The LGBTQ community and our allies rejoiced in June 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled that it’s now illegal—in all 50 states—to fire gay, bisexual, or transgender people for simply being who we are and loving who we love.
According to the decision, employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation “is now sex discrimination prohibited by federal law,” explains Kelly Dermody, an attorney and chair of the Employment Practice Group at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. “Just a week ago, an employee in Alabama could get legally married to her same-gender partner but be legally fired the next day for being gay. This is a sweeping workplace…change for millions of LGBTQ workers, and no doubt it will also influence further cultural acceptance of LGBTQ people.”
But it could also cause a backlash, and many LGBTQ employees fear they won’t be able to completely let down their guards. “The government can legislate policy, but they can’t legislate how someone feels,” says Christine, a psychotherapist and trans woman. (Christine, like many of the folks who spoke with The Muse for this article, asked to use her first name only to protect herself, her colleagues, and/or her employer.) After all, even though discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, etc. has been illegal for years, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, or that we’ve reached equity.
Yes, it’s now finally legal to come out and be out at work, but it won’t be easy or so simple for everyone. First of all, “There are a few caveats. The ruling does not apply to smaller employers, and it includes exceptions for religious employers,” says Dermody, a lesbian. Plus, she adds, “There are bad actors out there who will still act with hostility toward LGBTQ employees.” So figuring out if—and how—to come out at work can still be complicated.
Should You Come Out at Work?
Weighing whether or not to come out at work depends on so many factors, including where you live, whether you’re out to family, what kind of industry you work in, and how you identify, whether lesbian, gay, trans, bi, or queer.
Each identity has its own set of specific concerns, biases, and issues. A trans woman, for instance, may fear using the restroom of her choice at the office more than a straight-passing lesbian. On the other hand, a straight-passing lesbian may worry about having to come out more frequently, sometimes several times a day to different clients or customers. Heather, who is a lesbian and works as a TV writer, married a woman, but “everybody at work assumed it was a man,” she says. “Not a single person left it open. Everyone said, ‘What’s your husband like?’”
If you have concerns or hesitations about whether or not to come out at work, you’re not alone.
Consider Culture and Relationships
If you’re an LGBTQ employee considering whether to come out, you might be worried about becoming the target of transphobic or homophobic hostility. For many LGBTQ people, the harshest workplace experiences often arise from an employer’s hostility to anyone or any behavior perceived to be gender nonconforming (e.g., masculinity in women, femininity in men, etc.). “This might be reflected in comments about appearance, mannerisms, voice, etc.,” says Dermody.
You might also fear being isolated socially, or having to deal with comments, questions, and conversations inappropriate in the workplace. Nate, a tennis pro at a private club in New York City, says everyone at work “just assumed I was straight, being an athlete.” He worried that if he came out as gay his high-end clients—influential CEOs, directors, and real estate developers—would reject him. James, also a gay man, worked at a men’s magazine that “was a total straight boys club. My coworkers had very loud conversations and made lots of jokes about gay people.”
In some cases, you may be able to collect clues—about people’s views and attitudes—that will influence whether or not you feel safe coming out. So observe how your leaders and colleagues treat LGBTQ folks internally—if there are others who are out—in meetings, at lunch, etc., and how they talk about LGBTQ folks who are in their lives, in the news, on TV, or purely hypothetical.
“Think about your workplace culture [and] how coming out at work may be perceived,” says Amber Clayton, Knowledge Center Director of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Get insights and ask questions from others who may have come out at work,” she says. And based on what you’ve observed and learned, “Think about whom you want to disclose this information to and how you will communicate it.”
Consider the Professional Effects
“All historically underrepresented people, including LGBTQ employees, face high risks for being treated differently in hiring, promotion, evaluation, assignments, discipline, or termination,” Dermody explains. “This could be in the form of exclusion, different and more onerous standards, or less tolerance for mistakes, among other things.”
In some cases, you can check to see how your company scores on the HRC Corporate Equality Index. Whether or not it’s listed there, you can also look to its policies and track record—which should ring louder than what’s written in an employee handbook. Have out LGBTQ employees been hired, set up for success, recognized, and promoted in the past? Is there an active LGBTQ employee resource group? Is the company supportive of it—in terms of sentiment and funding? Have LGBTQ folks disproportionately left the company? All of these things can give you more clues about how coming out might affect your professional trajectory at your organization and help you decide whether you feel safe doing so.
“Educate yourself on your employer’s policies on anti-discrimination, harassment, equal employment opportunity, and code of conduct,” Clayton stresses.
Then if you come out and feel targeted, you need to let someone know, and use your human resources department if your manager is not sufficient. “Take personal notes of when negative events are happening, what was said or done and by whom, and who witnessed it or knew about it,” Dermody explains. “If the issues are not resolved and the employee wants to protect his/her/their legal rights, it is probably time to speak with a lawyer.”
Consider the Impact of Not Coming Out
It’s undeniable that there can be professional, social, and emotional consequences to coming out. But don’t forget that there can also be consequences to not coming out. Research has suggested that LGBTQ employees who are out might be more likely to get promoted than those who aren’t. A 2018 report from the Human Rights Campaign found that 17% of LGBTQ workers were exhausted by the time and energy they spent hiding their sexual orientation.
“Most people who are out report a great reduction in the stress that comes from otherwise keeping a secret,” Dermody says. “It can be freeing to bring one’s authentic self to work instead of spending psychic energy trying to hold one’s full self inward or worrying about an unplanned disclosure.”
That said, you have to do what feels right for you. The bottom line is that your decision of whether or not to come out at work “is obviously a matter of personal preference,” Dermody says.
If you do decide to come out, “there is no right or wrong way,” Clayton says. “Much of it depends on the company culture and employee comfort in sharing the information.” In other words, coming out is not one-size-fits-all.
1. Rip the Band-Aid Off, Casually
One way some people choose: Get it out in the open as soon as humanly possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean blurting it out during a meeting. You can drop not-so-subtle hints in conversations.
As a TV writer, Heather often switches jobs, sometimes finding herself on a new staff every six months. Because so many people assume she’s straight, she always outs herself within a couple of days to get it out of the way. “Generally for my own piece of mind I try and come out very quickly,” she says. It can feel clunky to make a formal announcement, so you can just weave it casually into conversation. “I try to wedge in a ‘my wife’ or a ‘when I was dating this woman’ just so people don’t assume,” Heather says.
2. Let It Happen Naturally
If it feels forced to bring it up, you can also wait for an opportunity to present itself, especially if you’re on the shy side and not in a rush.
Erin was firmly in the closet at work when she took a job at a daycare center in a conservative town. She’d already had a horrible experience working at a gymnastics center, where a gay coworker had been fired for being a “poor role model,” she says. “I quit on the spot. I grabbed my shit and left.” So she was hesitant to out herself at her new job. Then, one day out of the blue, a woman she was dating sent flowers to her work. “Not being openly out I was mortified,” Erin laughs. “Of course everyone wanted to know who they were from. Since I was tight lipped they assumed it was one of the dads of the kids,” she says. “Eventually, one of the workers saw how uncomfortable I was with people asking and said, ‘It’s a girl, isn’t it?’ That pretty much outed me but luckily everyone was really supportive.”
For Erin, the right opportunity snuck up on her even if she wasn’t quite waiting for it. But you can also adopt this as a conscious strategy—one where you wait for an opening and seize it.
3. Do It Selectively
If you don’t feel comfortable coming out to everyone, you can pick and choose who you feel safe coming out to. “Confide in people at work who are already out who could be a sounding board for you, or befriend coworkers who are strong advocates for LGBTQ issues, even if [they’re] not LGBTQ themselves,” Dermody recommends.
Mallory, who identifies as pansexual or demi (“basically I only have sexual attractions to people I emotionally connect with, it’s the + part of LGBTQ+”), worked at a restaurant where the general manager was homophobic and, before the Supreme Court decision, fired an employee for “life choices that were inappropriate for the workplace.” So she decided to come out only to people she trusted, and she did it in “private conversations with coworkers, just about life and dating and dating apps.” The same was true for Maggie, who has dated both men and women and doesn’t believe in “so-called labels.” When she worked for a very conservative corporation that also happened to have a lot of LGBTQ employees, “I knew who I could trust with discussing my dating life with and knew who I didn’t feel comfortable discussing my dating life.”
Just remember, if you don’t want to be out to everyone, be sure to tell the people you do come out to not to share.
4. Ask Others to Do It
Maybe you’re out to everyone you know outside of work, but just don’t feel like dealing with it in the workplace.
Hannah, who identifies as “lesbian, gay, anything,” and works in the microfinance nonprofit world, is proud of who she is but had no desire to make it a topic of discussion at work, so she didn’t ever come out, per se. Then once on a plane, her boss reached across the aisle, tapped her cross-legged foot and asked to talk to her because he felt like he had been keeping it secret from her that other people kept asking him if she was gay. She told him it was fine for him to tell her coworkers that yes, she was indeed gay.
This has become a regular method for Hannah; if her fellow employees ask her about being gay, she talks openly and also tells them it’s OK to tell other people. “They do the work for me!” she says. And you don’t have to wait for people to come to you. You can also enlist your colleagues by telling the few you do actively come out to that you’d like their help spreading the word.
5. Tell HR, Your Boss, or Another Manager
Some LGBTQ employees may prefer to go through formal channels to protect themselves and get support. Look for your higher-up helpers: Identify a person or people at work who are in power positions and are known allies, like a supervisor or an HR person. “They can help run interference if there is a backlash,” Dermody explains, and otherwise help navigate the process and make it easier for you.
Samee, who is nonbinary and works at a theater, was frustrated that they had to explain their they/them pronouns several times a day to all the different workers and performers coming and going. So, more out of convenience than anything else, they asked their boss to explain their pronouns for them.
If you’re going through a transition or gender reassignment, you may want to disclose this to your employer in a more formal way so that you can work through updating employee records for name changes and other logistics, Clayton explains. It can also be helpful to discuss how to communicate the change with supervisors and coworkers, how to ensure your correct pronouns get used, and more.
6. Get Creative
There are infinite ways to come out, and you can pick whatever fun, artistic, or quirky way feels right for you and your particular situation.
Sarah, for example, texted postcards to everyone she knew, including her coworkers, coming out as a lesbian. “Let’s get one thing straight…I’M NOT,” the rainbow-colored card said, and showed a celebratory picture of Sarah jumping for joy. The responses were immediate and glowing. “Congratulations!” “Very cool way to announce!” “This is fabulous!” “I have so much respect for you!” And best of all, one formerly closeted friend responded, “Me neither lol.”
Nate, the tennis pro, is also an accomplished pianist, and he literally put on a show called “The Man I Love” at a jazz club and invited family, friends, coworkers, and clients. “The main reason was to come out to everyone at once, and celebrate the only way I knew how,” he says. “They were totally surprised but they drank with me afterward. What I learned from that experience warms my heart to this day. Many people think sports and country club culture is anti-progressive. I have not had that experience.”
7. Take Your Time
Some LGBTQ employees may wait a little longer to come out at work or never do it at all, and that’s perfectly OK, too. “Remember, it’s up to you whether you want to come out at work or not,” Clayton says. “Do it on your own terms and when you are ready.”
If you are able to come out and don’t have to worry about hiding your identity any longer, “the payoff will be worth it,” Dermody says. “You may even be pleasantly surprised at how little reaction there is from coworkers or management, and you may be the beacon for other LGBTQ coworkers to come out as well.”
For Christine, the fear of people’s reactions held her back from coming out in graduate school. She struggled with the decision, even though it was a social work institution, and cultural sensitivity was part of the curriculum. “That does not stop people from being people,” she says. But when she finally decided to come out in her final year, she was embraced by her professor and classmates. “I was able to use the proper restroom without any trouble. Instead of hearing, ‘Get out, you freak!’ I heard, ‘Hey, girl!’”