So you have come out to your family and friends, it may have gone well, maybe not so well but you’ve done it! You know who you are and are starting the process of being OUT and PROUD…all is great…then you realise that its work on Monday and the people you work with don’t know. Or do they? Do they really think you’re straight? Do they even care? Do you suddenly become more conscious about how you walk, sound or just generally ‘are’…?
Maybe you’re not actually out to anyone yet but those thoughts still linger in your head; always conscious of what others say about gays and lesbians and who would be sympathetic, who is homophobic.
Do you need to come out to them at all? After all, you have so far successfully avoided after work drinks conversations by either claiming to be single or referring to your other half as “them” or “they” and not disputing when others have assumed that they were the opposite sex; always avoiding the term “partner” as that might give you away.
I remember having all those thoughts when I was new in London and working in my first job. It was a mixture of really caring about what people thought about me and feeling desperate to be like as well as feeling that I didn’t need the drama, the attention or the questions.
I wanted (and still want) to be respected for my work and to do a good job and in the work place I felt that my sexuality should take second place to that. Having said that, being open and honest about who you are can only be a good thing and that is the way that we should see it. If other people disagree then surely that is their issue. You are at work to do a job and that is the most important thing. Your sexuality has no relevance on how good you are at the job that you do.
It is all about being comfortable with whom you are and letting your colleagues know what you want them to know. I found it remarkably refreshing working for a gay boss who openly talked about his partner in the same way that the straight people in the office talked about their husbands and wives. This is how it should be. Often we are more self conscious about things like this than other people are. Research also shows that you are more likely to stay with and progress in a company that accepts you for who you are and allows you to be open about your sexuality.
Surprisingly I found that straight male colleagues were rather accepting and in the cases where they weren’t then they would simply keep quiet about it rather than make an issue. I think at times there was the avoidance of the conversation or lack of acknowledgement and that was partly due to me not being upfront. Female colleagues were interesting! There was the, “Oh my God I love gay people”, followed shortly by, “Oh lets go shopping.” This may seem unfair but I do remember thinking that I was no longer the geeky straightboy they perceived me to be and by simply coming out I had become this glamorous new best friend. Although this was in some ways quite flattering I did find it somewhat disingenuous.
I remember being out for a work dinner in the early 00’s for a recruitment firm that I worked for and my female boss, who was rather drunk, decided to interrogate me about my sex life, as if being gay made you fair game for these questions. I don’t want to come across as a prude but I was intrigued by her double standards and said to her, “Have I just asked you what you and your husband get up to in the bedroom? No, then why do you think its ok to ask me these questions”? For me it was about being respected for who I was and at that time I felt a bit like a performing monkey, always having to be entertaining, stylish, fun and also not entirely taken seriously. That really resonated with me and I felt that actually I can be like if I choose to be, but not all the time. It also made me face my own feelings of internalised homophobia. There would be times when I would see other gay men in the office perform in that way. I would think that these guys were not being taken seriously! But as I get further into my 30s I realise that everyone has their place and you need to be true to yourself, I think that is the most important thing.
If you are finding that being ‘out’ at work is making your life uncomfortable then it really is important to acknowledge this and then speak to someone. A lot of companies are affiliated with Gay and Lesbian networks and this can be a great source of support and advice. Stonewall offer a great service and can provide an ear to listen and some wonderful resources too. They also have a great site about role models where successful men and women discuss coming out in the workplace and how that has affected their careers:
“Having lesbian, gay and bisexual role models is very important. It shows others you can be who you are.” – Sarah Weir OBE “If you’re concealing an important part of your life then it’s difficult to be comfortable with others.” -Margot James MP
You may not be fully aware of this. I even now catch myself being guarded or second guessing what other will think. Will I be judged? But judged for what? Being in a relationship and being proud of who I am? Being supportive and compassionate and being true to myself? If people are judging us on that then judge away I say! There is legislation out there as well that can support you through any difficulties you might face. My friend Rob Whitfield was the first gay man to openly take his employer to court under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Act that came into force in December 2003, aimed at preventing gay workers suffering discrimination.
Rob’s Case . . . . .
“I wasn’t out at work when it started. There was a small group of senior people who decided it was funny to call me homophobic names and make deeply inappropriate comments. It kept escalating and I felt awful. I had proven my capability but this group of people made me feel undermined at work. I felt I had no value; as much as I tried to let I wash over me, I felt like I was drowning instead. One day, I handed in my notice with no other employment to go to in a moment of measured desperation. I thought that would be the end of it. But they wouldn’t let it go. Ultimately, they forced me to come out with their “internal investigation” and at the time I remember thinking, this isn’t what I want. I was – and still am – a very private person and I wanted to keep my private life separate from work. The “investigation” was flawed and they found no issues. Then it came down to it; I had built a strong career with them and had great performance ratings. Why should I walk away in shame when I had done nothing wrong? That was it for me. That realisation made me decide that I’d come out to fight for my rights and the rights of every gay and lesbian person. So I took them to court, and I won. I remember the tribunal reading out the verdicts of each count. It felt so good to hear all but one of the nearly 20 counts were upheld. There was no shame left. My face was splashed on local and national newspapers, TV and magazines; I was interviewed on the radio. I didn’t feel alone then. If anything, I wish I’d come out earlier, but I know that everyone has to make their own choices and find the time that is right for them. I do know, though, that there is a lot of support out there and it is growing every day. One day, you’ll know when it is right to come out. You’ll just feel it. And when it is, be strong, remember how wonderful you are and start your coming out journey on your own terms.”
Read more about Rob’s experiences at http://www.robwhitfield.co.uk
Find out more about your rights at work at http://www.acas.org.uk and http://www.dol.gov/elaws/elg/
Ultimately, the main thing is that you are comfortable in your job, going to work every day; comfortable to be yourself and be respected for that. Coming out in the workplace can be daunting, but remember there is support and many people have been in your shoes and will tell you that it really does get easier!