Youth Blog – Out in the Workplace
Written by Shawna Davis, B.A., Program Assistant (she/her)
Today is the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, which honors those who openly identify as LGBTQ and gives hope to those who haven’t come out yet. Even after LGBTQ people come out, they still have to come out over and over again all the time. They also have to adjust their outness every day depending on the situation and how safe they feel. This includes the workplace. In a recent report, HRC found that still in 2018, about half of LGBTQ employees are still closeted at work.
For all of my jobs before this one, especially my first job out of college, I never mentioned my sexual identity in my interviews. After I started my new jobs, I avoided any topics about relationships and danced around the dreaded topic of whether I had a boyfriend. [eye roll] I present myself as femme so people always assume I’m straight. I knew that my personal relationships were not really my coworkers’ business anyway, but I wanted to be able to talk about my life. I was uncomfortable and then I felt ashamed for being uncomfortable.
I wasn’t sure if my workplace was a safe space and most of my colleagues were older than me and seemed sort of traditional. There were no diversity trainings. As far as I knew, I was the only queer person there. I only shared my personal life with a few coworkers who I trusted. I was anxious about small talk. I think it did affect the quality of my relationships with my coworkers, not to mention my mental health. My coworkers were really great and kind to me, and they were more accepting than I knew at the time. By the time I was comfortable enough with everyone, I was then moving on a to a new job to move in with my partner in a different city.
That was in 2013. Then, fast forward to 2016 when I started working at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (also known as ISGMH; IMPACT is a part of ISGMH) and had the complete opposite experience. This was the first job where I felt like I could come out right up front. I think I actually came out in my cover letter. I talked about how my partner and I had moved here from Pittsburgh after she got a job in Chicago. I openly talked about my sexuality during my interview without feeling anxious about it. This had never happened before – it’s rare to have the chance to be “professionally gay*” at work and it was an awakening experience.
I am so happy to now be at an LGBTQ health institute in Chicago where I feel so safe, supported, and welcome. It has helped me learn to stand up for myself and to be more confident in my own skin. Looking back, I would tell my younger self, “No hiding, no more lies, just be proud. If they don’t like it, it’s not a place I want to work anyway.”
This could be different for everyone. Some people might not want to come out right away or they might not be able to.
Here’s an article that explains different factors to consider when deciding whether to come out at work. You can also do some research on the employers’ equality index and try to find out about their anti-discrimination policies.
Dr. Ricky Hill (they/them) is a Research Associate at ISGMH who served on a Northwestern University Safe Space Panel last year. They suggest the following:
Advocate for yourself, and if you don’t feel comfortable with that, try to find someone either within your office or in HR who you feel like you can trust to help you advocate for yourself.
There’s also this WNYC podcast episode of Nancy about Coming Out at Work, which includes advice from transgender women about coming out in the workplace and finding support, including Facebook support groups. You can find the full list of episodes here on iTunes. Even if you don’t have time to read the rest of this post, I would recommend listening to this.
I have been very privileged and lucky that while my experiences were uncomfortable and mentally exhausting, they were not threatening and I was never subjected to discrimination. In many states you can still be fired for identifying as LGBTQ. Some states have only limited protection and don’t include gender minorities such as transgender individuals.
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 30 percent of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity.
Here’s a map of the current state of work discrimination according to HRC. This is another reason why it’s important to show up to vote to help change policies that are harmful to the LGBTQ community.
Employers and employees would benefit from having mandatory “Safe Space” trainings for everyone, like these ones at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. It’s amazing how a simple little thing like a Safe Space sticker on someone’s office can make one feel so relieved that at least they have an ally.
Employers and colleagues also have to walk the walk, though, and engage in the conversation. A Safe Space sticker does nothing if you don’t have the proper tools for conversation. Here’s a guide for what to say or not to say if someone comes out to you.
Pronouns – Don’t Assume Anything!
Check out this video made by IMPACT and Chicago House about how to create a transgender-inclusive workplace:
Having to be closeted at work is not healthy for the employee nor the productivity of the workplace. According to GLAAD, LGBTQ staff who are able to be openly out in front of their colleagues are more likely to remain in their current position than the ones who are not. If you’re an employer, what kind of environment are you promoting? We spend so much of our lives at work and it should be a safe and healthy space for everyone.
*Note – I stole the term “professionally gay” from the Nancy podcast.
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