Coming out at work. It’s Highschool all over again.
Being ourselves at work and inclusion in the workplace is vitally important for being able to do the best job possible. Yet studies suggest that roughly 53% of LGBTQ people are closeted in the workplace and don’t feel comfortable to come out. When you're closeted in the workplace, as I was 15 years ago, it takes up a lot of energy and distracts you from your work. You spend a lot of brain-cycles running through these potential scenarios:
- You have to think about avoiding conversations. Water-cooler exchanges and Monday morning catch-ups on the weekend become no-no’s since you don‘t want to navigate the choppy waters of editing your story to suit the people listening.
- If you DO decide to share, you have to think about changing pronouns or names of the significant others that you’re talking about, as well as not give away any other incriminating information.
- You have to continually evaluate how much of yourself you are sharing and whether it will come back to haunt you eventually.
Every friendly conversation with colleagues becomes an exercise in the calculus of what to reveal and what to keep to yourself.
You want to be included, you want to talk about yourself, you want to bond with your coworkers and you want to be a part of the company culture, but you can't because you have that barrier. You end up feeling isolated in the workplace, you don't really make friends, you feel depressed, you're distracted from the work that you need to do. You might see other co-workers mingling and bonding over stories about their relationships, kids, etc… and you are excluded.
It’s just like high school all over again.
So just come out, right?
Whether you’re in an environment that is more repressive or one that is seemingly more accepting, coming out is an extremely personal journey.
Living in New York, in gay-friendly neighborhoods like Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person feels comfortable coming out at work. They're dealing with baggage from years of repression, fear of abandonment by their families who may live far away or they may live in the city, etc. Without knowing your coworkers' background, you don’t know if you can trust them to be accepting. So despite the fact that you could be living in a nurturing and accepting environment, it's a personal choice that is not always easy to make.
The first time that I had to come out at work was nerve-wracking.
It was 20 years ago at my previous company in Southern California. I knew that there were a couple of other gay people in my office because we had seen each other out, though it was a secret. The first rule of fight club, you don't talk about fight club. So we would come into work and we would chat quietly about our real lives and weekends.
However, when speaking with my straight co-workers I would play the pronoun game and only refer to my boyfriend elusively so that they would not learn my secret. The game actually went smoothly, but at the same time, was isolating and emotionally exhausting.
Things changed on the day that my boss asked me for my emergency contact. He was creating a spreadsheet for the team.
As an immigrant, I didn't have any family here, which everybody knew. The only person that I could possibly put on that sheet was my boyfriend. At that moment, standing in my boss’s office, I had a decision to make. "Am I ready to do this? Am I ready to name this person who nobody knows about, and I don't know how people will feel about?"
After some quick calculus, I decided to just go for it and my boss was very accepting. Eventually, the team found out and they were accepting, as well, and I haven't looked back since.
The point of this story isn’t the big drama of coming out. There was none. The point of this story is the big internal drama that precedes coming out. And it’s a dilemma that straight people never have to face.
Coming out every day.
Coming out is a conscious decision that the LGBT community is faced with every day. We don't just come out once. We come out continuously, every single day, in every new situation. Every time a new coworker comes into the workplace. Every new office that we go to work. Every new client, every new friend that we meet in a bar. Every new barber we chat with while on their chair. Every day we have situations where we have to do the math. Should we come out, or should we not come out? Does it make sense? Does it not? When they talk about their weekend, do we share information about ours honestly or go with the generic canned response?
“We don't come out once. We come out continuously, every single day, in every new situation.”
For some people, that decision becomes a lot easier over time. Personally, after being out for over 20 years, I don't care. If you like it, you like it. If you don't like it, you don't like it. Your lack of acceptance in no way reflects on me. But it is a personal decision and some people still do the math, which is difficult.
Inclusion in the workplace.
Understanding these unique challenges is step one. Step two is finding ways to make your office more comfortable and accepting of diverse coworkers. Keep in mind that while this speaks to LGBT colleagues, it holds true for diversity of any kind - Coworkers of color, coworkers of a different gender, coworkers with disabilities, etc…
So in the workplace, it behooves us to make our environment feel more inclusive. To me, this means that we acknowledge and see our diverse coworkers by using inclusive language, instead of non-inclusive language, and avoiding stereotypes that might make people feel left out. But it doesn’t end there.
More importantly, it means creating a sense of community for our diverse colleagues. It is not enough to have one LGBT coworker or one coworker of color and tick off a diversity box, as if you’ve fulfilled some sort of quota. It is crucial to create a community that supports each of these diverse perspectives so that they feel a sense of belonging and being seen and heard by others like them. They should be made to feel like they are set up for success. There should be a critical mass of employees of Color, LGBT employees, etc. Only then can we achieve not only a workplace of diverse perspectives, but one where everyone feels safe to bring their full, authentic selves.
To learn more about Dstillery's Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion, click here to read a message from our CEO, Michael Beebe.