I’m a 28-year-old lesbian from the west coast. I moved to a smallish town in OK a while ago and have just started a new job. My question is, how do I handle coming out to coworkers? Should I come out? I would like to make friends with some of the people I work with (like outside of work friends) and while I don’t consider my sexual orientation to be a particularly important aspect of my personality, it’s not the kind of thing I want to hide from new friends. Plus, I am “straight-looking” and pretty cute so I don’t want any of my male coworkers to mistake my friendliness for something it’s not. I never really worried about this back west but, you may have heard, OK isn’t the most liberal place. It’s one of the many states where its OK (or at least not illegal) to fire people for being gay. So obviously the safe option would be just to keep my work and social life separate, except I don’t have a social life! Hence wanting to make friends through work.—Not OK?
Anna says: Work friends are great because, unlike non-work friends or girlfriends, they are always eager to let you complain about work. At the same time, you don’t want to lose your job or make your life difficult if your work culture isn’t gay-friendly. The HRC has a handy list of questions to ask yourself before coming out at work, including:
- Does your employer have a written non-discrimination policy?
- Does it specifically cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression?
- Does insurance cover domestic partner benefits?
- Does health coverage cover transitioning costs?
This info would be found in the employee handbook that no one ever reads except to look up how many vacation days they get.
- What’s the overall climate in your workplace? Do people tend to make derogatory comments or jokes? Are any of your co-workers openly LGBT?
- What are your work relationships like? Do people discuss their personal lives? Are they asking questions about yours? Is the atmosphere friendly or guarded?
These are good indicators. What’s the vibe like? Casual? Competitive? Conservative? People your age, or older/younger?
- Does your state or locality have a non-discrimination law including sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?
That would be a no, in Oklahoma’s case.
- Is your company ranked on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index? If so, what rating has it earned?
Once you’ve put your feelers out, I’d test the waters on one or two coworkers that seem most open or welcoming and go from there. During after-work drinks, drop in a lesbian reference or mention an ex-girlfriend in conversation and then gauge their reactions. As with other coming out advice, keep it casual—you’re not confessing a terrible sin or terminal illness or anything.
LGBT visibility is one of the small ways that we can change people’s attitudes and perceptions—showing that we are alive and visible could have a big impact, especially in more conservative environments. But just because something is good for humanity doesn’t mean you personally have to come out at work. We all have to do what’s right for us individually. If you come out to one or two people and nobody breaks out the party hats and Teva-shaped cake, that might weigh your future decisions. But hopefully not. Coworkers are with us in the trenches and can most likely relate to not being 100 percent honest about their lives in the workplace. And as you said, hiding who you are isn’t something you’re keen on keeping from new friends. So be cautious, but optimistic. You never know, you might come out to a colleague and have them reply, “Me too,” which happened to me once and was delightful. I never would have suspected otherwise.
Best of luck.
Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at annapulley.com and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your The Hook Up questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.