Gays who are out of the closet at work have stronger careers

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This is a guest post from Nina Smith whose blog is Queercents.

I was out at work long before I had the courage to come out to my parents. As a twentysomething marketing coordinator, I would often shoot the breeze in my boss’ office, and during one such gab-fest she asked if I was gay.

I remember standing up, walking to her office door and shutting it before answering the question.

“Well, since you asked… Yep, I’m gay.”

I can’t recall what prompted the question and I’m sure her inquiry broke more than one human resources rule, but we were friends and she was genuinely curious — in a Jewish-mother sort of way– about why I didn’t date or have a boyfriend.

I’ve been out at work ever since.

There’s a lot to be said about showing our true colors. Corporate America rewards authenticity. Selisse Berry, Executive Director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates said, “We know that when employees bring their whole lives to work, they are happier, more productive, and have decreased rate of turnover.”

This makes sense because it’s hard to come across as a “normal” when people don’t know a thing about your personal life. Or worse yet, you get pegged as the person defined by work and nothing else.

David Stocum, a Life Coach who specializes in working with members of the gay community writes, “Among the benefits of coming out is a potentially more pleasant environment with less stress and more mental energy to devote to your work. You also are less likely to have resentment and workplace conflict. All these factors combine to yield overall improved job performance, which you could expect would lead to more steady career growth, better advancement opportunities and a more successful career, not to mention the improvements in mental and physical health.”

I work in technology and I take a new job every couple of years. I’ve been out at every company. The process gets easier with practice. Now I typically out myself when someone asks if I have children. For whatever reason, after thirty, people stopped asking if I was married. Recently my response has been, “No, but my partner and I are trying to get pregnant.” The reaction is everything from silence to the gentle and sincere follow-up questions.

Proposed federal legislation aims to end discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but we know that laws with the best intentions are limited in by realities of the workplace. Discrimination from employers and repercussions from homophobic co-workers are complex and slippery to squash with laws; social acceptance among colleagues will remain a personal journey for those of us in the LGBT community.

Still, for many people, no salary is big enough to compensate for being closeted at work. There are plenty of gay-friendly companies. And the idea that you have to stay closeted because of the town you live in is also suspect. Where you live should meet your highest priorities; surely being true to yourself is one of those, and there are many options for moving to an inexpensive city that is gay-friendly.

Keep in mind, though, that coming out at work is not an all-or-nothing decision. columnist Russell Kaltschmidt says: “Some people choose to come out initially only to selected colleagues or just to their manager. Others seek to be out to everybody. You could just start responding more honestly to questions from colleagues about your personal life, or you could take a more proactive approach by informing all of your immediate coworkers.”

Coming out is not a one-time event, but a conscious choice we make every day. Richard Rothstein at QueerSighted writes about this recurring moment of truth: “No matter how confident you may be in your queerness, you nonetheless look for signs of trouble or discomfort. There’s a momentary pause as your co-workers digest the news; or you can see on their faces that they already knew, or you can see them struggling to pretend that they did already know and that it doesn’t matter. Occasionally someone “?comforts’ you with the “?news’ that you’re still the “?same person.’ Yuck.”

And what happens when they see the real you? Kirk Snyder, author of The G Quotient writes, “The more people who get to know us as good neighbors, talented co-workers and company leaders, the less homophobia there will be in the world. Bigotry of any kind is rooted in fear of the unknown, so by coming out and being ourselves, we are changing the world.”

26 replies
  1. Senanbar
    Senanbar says:

    Excellent post, Nina, and thank you Penelope for hosting a fabulous writer.

    I am a light-skinned person of color and often have to “come out” to people who ask “what are you?” and I don’t regret it – being true to myself surpasses any dollar amount.

  2. k
    k says:

    This was a really interesting post – thanks!

    There was one point that confused me, though – if someone told me, in response to a question about kids, that they and their “partner were trying to get pregnant”… at least with that phrasing, I don’t think I’d take that as indicating they were gay? I feel like both gay and straight people I know use the term “partner” as a purposefully ambiguous word that allows you to not indicate marital status or gender. And talking about a couple trying to get pregnant also seems like something my straight friends would do just as easily. Am I missing something?

  3. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I don’t know if this column has to be pinned to being homosexual. I think that anytime someone can be true to themselves weather it be marriage problems, child problems, money problems or whatever that they will be better in their careers. I will say that I think “coming out” would be more challenging than talking about your marriage problems. But, I think if you have a chance to allow your life to be involved in work your stress level will be lower because you are not trying to hide anything. On the other hand, people may argue that you need to get away from it sometime or it will consume you – I argue that you have to face whatever it is you are dealing with. Once you do that you can focus more clearly on the tasks at hand. Great writer and interesting topic.


  4. Mack
    Mack says:

    “Coming out is not a one-time event, but a conscious choice we make every day.”

    Very very true. However, if you live in one of the states that offer no sort of protection from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation, it becomes a much trickier situation. I’ve been at jobs where it’s been OK to be gay and no one said a word. However, I’ve also been at jobs where once they knew I was gay, I was on the way out the door.

    I really think that until the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is passed, gays should still play it close to the vest. I’m not saying you should “play it straight”, but just be cautious.

  5. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I completely agree with Matt. I think this post can apply to anyone in the work place. In the crazytown office I used to work in, one of the strangest things was that my boss was a big believer of keeping personal life completely out of professional life.

    Not only is that not at all realistic, none of us felt like we knew her and could never really trust her.

    Be open, no matter who you are.

  6. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    I think most any member of the LGBT community would agree that being out at work is preferable to being closeted. I’m lucky enough that it has never been an issue — creative industries tend to care very little about gay. Or, consider it a left-brain advantage ;-)…. Still, in more than 30 states you can still be fired for being LGBT. At the HRC National Dinner this weekend there was a lot of talk about EDNA and its reprecussions. For anyone who thinks being out should be the standard, take some time to tell your legislators to protect the employment rights of those who WANT to be honest but genuinely fear losing their jobs/health insurance/stability, etc.

  7. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    I think it is amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time. When I was growing up, about 20 years ago, people seriously debated questions like “Would you be able to work for a woman?” and “What should we do if we find out a teacher or anyone who works with children is gay?” This year, my VP boss and her partner just adopted a baby…and the company threw a baby shower. But then again, Boston is a long way from rural southern Virginia…

  8. Paula G
    Paula G says:

    Great post Nina and thanks Penelope for the fresh voice on this topic.

    I have to say with all my days in corporate america I wouldn’t have had it any other way than being “out”. While it was a bit of an evolution for me (since I wasn’t out to myself when I first started my career), I’ve found it so much easier to simply be true to myself. It leaves more energy for things that matter both professionally and personally. I usually take the opportunity to come out when I get asked either “what does your husband do?” (often people ask this because I do wear a commitment band on the suspecting ring finger.) or “do you have kids?”.

    For me the only way to be comfortable in my own skin is to speak my truth. While I am far from waving flags or forcing my personal life on anyone in conversation, I found I appear far more “odd” if I try dancing around the topic. Not to mention, I am so much more committed to being real and authentic than worrying about other people’s biases.

  9. Paula
    Paula says:

    Chicken or Egg?

    Does coming out make your career stronger, or does a stronger career (or at least a desirable current workplace) make it easier to come out?

  10. Amy
    Amy says:

    I have found a very simple and direct way to out myself as soon as I arrive at my new place of employment. I simply place a picture of my partner and my stepdaughter (my partner’s child from her marriage) in a prominent location on my desk. Most people figure it out, while others will ask just to be sure. It makes it a much less awkward conversation to point at the photo and say “oh, that is…”

  11. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Yes, this is true. When you don’t out yourself it appears that you are not confident. It also shows that you want to assimilate and are too afriad to take any risks by being unique. Most people look up to unique and confident individuals.

  12. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Thanks Nina for the great article! There are many sexual orientations in my office and once someone has come out in one way or another, their orientation becomes a non-issue. So I’m all for coming out at the office and then getting on with business.

  13. d
    d says:

    Most of us don’t care if you’re gay. If it comes up naturally, that’s cool. But when you go out of your way to define yourself by your sexual orientation, and advertise that fact, it’s annoying.

  14. DivaJean
    DivaJean says:

    I think my being out at work has helped in that I don’t have to dance around about who I am.

    When I started at my job 10 years ago, I was fearful of possible firing for any reason during the initial 6 months. On the day I started, I told myself I would not make any mention of my partner and my orientation- not knowing the environment or level of safety. The morning went horrendously bad– the person I was training with was asking all the niceties that you would ask a new co worker– and I was giving nothing back. At lunch break, I told myself that if I got fired for being myself, I didn’t belong there. I apologized profusely to my trainer and explained why I had acted the way I did.

    The 10 years here have been a learning curve. I got the human resources department to get real about their domestic partner benefits and have made real change. Our company was the first big corporate entity to participate in the local pride parade 4 years ago, too.

  15. Dale
    Dale says:

    “Occasionally someone – €˜comforts' you with the – €˜news' that you're still the – €˜same person.' Yuck.”

    In the working world sometimes it behooves us to be tolerant, if not grateful, for the seeming crumbs that fall from the table of those in the majority. I believe that the statement above is one such crumb. We live in a world of people who for all their vocalized love of individuality and respect for difference, are very often ignorant about how to react when faced with it. True, it is a condesending pat on the head, but it also demonstrates an attempt to make peace with difference.

    The people who say this type of thing, come from an imagined cookie cutter world, and validate that they are not like the “intolerant many” by telling others, and more importantly themselves, that difference means nothing – AKA you’re still the same person. It is revealing, and even an admirable thing when taken in the context of hate crimes etc, but it makes one angry that we haven’t progressed beyond this as a community.

    I cannot speak to your body of experience, but in my case as a straight, black, imported:), boomer, male, I am cognizant of the alternative, and am just happy to have a platform from which to elicit meaningful and permanent change, because like it or not, we are each ambassadors of our kind.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed the column, but I wonder whether it would apply to a very senior person at a company who has kept their personal life “in the closet” their whole career. Perhaps Nina could comment on this.

    I’m thinking of my boss who I suspect is lesbian. She’s #2 at a large financial advisory firm. Knowing the industry well, at this point I can’t help but think that it would hurt her more than help her if she came out.

    I think major clients would suddenly feel uncomfortable knowing this, even if most (or all) of her coworkers and employees would be completely fine with it. And even if these clients are not generally homo-phobic.

    It’s the act of keeping this hidden for 25+ years that would create a sense of betrayal…

  17. Liz
    Liz says:

    Regardless, an incredibly obvious reason for the stronger career is that people are taking clear advantage of their gayness as a protected status under EEOC. This automatically makes everyone nervous. Be careful to not offend or to rally behind the out person. The thing is, though it certainly does NOT apply to everyone, some people play the gay card. This I have seen with major control issues and major incompetence. The solution was always to promote the person b/c they were protected and fear of legal retaliation. Before people become irate, be calm and think about this. Not everyone, whether gay or not, is a fair player or top-notch worker, producer, contributer at work. If you have lived and worked long enough, you have had to see this. So, while I do not say this is true for most that are out at work, I will say there is a fear factor, and thus people are afraid to even point out legitimate concerns many times, simply b/c the person is out and demonstrative about their orientation. It’s not fair or right. Now, if the person does and incredible job, is fair, doesn’t play stupid unfair games and such, I really don’t think most people give a hoot if they are gay or not in the workplace. If you have something to teach and show me, I don’t care about your orientation. I will listen and learn and be thankful for your mentoring and support.

    This is just one perspective. Please do not take undo and needless offense. They is no hidden agenda. I am simply speaking freely.

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