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Office Outings: The Road to Coming Out in the Workplace

No matter how many times I do it, there is always that silent moment after I first mention my wife to a colleague—that millisecond where I’m holding my breath and bracing for their reaction to my “outing.” These people have known me in one way but now I am revealing an entirely new dimension of myself, one that may change the way they view, relate, or interact with me. Will it negatively affect our working relationship or will sharing my personal life bring a better understanding of each other? Will it create a sense of trust or will affect my chances for advancement?

The this age of social media and online connection: the ability to choose how we present ourselves, both personally and professionally, is more important than ever. For LGBTQ people, a big part is still whether, how, and when to disclose our sexuality.

The decision to come out at work can still be a challenge for the LGBTQ community. Opening up about our private lives can be a great way to bond and create personal connections with our colleagues and supervisors. However, even in a seemingly welcomed environment, there is an underlying fear of how being labeled “gay” might affect our peers’ opinion of us, our chances at promotion, or even possibly lead to termination.

So, what does it mean to come out at work and how do you go about it?
For most LGBTQ employees, feeling safe is the key to disclosing their sexuality. Currently there is no federal law that consistently protects LGBTQ individuals from employment discrimination; it remains legal in many states to discriminate based on sexual orientation as well as gender identity or expression.

According to a 2018 study from the Human Rights Campaign, half of all LGBTQ employees in the U.S. report still being closeted at work.  The HRC survey shows that despite significant progress over the past few years (including 2015 Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality), there are still “substantial barriers to full inclusion” for LGBTQ workers.

However, choosing to disclose your sexuality and open your private life to your office can have benefits. There is stress that comes from living a “secret” identity and the strain that comes from constantly covering up or avoiding disclosing personal facts. The ability to share and connect with coworkers can help broaden understanding, foster acceptance, and create an environment of honesty and openness. There is also the negative impact being closeted has on emotional, mental, and physical health and the ability to live and work freely and authentically reflects positively on overall well-being.

When deciding to come out at work, consider these questions:
Is your office a place where you feel safe? Are there anti-discrimination policies in place and/or does the office provide same-sex or domestic partner benefits? Are there other out coworkers—and if so, how are they treated?  Does your company embrace diversity or do you feel like the lone fish swimming against the heteronormative stream?

Another way to determine whether to come out is to gauge your corporate climate. If your colleagues routinely share personal information like plans for the weekend or upcoming holiday, then joining the interaction might be a way to confirm you’re a member of the team and that you trust and value your colleagues enough to share your own stories. If your office is all business all the time, your personal life may not be a topic that needs announced.

While starting a new job is a great opportunity to establish yourself, your relationships, and your sexuality upfront, many times the decision to come out is made once your employment has already begun.  There are ways to introduce that element of your life without sending an office-wide memo: things like placing a photo on your desk or having your partner stop by the office during work.  Displaying equality symbols like the rainbow or Human Rights Campaign (HRC) logo can also send a send a message and open up the conversation.  Your colleagues may take their cues from you, so if you are relaxed in sharing your personal information, it can help them feel comfortable asking questions or discussing LGBTQ related issues.

The decision to come out at work is a personal choice and only you know if the time and environment are right for you. Whether you choose to disclose your sexuality or not, the most important thing is that you feel safe, comfortable, and confident in your position and your job.