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23 Feb 2024

“Coming out” (and out and out) at Work

Words by Jo Gower

We’ve all seen it in the media, the big “coming out” event where you go from being “in the closet” to living openly as a queer person in one significant, world-shifting moment. But how realistic is this depiction? For me, and many others, it’s nothing like real life. 

“Coming out” is not a one-off experience. For many queer people living in a cis-heteronormative society it’s something that happens over and over again, almost every day. There’s always an initial, underlying assumption that you’re both straight and cisgender, that you fit into the default categories defined for you, and that you do not differ from social expectations in any way. This means that, when meeting someone new, there is a constant and active choice to make: to take the time to correct those assumptions and live authentically, or prioritise your safety by letting the assumption go unchecked. To “come out” again, or to let it slip.

Each time I hold my partner’s hand on the street I’m making a decision to come out to those around us. Every time I meet a new colleague or client and give my pronouns, that’s also a form of coming out. Even down to the choice to include my pronouns in my email signature, it’s a constant process of evaluating the risk vs benefit of being open about who I am. Coming out, and the risk-management mathematics required, can cause extreme anxiety. Every time you come out to someone new there’s a chance of rejection, discrimination, or harassment - and this is particularly true for trans people, specifically those who aren’t immediately assumed to be their true gender.

I’ve come out in the workplace multiple times for different identities – I came out as bisexual first, and then as pansexual (a largely linguistic difference, but it fits me better), and then as non-binary. For many queer people the journey of self-discovery can take multiple iterations before you find terms that feel right for you. This doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those previous terms have been untrue, though. Who we are and how we relate to ourselves can change over time, and with experience.  Coming out can be a personal choice, of course, but it can also be something you are forced to do to be treated (and referred to) as who you are. This can make your relationship with the concept quite complicated. In the workplace, coming out poses particular challenges. Do you declare your pronouns on your application form for a new role and (possibly) avoid being misgendered throughout the recruitment process, or do you keep quiet and take the assumptions they make about you on the chin to reduce your chance of being discriminated against? Do you refer to your partner(s) by gendered terms or keep things neutral so that you don’t become the target of homophobic microaggressions from your colleagues? Is it doing your relationship, your partner, and yourself an injustice to allow these cis-heteronormative assumptions to pass?  

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to ask these questions. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t make assumptions about you, your gender identity, or that of your partner(s) at all. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and there is still so much work to do. 

I hear people say, “why do people even need to come out in the workplace anymore?”, and I understand what they mean – it seems awfully unfair that we should have to make a statement about who we are, especially when the penalties for doing so can be so harsh. It shouldn’t matter, anyway, surely? We should all be treated equally, regardless of whether we’re LGBTQIA+ or not, shouldn’t we? This line of thinking, although understandable, does display a significant lack of understanding of the lives of queer people. It doesn’t take into account the toll of living inauthentically, of having nobody really know who you are, and of having to pretend to fit those social norms and assumptions every time you’re at work. It doesn’t take into account that still, in 2024, we are not equal in the workplace. 

Personally, I do not come out at every opportunity. Sometimes it feels unsafe for me to do so, sometimes I just don’t want to perform the work of educating someone else, and sometimes things happen so quickly that the conversation moves on before I’ve said my piece. I feel a certain amount of guilt for this, as if I am betraying my LGBTQIA+ community for not standing firm in the face of assumptions, and not living loudly and proudly at every chance to do so. However, I also feel that this choice of whether to come out is mine alone to make. Coming out takes hard work, consistency, and courage, and sometimes the negative responses are simply not worth it. 

This is where the role of allies comes in. You may not have the power to change how an LGBTQIA+ person feels about coming out, but you do have the power to change the risk of them doing so. You can stand up for your colleagues and friends, ask the questions about whether they’d like you to correct others when they make false assumptions, and actively commit to unlearning the assumptions you make yourself. You can report hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination when you witness them, offer support and kindness to the targets, and listen to how we experience the world we all share.  You can mark yourself openly as someone who will embrace queerness, and challenge others who will not. You can be an ally, not just in name but in action, and then, maybe one day, coming out will feel triumphant and empowering for anyone who chooses to do so.

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