Bringing your whole self to work is an uncomfortable notion to many; imposture syndrome, fear of rejection, and boundaries are just a few of the reasons employees may struggle with letting their entire (and totally boss) personalities and interests shine at their nine-to-five. But for LGBTQ+ employees in particular, being yourself can be challenging on a whole other level—especially if you haven’t come out.
“In life, if you’re queer or genderqueer and are not out, you can feel like you’re not really you,” says Rena McDaniel, licensed clinical counselor and sex therapist. And the same goes if you’re out everywhere but work. “Considering that you spend the majority of your time at work, not being out means you aren’t sharing a really big part of yourself and your identity with your coworkers. It can make you feel like you’re hiding who you really are,” she says.
In fact, according to a new survey from the Human Rights Campaign, nearly half (46 percent) of LGBTQ+ employees are closeted at work. Reasons why include fear of being stereotyped (38 percent), making others uncomfortable (36 percent), losing connections with coworkers (31 percent), and false accusations of being attracted to someone at the office simply because of the LGBTQ+ status (27 percent).
Coming out as LGBTQ+ is rarely easy. But the question of whether or not to come out at work is a particularly loaded one, fraught with legal ambiguities and inequalities.
Coming out as LGBTQ+ is rarely easy, but the question of whether or not to come out at work is a particularly loaded one, fraught with legal ambiguities and inequalities. Currently, there are no federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender identity, and the laws in place vary state by state. As of April 17, 2018, you can still be fired for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual in 28 states; and in 30 states, you can be fired for being transgender. But even in states where you can’t be fired, keep in mind that discrimination doesn’t always present in such clear-cut ways. Sometimes it looks like a generally exclusive office vibe, the inability to respect one’s preferred pronouns, limited partner benefits, and beyond. “Coming out is a decision that can have an impact on queer folks’ safety, job satisfaction and happiness, career path, employment status and ultimately the ability to pay rent,” says professor and gender diversity advocate Lee Airton, PhD, author of Gender: Your Guide.
To that point, it should be noted that attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community have actually worsened in the US under the Trump administration (particularly for trans* people of color. And according to research by Stonewall, a British LGBTQ+ advocacy group, 10 percent of black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ employees have been attacked at work because of their sexual orientation, or gender identity within a year of the April 2018 report.
But, there are solid reasons that make the case for coming out. “The more we hide who we truly are, the more likely we are to feel shame, sadness, and isolation. Being closeted can also bring up anxiety, as there can be a background fear that someone will find out and out you against your will. Of course that’s exhausting,” says Liz Powell, PsyD, an LGBTQ-friendly sex educator. (Who needs that extra fatigue? Burnout is already an omnipresent boogeyman for worker bees). “Coming out at work can help someone feel like they aren’t living a double-life.”
The good news is that more and more companies are actively working to make their environment more welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks, despite the lack of legal protection. But how do you know if your company is one of those workplaces? And whether or not it is, how do you proceed?
Below is a five-step guide to help you determine whether or not it’s safe to come out at work, and how to proceed either way.
Considering coming out at work? Here’s a 5-step guide to help you navigate the choice.
Step 1: Do your homework
“Depending on location, class, race, etc., everyone’s life situation is really different. For some people, coming out could be too big a risk to their safety, stability, and finances,” says Dr. Airton.
If you work for a big-name company, read through the HRC Corporate Equality Index, the annual Stonewall Top 100 Employers guide, and the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list to see if you spot your employer. These lists rank corporations on their commitment to diversity, basing scores on direct actions taken to promote inclusion and equality. If you spot your company on any of these, know you’re at a gig that’s at least trying to value openness.
“Depending on location, class, race, etc., everyone’s life situation is really different. For some people, coming out could be too big a risk to their safety, stability, and finances.” —Lee Airton, PhD
Work for a lesser-known company? Investigate whether a non-discrimination policy exists specifying that nobody can be hired, fired, or promoted based on sexuality. “If you’re trans* or genderqueer, look to see if the discrimination policy includes gender identity. If it does, you’ll know that your company has taken the time to thoughtfully craft this and is likely gender-inclusive,” says McDaniel.
Step 2: Observe your coworkers
One obvious way to figure out whether or not your work environment is queer-friendly is simply to get your people-watching on. Listen to the chatter in your office to gauge how your colleagues react to queer-related goings-on in the news.
Dr. Airton suggests asking yourself the following questions as you observe: Are there other out queer or trans* folks at your workplace? If there are other trans* or non-binary people, are their pronouns respected? If there are queer people, do they display photos of, talk about, or bring around partners? What kind of humor is tolerated? What kind of humor is shut down and not tolerated? Is the office culture rigidly gendered—for example, do the men always go out with the men, while the women only hang out with the other women? Is there a gendered dress code? Are there gender-neutral restrooms?
“When you’re queer and trans*, you develop a tool kit that tells you in your gut whether or not it’s safe for you to come out in a certain place or to a certain person. Use that same tool kit here. Trust your gut. It’s almost always right” says Dr. Airton.
Step 3: Consider chatting with HR
In states where there’s not protective legislation in place, deciding whether or not to loop in human resources is like a less tasty version of deciding between avocado and sweet potato toast: tricky. “Talking with HR might be helpful but could also end up causing you problems,” says Dr. Powell. “That’s because, as a general rule of thumb, HR’s responsibility is to protect the company, not the employee,” she says.
However, Dr. Airton encourages scheduling a meeting but asking strategic, vague-leaning questions so you can read your audience before deciding how to proceed. “HR is supposed to be a confidential environment. So if you’re considering coming out as gender non-conforming, I recommend going to HR and asking if trans* or genderqueer folks have thrived in this workplace before,” they say. “Does the HR person lean into this conversation? Do they offer supportive feedback and ask follow-up questions? Or do they write you off?”
McDaniel adds that if you confide in HR, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much doing so can help you in your process. “If you make the decision to come out in an environment with no other out trans* folks, HR can help you navigate how to do that.”
The bottom line? If your HR department is a good one, it’ll be receptive to how you’re feeling and your desire to come out. The data you collected on steps one and two will help you decide if that will be the case at your place of work.
Step 4: After considering the risks, speak your truth
Depending on your state, company, and company culture, coming out at work may be a risk. But not coming out also presents possible pitfalls. “Not being out at work effects what people are able to share about their life during casual chitchat; it may make them stressed about what they post on social media; and if they’re trans*, they face being misgendered every single day, over and over,” says McDaniel. “Feeling like you have to put a mask on to go to work has real long-term consequences such as dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety.”
“Coming out can be as simple as saying, ‘Oh yeah, my boyfriend loves that show’—it doesn’t have to be a huge emotional conversation.” —Liz Powell, PsyD
If you decide to come out as LG or B, Dr. Powell says, people are likely to follow your lead in terms of how they react. “I think that the more you make it a big deal, the more others will make it a big deal,” she says. “Coming out can be as simple as saying, ‘Oh yeah, my boyfriend loves that show’—it doesn’t have to be a huge emotional conversation.” (For example, I came out at work by consistently pitching and writing first-person stories about dating men and women, not by sitting down with my boss.)
If you’re coming out as trans* or gender nonconforming, the process take a little more navigating due to the question of preferred pronouns, bathrooms, and safety, says Dr. Powell.
Decide whether you want HR to send out a company-wide email explaining your gender identity, name choice, pronoun preference, and providing resources for folks with more questions. Do you want HR to help provide resources to coworkers who ask for more info? Or do you want to inform the company yourself? Do you want to send a coming-out email with where you share your preferred pronouns?
There’s also the option to take a casual approach. First, tell those whom you know will be very supportive and accepting. Then, ask for their help in sharing your preferred pronouns, explaining your gender identity, and fielding any questions they may have with coworkers in your outer web.
Step 5: If you can’t come out, consider seeking out an inclusive workplace
If you live in a state where it’s legal to be fired for your status, at a company without protective policies in place, or simply somewhere where you don’ feel comfortable, you might feel best not coming out.
“Your happiness matters. Give yourself permission to seek out an alternative place of work that will be accepting.” —Dr. Airton
However, staying closeted as a long-term solution isn’t advisable either: Research finds that workplace culture—which includes how you feel your environment will embrace your choice to come out and be out—is actually a higher indicator of employee happiness than salary. So, if these points ring true to you, consider it solid evidence that you haven’t found the role that’ll be most additive to your life and goals.
“Your happiness matters. Give yourself permission to seek out an alternative place of work that will be accepting,” Dr. Airton says.
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