Thoughts on Being Out in the Workplace

Stories about times where I’ve felt safe being my authentic self, and times I haven’t. What it means to be out as a professional and why this matters.

It was Valentine’s day and was also, inconveniently so, a long day at work. Something urgent and last minute had come up during the day. It was about six at night, I was itching to leave the office. I had plans to surprise my partner with a romantic home-cooked meal — a goal that was quickly slipping further out of the realm of possibility. I asked my coworker when we’d be done and if I could take care of this in the morning. I told her I had plans.

Veronica, you have plans for Valentine’s day? With who? You’re not seeing anyone.

My heart dropped like a ton of bricks. That’s right, I thought, I’m not out here. This person who I had been working with for months didn’t even know the smallest most important details about my life. My coworker didn’t know who I was. I’m gay — or rather — queer if we want to be accurate. I was living with my partner at the time, someone of the same gender. We had a whole life together. We even had a dog. How could it be that someone I worked side by side with every day didn’t know me?

Coming out is a constant battle.

If you’re gay, I’m willing to bet that you can relate to this feeling. This is nothing new in our world, in the LGBTQ+ community. Coming out is a constant battle. A battle that you fight in each new job, new person you meet, new space you enter. We live in a world where straight is the default. If you’re gay, you have to constantly correct the world. You are not its default, instead, you are exhausted. Exhausted that you have to constantly define who you are. Exhausted at being worried — about acceptance, safety, losing your job. I have struggled with all three. I have lived and worked in spaces where I felt safe being out. Unfortunately, I’ve also existed in spaces where I chose not to come out because I felt unsafe or even unsure.

When I couldn’t come out

I’m from rural northeastern Pennsylvania. It goes without saying that this is a very conservative place. With conservatism comes homophobia. I’m saying high school was pretty rough, I was out. In the summer of 2015, I returned home to do a civil engineering internship with the state’s Department of Transportation. I also returned home and put myself deep in the closet at work. Why? I genuinely feared for my safety and job. This was not a place of acceptance, rather a place of fear.

Every gay knows where they were when gay marriage was legalized by the supreme court. I was at work, sitting at my laptop in a concrete plant reading the news. I silently celebrated to myself and made a Facebook post. In the other room I overhead two of the guys talking about it.

Did you see that f*ggots can get married now? Disgusting.

Yeah, see why I wasn’t itching to tell anyone that I was gay? My heart dropped, my body tensed. First, at the sound of the word f*ggot. Then with fear. I am not safe here. I cannot bring my authentic self here. Tears welled in my eyes, I quickly closed the article on my laptop for fear of being discovered. I stayed very deep in my closet for the rest of the internship.

I didn’t return to that internship next summer.

When I came out

I remember when I came out to my boss Alicia. I was working at a startup incubator during grad school and needed to ask for time off to travel on fall break. With my girlfriend who did not yet exist to Alicia. My hands were sweaty, I could feel my pulse in my neck. My heart was racing that fast.

“Hey, uh, can I uh take time off during fall break? I’m taking a trip with, uhm, my girlfriend…”

How did that story end?

Thankfully, well. I knew Alicia would be accepting, which didn’t stop my blood pressure spike. She asked all about my trip and gave me the time off. Later that day she accidentally texted me the kissy face emoji instead of a smiley face. I joked, “This is too positive of a response to me coming out.”

Why did I come out in this instance?

I’m not ashamed of who I am — so why hide it in the professional world?

I knew Alicia and I felt safe enough to do this. I wanted to be able to share my life and who I was. I wanted to be able to bring my whole self to work. Hiding hurts. I’m not ashamed of who I am — so why hide it in the professional world? I decided from then on to be out. I only want to exist in spaces where I could be my full authentic self. From then on, a job would never be worth hiding for.

Now that I’m out

Today’s ending is a happy one. I’m out at work. It definitely helps that my current boss is also gay. I get to bring my authentic self into the everyday. I feel safe, even comfortable, at my job. It makes a true difference in my ability to thrive in what I do and I’m grateful for it. As I’ve experienced, not everyone can be out at work. I had to make intentional career choices to get here. I avoided a company in the South that scared me off with their “very family-oriented” Alabama culture. I’ve had the fortune of having two gay bosses. I got to see people who were like me find success and thrive while they lived authentically.

Why it matters

When you can bring your full self to work, you do better. If I’m not afraid for my safety, if I don’t have to hear homophobic slurs at work, I’m happy. I’ll do a better job.

When you see someone like you succeed, you’re inspired. It shows you that you too can be successful. Getting to see people like you represented in media and in the professional world is so important.

I shouldn’t have to fight a battle to exist. I shouldn’t have to constantly correct the world’s default setting. I also exist in this world, it is my space too.

What you can do

You can be an ally to the LBGTQ community. I consider ally to be a verb, not a noun. It’s about taking action. Make your workplace a safe place for the queer community.

Be a confidant for your friends. I was one of the few “out” people in our conservative high school. This meant that I became the go-to for everyone’s gay woes and outings. I never minded this and lent a shoulder to lean on for many friends.

Keep in mind that coming out is a very personal matter. Do not, ever, out someone to another person. Just because someone is out to you, doesn’t mean that they’re willing to be out to others.

Impact Driven Engineer & Entrepreneur | Passionate about the Future of Work | Venture for America, Goodbets, Boost

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