Before you roll your eyes—coming out is so 1990s—let’s do a quick reality check. Particularly if you’ve been at a job for a long time, coming out to an office full of people who feel like they already know you can be nerve-wracking. Plus, while being openly LGBTQ is getting easier, thanks in large part to recent victories for gay rights, let’s face it: Unless you work in an environmentally conscious raw chocolate factory in Brooklyn whose mission is to save the world through silliness and chocolate (this exists, by the way), it’s hard to predict how your colleagues are going to react to your news.
But even though this is a huge (sometimes excruciating) step, if you’ve done your homework and made the decision to come out, you should stick to it. But since a little friendly advice never hurt anyone—especially at a moment when your personal and professional lives collide—here are four things I wish I had known the first time I came out in the office.
Work on a Small Scale
While family gatherings are a time-honored forum for coming out, when it comes to the workplace, handling it on a smaller scale is to your advantage. It’s your place of business, after all, so be wary of biting off more than you can chew—or winding up in a conference room full of higher-ups eagerly awaiting your big, mystery announcement. (Hey, it could happen.)
If your goal is to make genuine connections in the office, speaking with your colleagues one-on-one is a real opportunity for them to get to know you better. Furthermore, sharing your news on an individual basis guarantees that the conversation remains in your control, and that you don’t feel overwhelmed.
When I finally decided to open up at my first job, it took courage (and some backtracking) to tell my colleagues—many of whom I had worked beside for two years. I started by telling a trusted colleague during a morning coffee run. I was pretty sure I would have her support—and I did—and this helped me find the confidence to keep the process going.
I also made a point of not swearing her to secrecy, in the hopes that the news would travel from there. While this may not be your style, I worked in a large office and found it saved me some legwork with people I didn’t know so well. In the name of professionalism, you may want to speak to your boss and immediate colleagues directly—before they find out through the grapevine. Otherwise, it’s not always a bad idea to let the rest of the office figure it out on their own.
Have a Script
In the interest of keeping things professional, spend some time thinking about how you want to share your news with each person. For example, I was so nervous about coming out to my boss that I waited until the very last moment and ended up blurting it out over pineapple tamales at the office holiday party—seconds before introducing him to my girlfriend. Not my finest moment.
While you don’t necessarily have to practice your lines in front of a mirror, it’s not a bad idea to have an “opening line” to break the ice, or even to write something down that will get you through the conversation. A transgender friend of mine with a great sense of humor almost always opens with, “So, you know Chaz Bono?” Another friend, who came out after eight years in the same office, prepared a speech—well, a number of speeches tailored to each of his co-workers. Since he had avoided sharing this part of himself for so long, he also made sure to allow people the time and space to ask questions, and to assure them this was not implicit of a greater issue of accountability or trust.
No matter which method you choose, having a plan for how you’re going to navigate each conversation can help you stay calm and keep things professional.
Don’t Psych Yourself Out
When a friend of mine in finance decided to come out at work, he took his CEO to lunch. He was incredibly nervous, but he didn’t want the information to reach his boss through someone else. When he explained why they were there, his boss replied, “Oh good, so you’re not quitting.” My friend, who had fretted over getting a negative response, was floored.
I can relate. I was genuinely surprised that my boss, one of the last people in the office to find out I was gay, didn’t spew tamale out of shock, and that my colleague’s response amounted to a whopping, “OK. So you want a soy latte, right?” While I had braced myself for the negative, I hadn’t anticipated that my big “coming out moment” might be wholly anticlimactic. Yes, I was relieved, but it did make me regret not coming out sooner. All that time, fearing rejection or a dramatic reaction in return, I had been my own biggest roadblock.
It’s common to want to put off having this conversation with co-workers, but by psyching yourself out over their reactions—something you have no real control over—you make the conversation more stressful for everyone involved. It might feel scary, but remember: You set the tone and people will likely take their cues from you.
Coming out for the first time is akin to riding a roller coaster or watching a horror flick—the majority of people doing it are at least a little scared. And that’s okay. If you feel your confidence waver, remind yourself of why you decided to come out in the first place. Maybe you’re tired of jetting out of the break room every time someone says “weekend,” or you’ve realized that work is about building strong, genuine relationships—something you can’t do until you open up.
And here’s a little dose of tough love: At some point, there will come a time when you’re going to have to come out at work again. The sooner you learn to be confident in who you are and how to share that with other people, the easier it gets. And, for the record, there is nothing quite like riding that creaky Coney Island Cyclone for the first time.
No, you can’t control people's reactions to your news, and you may not always encounter positive responses (we’ll talk about that in my next article). But you can work on feeling confident in your ability to handle whatever comes your way.