Out of The Filing Cabinet: Coming Out at Work

Megan Wallace explains why a New Year's resolution to come out to one's colleagues is often easier said than done...

Feature by Megan Wallace | 08 Jan 2018

It’s hard to be filled with faith that the year 2018 might be an improvement on 2017 when we’re throat-deep in such global mayhem. Yet, as January rolls around we find ourselves drawn once more to the insidious appeal of the New Year’s resolution. In the face of the political and economic uncertainty, an individual’s capacity to create positive change in their life is an alluring concept. 2018 could be a fresh start. 2018 could be the year of being our best selves.

2018 also marks a significant milestone of which some of us might not be aware. It has now been 15 years since the Employment Equality Regulations Act came into effect, implementing legislation which made it illegal to discriminate against gay or bisexual individuals in the workplace on the basis of their sexuality. This was, undeniably, a big win for the queer community. It marked a point where individuals could openly be out at work, and anyone who gave them a hard time for it would get a big karmic, figurative slap. However spaces completely without homophobia, transphobia or heteronormativity are still hard to come by. It’s not exactly plain sailing for all those LGBTQ+ folks working a 9 to 5.

In the spirit of fresh starts, many LGBTQ+ people use the new year as motivation to come out to their colleagues. But often, those same LGBTQ+ folks are left considering whether coming out at work is feasible – or even valuable – as a January resolution. While the quantity of legislation in place which is meant to protect LGBTQ+ people has thankfully grown since 2003 (even stretching to acknowledging trans people at times!), society and the employers who operate within it should not be patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Far from it: homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still truly alive and kicking in professional environments.

Let’s chat statistics. Stonewall, the Beyoncé of British LGBTQ+ charities, estimates that 2.4 million people witnessed verbal homophobia in the workplace between 2009 and 2014. The British LGBT Awards found that nearly 64% of LGBTQ+ women experienced a negative reaction to their sexuality while at work. A 2016 employment survey by Total Jobs uncovered that 60% of trans employees have experienced workplace discrimination. This same survey shows that 53% of trans individuals felt the need to hide their trans status at work. The internet is saturated with statistics demonstrating how difficult it can be to be LGBTQ+ in a workplace environment.

Speaking to LGBTQ+ individuals directly only seems to confirm this. Robert, a gay man in his early twenties who works in the creative industries explains: "For many people, being out in the workplace just isn't an option. It can potentially damage your standing with colleagues [and] higher-ups." He describes how “a colleague drunkenly asked me very indirectly and inappropriately [about my sexual orientation], both trying to tip-toe around the issue and being brazen about the whole thing. It made me feel ogled at and judged, angry and frustrated.”

Laura, also in her twenties, is a trans woman who works in freelance music and music arrangement online. She details how a casually homophobic environment can create fear about coming out: "Overhearing hateful comments about LGBT people from colleagues or higher ups, especially when directed towards other colleagues, is the thing that can really make it difficult to feel accepted enough to come out at work."

It begs the question – why on earth then would anyone want to be out at work if there’s so much at risk? On this particular topic, a lot of individuals, both cishet and LGBTQ+, dig out the old chestnut that ‘private and professional should be kept separate’. On closer inspection, this oft-cited platitude is alarming. It's office-speak for "be as queer as you want in your own time, but not in my face."  Not only does it betray a level of discomfort towards LGBTQ+ individuals, it only serves to police the spaces where queerness is ‘appropriate’. It reiterates the assumption that LGBTQ+ identities are not fit for public consumption, advocating that they remain contained in a marginal, non-public role. The decision to come out at work, despite being fraught with potential pitfalls, is a powerful statement against heteronormativity and against the relegation of queer issues and identities to a secondary, marginal plane.

However, coming out at work is not just an act of defiance. Rather, it has a pragmatic and practical role to play in improving the working experience for LGBTQ+ individuals. Keeping quiet can result in suspicion and interrogation from the inquisitive and invasive gaze of straightness. Maintaining secrecy can often evolve from games of evasion to actually having to act the role of a straight, cis individual. We all have to don our most professional persona when entering the workplace, but there is a clear distinction between this and between performing the cis het identities most likely to help us fit in. This roleplay leaves LGBTQ+ people feeling on edge; caught between half-truths, white lies and the anxious anticipation of finally being ‘caught out’.

Coming out at work isn’t a viable option for everyone, but it is a course of action that could bring real benefits for some LGBTQ+ folks in terms of happiness, wellbeing and even productivity. And, beyond the security and liberation that would result from actively supporting those who choose to come out at work, isn’t it worth considering what actively protecting the autonomy of LGBTQ+ people could do for the workplace as a whole? Breaking the heteronormative, cisnormative default mode can help to sensitise a workplace, making it more aware of differing viewpoints and more inclusive. 

But the burden for creating a more LGBTQ+ inclusive working atmosphere should not fall entirely upon the queer community. If you are actively homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, or use ‘casually’ discriminatory terms, you should make it your NYR to stop. Support and acceptance from the heterosexual, cisgender community can have a real effect on whether individuals feel comfortable enough to be themselves in the wider world. This New Year’s, straight, cis individuals out there should also resolve to be more flexible, more tolerant and more educated on queer issues and perspectives – both in and out of the workplace.

How to Come Out at Work

Coming out should only be done when you are really, truly ready. Robert and Laura offer some words of wisdom based on their own experiences of coming out to colleagues.

Robert: "I would tell people to be brash and unapologetic, but only if you feel that you can. Don't jeopardise yourself. At some point in life we've all had to do a balancing act of 'respectability' and faithfulness to our identity and culture, and it sucks. I'd tell people to trust their gay gut."

Laura: "As obvious as this sounds, my main advice to anybody looking to come out at work would be to come up with a general idea of how you're going to do it, and have potential contingency plans in place for anything that might go wrong. In general, you probably want to come out to everybody at the same time on your own terms, so that rumours that you don't have any control of won't be a problem. If you're struggling to find the confidence, it can also be very helpful to ask for additional advice on your situation specifically from a colleague you know would be supportive (or has come out at work themselves)."