In my honest opinion, the phenomenon of ‘coming out’ is totally mis-sold as a concept. Forget announcement cakes and rainbow coloured streamers and throw away the big emotional speech you’d scrawled in your hormone ridden journal. The reality is underwhelming – and, in many ways, much more exhausting than you’d initially imagine.
The truth is, ‘coming out’ is not a once-in-a-lifetime event for many LGBTQ+ people. Instead, it’s a continual exercise that becomes ingrained in daily practice. It’s an entire readjustment to your lexical behaviour – the introduction of seemingly insignificant habits in speech that somehow come to reflect your sexual orientation. You learn to brush aside the common misconceptions and societal expectations and find loopholes in conversation to avoid revealing too much too soon. For me, I always present my girlfriend as gender neutral until I feel comfortable enough to drop the ‘partner’ label.
Despite being fortunate enough to live in a liberal society and be surrounded by accepting friends and family, there’s still always a layer of discomfort and uncertainty when faced with strangers. I’ve just met you, why should I be obliged to tell you one of the most intensely personal details of my life? Yet for most people, the ‘husband/wife’ word rolls off the tongue without a second thought.
Never do I feel more uncomfortable about this than when in the workplace.
I remember one pertinent experience that has always stuck with me, and perhaps given me a bit of a biased misapprehension about future encounters in the office. It was a conversation between me and a colleague in my first job – I was barely 21, freshly graduated, still naïve and nervous, desperate for professional validation and acceptance. We were having casual work drinks and laced with a bit of Dutch courage, I decided to let the ‘g bomb’ drop. I mentioned that I had a girlfriend, and for a second my heart stopped.
Obviously, I knew I was not in any immediate or obvious danger – there was no real threat except maybe the tiny chance that my colleague’s opinion of me may be altered slightly. His response did take my slightly by surprise however.
I was stunned.
Admittedly there is a time and place for philosophical rhetoric but this felt jarring and inappropriate. If I had said I had a boyfriend, would I be getting the same reaction? Almost definitely not.
It is a widespread issue amongst LGBTQ+ people that they do not feel comfortable disclosing this (rather large) part of their identity in the workplace. A Stonewall report revealed that coming out at work is definitely still a problem. To name just a few examples:
- More than a third of LGBT staff (35 per cent) have hidden that they are LGBT at work for fear of discrimination.
- One in ten black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT employees (10 per cent) have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year.
- Nearly two in five bi people (38 per cent) aren’t out to anyone at work.
The report, based on YouGov research with 3,213 people, shows that workplace discrimination and bullying continues to be a serious problem for LGBTQ+ employees. Surprisingly, it has only recently been made illegal in the US to fire someone on the grounds of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – the US Supreme Court voted on this in June 2020, and is predicted to have a sweeping impact on the US employment landscape. It seems unbelievable that such protection is only a recent phenomenon, and institutional bigotry was so widespread and accepted for so long.
I’d like to add a disclaimer here and state that I know that I have such a huge amount of privilege and I know my physical wellbeing is not at danger – I am not being threatened and do not/have not faced physical violence. My job is safe in the sense that I will not be fired for my sexual orientation or political beliefs. In fact, I am involved in a company wide Diversity and Inclusion working group and professionally I have never felt so accepted.
So, what’s the problem them?
I’ve never felt comfortable having to ‘come out’ – it’s not necessarily a fun process for anyone. but it’s particularly tricky for me going into a new job. I know it’s mostly my own biased preconceptions and unfounded fears, but for me one of the most important aspects of starting a new job is making connections and being ‘liked’ and respected. You want to present the best version of yourself as it will probably enhance performance if you’re likeable – also, it’s good to make friends since you’re going to spend most of your daylight hours in the office Monday to Friday. Thus, the ‘coming out’ fear.
When a colleague asks me how my weekend is, I do often stop and pause before launching into a story involving my girlfriend. Irrational fears creep up – what if they are ignorant, or homophobic, or their religion frowns upon such arrangements? What if they just hate gay people?! Obviously, I try and sweep these awful misconceptions aside as quickly as possible.
But there is another creeping doubt that I can’t seem to shake. For some reason, talking about my sexual orientation seems to be making every encounter so… political. Sometimes, the small act of coming out feels like a huge political announcement. Almost as though I am presenting my liberal agenda alongside my mundane weekend anecdote. Just throwing my gayness in their faces completely unprovoked.
Ultimately, I know that I need to get over this little voice in my head because nine times out of ten, coming out at work has ended up being overwhelmingly… insignificant. Not that being gay is unimportant, but at the end of the day it should hold the same weight as statements like ‘I am a content editor’ or ‘I like the colour purple’. Hopefully, one of the advantages of having to come out over and over again is that over time I will become desensitised to those words ‘by the way, I’m gay’ – and start to see them as trivial as I hope others around me do.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you resonate with any of the topics I discuss please do get in touch. If you’re experiencing similar feelings, here’s some resources you might find useful:
Stonewall runs an Equality Index for workplaces
For information on the Equality Act 2010, which is designed to strengthen LGBT employee rights and promises to take direct and non-direct sexuality discrimination more seriously, check out the Home Office site.