While writing my first post on coming out at work last month I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to argue how the type of place you work at affects whether or not you feel you can come out with impunity. I wanted to argue how problematic the trope of coming out by referring to your significant other is. So I’ve decided to make this topic a three-parter. Last month I examined coming out when you don’t fall into a neat L, G or B category. This week I go on to ask how the type of place you work at affects your ability to come out. In the final post, I’ll question how do we come out at work when we’re single?
Coming out at work isn”t straightforward. While your average employer might be OK with a middle-class, white gay man in his/her team, how will s/he feel about a transsexual woman, butch dyke or sissy queer? Even within the apparently inclusive term “LGBTQ” there are the socially acceptable gays and the too-queer-for-employment, er, queers.
With the addition of newly conceived genders and sexualities, coming out isn’t, let’s say, traditional anymore. Not for everyone the lesbian rom com of feminine slightly awkward girl meets similar and then living as the socially-accepted-but-always-slightly-inferior gay couple among their mostly straight friends. Sure, many LBGT people lead fairly straightforward lives apart from the fact that they aren’t straight. But for some — politics aside — our sexuality and/or gender don’t fall into neat categories. And for some of us who are visibly queer, hiding our difference isn’t a choice we can make.
Coming out as queer in any situation isn”t straightforward. While most will understand what you mean if you refer to yourself as a gay man or a lesbian, will they understand if you call yourself queer, transgender or genderqueer? As the editors of Rabble so aptly summarized last month’s post, coming out isn”t as black & white as it used to be. These days, we don’t only come out as gay or lesbian; we also come out as bisexual, queer, transgender, polyamorous and more. However, in a time in which coming out is the most socially acceptable it has ever been, this acceptance only seems to apply if your sexuality is relatively straightforward. And, for some employers, transgender issues are barely on the table.
For many, coming out is a double-edged sword. Coming out as trans, for example, can leave you open to the ignorance of your colleagues in ways that coming out as gay or lesbian might not. On the flip side, staying in the closet means you could face the psychological effects of being misgendered every day.
But closeting employees isn’t only bad for the employee in question’s health, it’s also bad for the company who employs them. Even the most conservative employers should recognize the negative effect of closeting employees on the workplace. Employees who feel unable to come out at work spend a lot of energy censoring their speech and behaviour. This is energy that could otherwise be spent on their work. Employees who are closeted are also less likely to stay in their position longterm, which means companies waste money finding and training new recruits.
As I mentioned last week, I work in an organization whose mission is to teach emotional literacy and empathy to children. Luckily for me, this work attracts some lovely people and I doubt I would experience discrimination for being queer or having a trans partner. The glimpses I have seen of the corporate world, however, show a completely different culture. Vast areas of the corporate world are dominated by white, straight, macho dudes to the vast exclusion of women and people with non-heterosexual life choices. Coming out as anything other than lesbian or gay in this culture seems laughably difficult. When even being a woman makes you an anomaly, how are you then supposed to come out as trans? Furthermore, if queer people are systematically excluded from corporations, how will the culture of these corporations ever be changed?
There are many other workplaces in which coming out doesn’t seem like a good idea. As a babysitter two years ago, I worried that coming out as queer would make the child’s parents uncomfortable. Sadly, some people still think that homosexuality is a disease that can rub off on their kids. Even though the family seemed liberal-ish, I worried that their potential homophobia would force me to quit and find a new job. A friend recently expressed the same concerns about her job as a nanny. The thing is with homophobia and transphobia is that you never know where you’re going to find it. It’s not just the big bad extremists ‘out there’ who discriminate; homophobia and transphobia are very live and well in our everyday lives. And you never know who is, or isn’t, going to be a douche about it.
I’d be interested to hear your experience of coming out at work. Are there any other work cultures that feel hostile to LGBTQ identities? Have you decided to come out or stay in the closet. If you come out, how do you do it? Don’t forget to check out next week’s post, where I’ll examine the privilege extended to couples in the ways we come out.