I recently came across The Glass Closet website, where people share their stories of being out at work. It’s a fascinating insight into why and how people choose to come out (or not) at work and how important this decision is to personal wellbeing and equality. My own views on this are multifaceted so I decided to get them into some kind of order on paper/screen. Here’s the story I submitted…
How to come out and be out at work can be a minefield whatever your situation, but I’m going to write about it from the perspective of being a single gay person in the workplace. To give some background, when I first came out (relatively late at the age of 26), it was a painful time as it was linked to the end of a very complex friendship. It was all I could do to hold it together at that time, and as such, the last thing I wanted to do was share my pain at work. Not being out at work was actually what got me through that time as I had to put on a brave face. But when I felt better, I still didn’t feel comfortable coming out as the culture was a very straight, corporate one.
My next job was for a charity, where equality and diversity was fully embedded in the organisational culture, and as such, I felt comfortable to be out and that it would actually enhance, rather than inhibit, my work prospects and people’s perceptions of me. I also had other gay friends in the workplace. However, it was a small organisation and I didn’t want positive discrimination to put me in a box any more than homophobia. I was happy to be out but didn’t want to be considered representative of a gay cultural or political agenda, so I only told people as and when it came up. This is how I still feel in my current job. I don’t mind people knowing that I’m gay – in fact, I would like them to know as then I don’t feel I am hiding part of myself or that I am doing LGBT people a disservice by not challenging the straight assumption. But how to come out is an issue, and for me, this is mainly due to being single.
If I currently had a partner, I would drop her name into conversations and whilst some people might still take a while to catch on, it would be a way of coming out without making a big deal of it. As it is, there’s only a certain number of hints I can drop – if a group of women are talking about male celebrities they like, I can joke that ‘that’s not my bag’ . I can also mention going to Pride or other LGBT events, films etc, and mention same sex friends who are getting married. But because I don’t live up to a lot of gay stereotypes, most people still don’t seem to guess. Or maybe they do, but don’t want to follow up with personal questions as they assume I will feel uncomfortable. This either assumes I am embarrassed to be gay, or implies that straight colleagues are embarrassed talking about being gay. Unfortunately, I think this is a common response – as if homosexuality is an inappropriate office topic as it is somehow linked more to the act of sex than being straight is. I think it is particularly hard to bring up sexuality with people you manage, for this reason.
My only other option is to somehow announce it, but if I was straight and single, I wouldn’t walk in and announce it, so this feels unnatural and contrary to my quite private nature (after all, wanting privacy is not the same as being ashamed of who you are). Another reason why I don’t want to make an announcement out of context is as I believe that homosexuality is just one part of me. To me, true equality in the workplace would just be being ourselves and judged on merit, with gender, ethnicity and sexuality as incidental rather than defining features. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important features or don’t contribute significantly to a person’s identity; just that we are about so much more than that, and shouldn’t be made to represent a whole group or labeled in a particular way. As it is, I am out to some of my colleagues, who I am friends with, and I will come out to others as and when conversations arise. In this way, I feel that I am being true to my sexuality, my personality and my context. But it is a constant tightrope to negotiate.