Coming Out at Work
Upon joining the “real world,” I was instructed not to talk about politics at work. Given that I’m extremely liberal and living in what seems like the only red part of an otherwise very blue California, it was probably sound advice. However, there’s another kind of politics when you join the real world— office politics. And, when you’re anything other than 100% straight (it’s complicated; more here, if you care), the two collide in some complicated ways.
After slowly but surely coming out of the closet by the middle of college and spending my senior year out and proud, beginning a new job and making a life for myself in an entirely new community posed a plethora of dilemmas. It was easy for me to decide that I would be open with people in my personal life, but what about professionally? Besides the fact that this personal/professional dichotomy is not clearly defined (especially when living with a coworker), I constantly grappled with questions like: Should I come out at work? Could I come out at work? How do I come out at work? When do I come out at work?
Of course, being me, I voiced these concerns to some of my mentors (also LGBTQ-identified), and of course, as most any LGBTQ person will tell you, they answered them with some variation of “coming out is a really personal decision that only you can make for yourself.” I know it’s true and I know I’ve used that same line with closeted friends more times than I can count, but some definitive advice would have been nice. Instead, I came up with my own criteria (which I suppose was the point of their non-advice, advice): I would test the water with ally-proclaiming postcards on my cubicle wall; I would wait until after my first review; I would make sure my roommate-coworker heard it from me and not through the grapevine, and so on.
But what’s it mean to be out, anyway? As often as I hear that coming out is an intensely personal decision, I hear people say that LGBTQ-identified people are constantly coming out. That is, the coming out process really never stops. It’s the reason I could go from having posters of my face identified with LGBTQ messages all around my college campus to a new city where I’m stuck in heteronormative assumptions without anyone batting an eyelash.
I don’t know of anyone in my office who is out. As of writing this, I’m not either. I’ve only formally disclosed my sexuality to one person at work (Hi, other coworkers), though it’s hard to know what everyone else thinks or knows or assumes. Within the office walls, my cubicle proclaims that I’m an ally and it’s no secret that I’m a feminist. Online, I’m connected to most of my coworkers on LinkedIn, which has a detailed history of my LGBTQ related activism. My Twitter, a constant feed of LGBTQ related sports news, is public. Neither of these online resources invokes my own identity (a deliberate decision), and the truth is that my LGBTQ activism and interest in LGBTQ topics in sports is not related to my own sexuality. Still, I know that won’t stop people from making assumptions.
I haven’t felt like being in the closet was extremely detrimental to my productivity or even my ability to be comfortable in the work environment, but it did lead me to draw a strict line between my social life and my work life, potentially stunting friendships with coworkers and leaving me on the outside of things when everyone else was congregating on Facebook (I deliberately decided not to friend coworkers, since my Facebook profile is a giveaway). Other times, I opted out of sharing stories around the water cooler in lieu of merely listening or telling half-truths.
See, for me anyways, once I was in the closet at work, it seemed easier to stay there. As soon as I checked off all of the criteria I initially set for myself, I immediately came up with another reason to wait. When I realized what I was doing, I was angry at myself. It’s out of character for me. Hiding just isn’t what I’m about. The thing is, there will never be a perfect time. There will always be another big project waiting to be assigned or another review around the corner. If people like Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, and Ellen DeGeneres can come out, and if Kyrsten Sinema can campaign as openly bisexual and still win an election to represent a very red Arizona in Congress, and if all of them can live their lives under the public spotlight, what’s stopping me?
As of today, nothing.
Happy Pride Month, y’all.
In a future blog, I’ll have some advice other than that everyone needs to make their own decisions about coming out in the workplace. In the meantime, what are your experiences being LGBTQ in the workforce or having LGBTQ identified colleagues?
About the Author
Risa Isard graduated from Duke University (2012), where she designed her own major in social change, gender, and sports and earned honors for her thesis about the prehistory and early years of Title IX. She is an “everyday athlete,” has been published on espnW, and also blogs at I’m an Athlete, Not a Princess. She recently landed her first “real” job as the Community Relations Coordinator for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple A affiliate for the San Francisco Giants. She considers herself incredibly fortunate to have had amazing mentors and strongly believes in paying it forward to the next generation.