I’ve been working since I was 16, but I’ve been queer for my whole life.
With over 10+ years of work experience and nearly three decades of Gay Experience, shouldn’t it be easy for me to come out at work? Should I just “be” out all the time, already? I can only wish it were that easy!
Whether you are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or somewhere else on the beautiful spectrum of queerness, the workplace can sometimes be the hardest place to talk about your honest experiences and live your truest life. It takes strategy. It takes emotional investment. And it often takes a whole lot of plain-old bravery. Through years of switching jobs and meeting new employers, I’ve come up with some tried-and-true strategies that work for me.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to come out at work.
1. Enlist the help of your boss.
Walking into a new environment can be scary no matter what your sexuality is. When confronted with brand-new coworkers, teams, supervisors, interns and office characters, it can be hard to know who is “safe” and who isn’t. You don’t want to casually mention your partner to someone in the break room, only to find anti-gay literature placed on your desk or stories about “alternative lifestyles” whispered loudly within your earshot.
If you are entering a new job situation and feeling uneasy, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop a healthy and honest relationship with the top boss. This person might be your direct supervisor or a little higher up. Either way, you want to know that those with influence and control have your back at all times.
How do I do this? I often come out during the interview process. That might sound terrifying, but it helps keep my heart calm later, when I’m nervous about letting my new officemates know about my sexuality. I’ve gone so far as to say, in a final interview, “I would love to accept this job, but first I need to know that it is going to be a safe place for me as a lesbian, and that my identity will be accepted and embraced at all levels of the company.” Honestly? This is not too much to ask. This is basic human stuff. If a boss can’t get on board, you don’t want to work there. If she answers enthusiastically and says she’s in your corner? Great — hold her to that should anything come up that makes you feel uncomfortable, unwanted or discriminated against.
2. Hop on the gossip train.
Sometimes (a lot of times), I don’t feel like coming out. It can be emotionally exhausting and stressful. The worst part? Coming out never ends. Whether you first came bounding out of the closet when you were 13 (like me!) or you found yourself at 40, you will be announcing your sexuality to others for the rest of your life. Ugh! At times, I deeply resent having to reset socially every time I start a new job, getting people comfortable and up-to-speed on my sexuality so that they can use the right pronouns, avoid lazy assumptions and truly understand me as a person. During those times, I take a shortcut. I find a gossip.
Those who’ve spent time in Pittsburgh will know the phrase “nebby.” A nebby person is gossip-prone, always wanting to know everyone else’s business. When I want to come out as quickly as humanly possible, I look at my new office and figure out who the nebbiest person is, befriend them and let them know my relationship status and/or sexuality so that I don’t have to tell anybody. Seriously, if you can find this person, they will do the work for you. You won’t even have to ask! As a gossip hound, they won’t bat an eyelash when you casually drop that you have a girlfriend or wife. Give it days or maybe even hours, and the whole office will know. Easy.
3. Act Like It’s NBD.
As queer people, our LGBTQ+ identities are integrated into our daily experiences. I don’t wake up worrying about being a lesbian, and I don’t think about it 24/7. In 2018, no one else should be worried about my sexuality either. In the workplace, I try to model this type of mindset and behavior by acting and talking as if my sexuality is no big deal. From Day 1 at a new job, I pepper my conversations with casual mentions of my female partner, and I tell stories about my gay friends and my queer running group. I wear a little rainbow pin on my lapel sometimes to let people know that I’m a safe person to talk to in times of distress. I share my preferred pronouns. And, above all, I try to mimic what my straight coworkers do. They call their significant others by gendered markers (husband, girlfriend); they tell stories about exes; they embrace their sexuality without fear.
This can be startling to people at first. To some, it probably feels like I talk about my sexuality all the time, or shove it in people’s faces, or make a big deal about it. To this, I just laugh. What if I said the same thing to my coworkers who go on and on about their breakups, wedding plans, and in-laws? When my partner and I start trying for a baby with IUI, you best believe I will be talking about it at work just as much as my cube-mates bring up how they are “trying” for a baby. Casual mention of the frequent sex you’re having with your husband? It doesn’t really bother me. Bringing up my relationship with my partner shouldn’t be a problem either.
I know I’m making it sound easy. Coming out in the workplace, especially when you work in certain fields, are a person of color, live in a conservative region or deal with any number of other factors, can be the hardest thing in the whole world. It can feel impossible. I remember the feeling of heartbreak when I started a new job full of hope and optimism, only to realize at the first company happy hour that multiple coworkers held anti-gay views and that my sexuality would always be seen as an unwelcome difference. I have spent days crying about how unfair and painful it can be to have to come out at work. But I’ve also experienced the relief, comfort, and joy of being my whole, real, lesbian self, living my best Gay Experience in a workplace where everyone “knows about me” and everyone embraces it, too. Now, I won’t accept anything less. I need companies to know that they are hiring my full self, not just part of me. I owe it to them to be all-in, and I owe it to myself to live authentically both in and out of the workplace.