How does your work’s culture prevent you coming out?

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.

But I'm a Cheerleader makes it all seem so easy...
But I’m a Cheerleader makes it all seem so easy…

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.

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Coming out at work; is it necessary?

Who we are seen to be at work affects our relationship with our colleagues, managers and our job security. In my case, as a queer femme in a relationship with a transsexual man, I am often misread as straight, which forces me back into the closet. My perceived sexuality puts me in an uncomfortable position in relation to my co-workers and managers.

Things feel completely different in the corporate world, where the work culture I’ve seen is straight, male-dominated and pretty macho.

When I started there I found myself in the unusual position of un-outing myself, or at least of being seen to do so. Because my partner goes by ‘he’ I surprised a lot of my colleagues by referring to my boyfriend. I feel conflicted about this; undoubtedly most of my colleagues picture a cis guy in their heads when I refer to my boyfriend and think of me as straight, which is just a lie. But going out of my way to explain that my boyfriend isn’t ‘normal’ feels offensive (towards him) and just plain awkward.

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan
Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

It is definitely easier in some ways to let my colleagues make assumptions than out my partner as trans and me as, well, whatever that makes me. I imagine myself saying “my boyfriend, who’s trans, by which I mean a transsexual man (potential awkward explanation here)” and leave them to make whatever assumptions about us they’re going to make. It’s much easier for me not to include this addendum, which feels uncomfortably apologetic to me anyway. I feel like I’d be insisting on my abnormality, while apologizing for the complicatedness of my boyfriend’s gender. And, of course, it’s way easier to ride the wave of heteronormativity than consciously outing myself.

Of course, I am complicit in this misreading of my sexuality. And I gain heterosexual privilege from that. But all this makes me uncomfortable. After bumping into a colleague when I was with my partner and introducing him, I wondered whether her view of me had changed. Whether she felt I had lied to her in some way. Because this does feel like lying. Even with colleagues who are my age, I don’t want to out myself because it feels too awkward. And, of course, I fear their rejection.

Out at Work cat meme
Out at Work cat meme

Not to mention the fact that I feel I’ve let down the older lesbian at work. She immediately (correctly) pegged me as one of her own, and seemed disappointed when I started to talk about my boyfriend.

Maybe this is what all bisexual people feel like. They, too, are seen to be aligning themselves with a particular sexual group when they are in a relationship. If bisexual women refer to their boyfriend, they will be misread as straight. If they refer to their girlfriend, they will be seen as a lesbian. Both of these assumptions contain some element of truth, but both miss the whole picture.

Our understanding of sexuality is still so black and white. What happens to those of us who confuse these boundaries?

I’d be interested to find out how you juggle your queer identities at work. Do you feel comfortable or do you feel you have to hide parts of yourself? Can you share any strategies for coming out as LGBT and is it even necessary?