out in the construction industry to working in media.
Coming out in management consulting may be a different experience to coming out in sales or banking. If you work in one of these industries or one of these companies, you likely already know about it, but it’s worth checking yourself first. In the long run, if a particular company is homophobic, you may decide against working with them in the long run.
‘What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.’
George Bernard Shaw
Tip one should be to absolutely do your research about the kind of environment you are likely to be coming out into. Will you be the first person to come out? Are there any protections for LGBT people, either through the employee handbook or at the state level? Success in all walks of life is about knowing the terrain you are likely to be fighting on.
Find Allies You Can Rely On
Second, you absolutely want to find other people you can go into battle with. Be on the look out for other LGBT employees, and colleagues that seem to be gay-friendly, as well as friends and mentors in and around the workplace. Many of them will have been through the exact same thing that you have, and will be in a position to teach you about their experiences and help you. They’ll also be a great help if you run up against any challenges as an LGBT individual in the workplace.
I’ve worked with dozens of really fab mentors over the years who have helped me with everything from coming out to joining up with networking events, to making the right decisions in relation to my career. Sometimes these things have explicitly involved my sexuality, other times it’s just been nice to have another voice who knows what you’re going through.
Having people around who understand what you are going through, particularly those who don’t expect you to do things like do unpaid “internships” in return for their advice, is a great way to validate your plan of action moving forward. You should be open to talking about your experiences, particularly after you’ve come out, as you’re in a great position to act as an example to others who haven’t come out yet.
Come Out Early, Come Out Often
If you have come out, don’t feel that that’s the last thing you can ever say on the subject. A great way of coming out without making a huge deal out of it is to mention a past relationship. You don’t have to fight too hard to find the words, just find a way of bringing it into conversation.
People will understand, and it’s a million times easier than sitting down colleagues and having the chat which has a real “the birds and the bees feel to it”! So if the topic does turn to what you are doing at the weekend, or where you are going on vacation and you know the lie of the land, you should feel totally comfortable just dropping it in! These are natural and normal opportunities for you to come out at work.
Where you go from there is totally up to you. Some people like to openly embrace their LGBT identity as part of their working identity, and that’s totally cool. Others prefer to hang back (and anyway, prefer to keep their private and their work life separate). Others are sadistic and enjoy teasing new colleagues with “are they / aren’t they” type tricks!
It’s also for you to decide where your particular boundaries lie as an LGBT individual. I always used to hate it at the pub personally when Friday afternoon conversation turned to “gay lingo”, which straight men seem to have a strange fascination with; or questions about whether I was a top or a bottom.
I like to think that these stemmed from misunderstandings about “where the line” is, but if you think someone has pushed their questions too far, feel free to politely tell them. You might also want to think ahead of time about how you might handle some of these conversations if they do come up, particularly in situations like the pub where the expectation is that things are going to be quite relaxed!
After you have come out, you may find that a lot of things already become a lot easier. But being anxious about how people are going to react is always going to be a part of the LGBT experience. It’s always going to be one of those slightly awkward things, although it does seem to get easier the more you do it (depending on environment).
Taking the lead with your sexuality and gender identity at work can be a really positive development for you, and will help others who are thinking of coming out. You have the right to feel comfortable about yourself at work and be a more productive leader.
What’s stopping you from coming out at work?