Before we begin, let’s get our facts straight—er, in order. This has been a good year for LGBTQ rights around the world. In the U.K., Prime Minister Cameron pledged to legalize gay marriage by 2015. In Spain, the nation’s highest court upheld the 2005 same-sex marriage law despite an appeal. In Argentina, sex change surgery was declared a legal right last May, and our own President finally voiced his full support of gay marriage in November. That means that there are now 10 U.S. states where we enjoy that legal freedom.
But despite these gains, there is still much to be done. And nowhere is this truer than the place we spend most of our hours: the office.
According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 48% of the college-educated LGBTQ workforce is still in the closet at work. The reality is, just because laws protecting LGBTQ rights are (slowly) falling into place, doesn’t mean that people’s mindsets have caught up yet. Even if you think you’re surrounded by like-minded folks, you don’t know for sure until you’re out of the closet—and it’s fair to worry about putting your job at risk. I live in New York City, one of the most open-minded places on earth, and I still grappled for two years about whether to come out at my first job.
But I did. And if you’re currently contemplating whether to bring your whole self to work or to keep your private life, well, private, here are some things you can do to sort your way to an informed, professional decision.
Do Your Homework
Yes, I am calling you away from the TV to do your homework, and so is Jennifer Brown, founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting, an LGBTQ-owned strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm based in New York. Her suggestion? Before you decide to come out, find your company on the HRC Corporate Equality Index and the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. These lists rank corporations on their commitment to diversity, basing scores on direct actions taken to promote inclusion and equality. (HRC actually docks points for businesses with recent anti-LGBTQ “blemishes” on their records.)
Let’s put it this way: If your company receives a high score, you’re in a workplace that is at least trying to value openness. Brown also advises joining an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group (also known as Affinity Group or Business Resource Group), if your company has one. For an extensive list of companies with LGBTQ-specific ERGs, click here.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: These resources are definitely more common at big-name corporations. In my case, I was working for a foreign government and, needless to say, there were no ERGs, HRC index scores, or even anti-discrimination laws to fall back on. So I had to get creative. Since same-sex marriage had just passed in New York and gay rights were getting a ton of press, I made it my mission to listen to the office chatter and gauge how my colleagues were reacting.
For an entire month, I ate lunch in the common room, took people up on coffee breaks, and never once plugged in my headphones for fear of missing something important. I just listened and learned how my co-workers felt about LGBTQ rights. And when I finally decided to open up, I was fairly confident my news would be well-received. (For the most part, I was right, but more on that in my next piece.)
Consider the Consequences of Coming Out
Now, even though many companies are making a concerted push for equality, not all workplaces are free of discrimination. Currently, there are 29 states in the U.S. that offer no type of legal workplace protection for their GBL employees (and if you’re transgender, it’s 38 states). What does that mean? You can still be fired just for being gay.
More often than that, though, LGBTQ employees are overlooked for promotions or raises or subjected to a hostile environment—even in places with all the right policies in place. In my experiences, LGBTQ workers in banking, finance, or any of the traditionally “male-dominated” sectors often feel that coming out—or even joining an LGTBQ-specific ERG—could hurt their career.
So, how should you sniff out the potential consequences at your workplace? Crystal Jackson, an HR representative at Kearns & West, a collaboration and strategic communications firm in Washington, DC, advises paying closer attention to a company’s philosophies than to its policies. “When a company and its employees place the most emphasis on the skill set that someone brings to the table, employees feel comfortable enough to come out.”
If you (and everyone else) feel valued and respected based on your professional performance, not on your personal traits, it’s a pretty safe bet this will not change if you decide to come out. However, if you’re dealing with a boss from you-know-where, an office dynamic that oozes negativity, colleagues who employ gay slurs (even in jest), or a team that regularly derides others for their personal lifestyle choices, those could be red flags—and something to consider for the long-run.
And the Repercussions of Staying In
Without a doubt, coming out at work is a risk and, in some cases, may even cost you a job. But in some ways, not coming out can be equally detrimental to your career. According to a report by The Harvard Business Review, openly gay employees have a better chance of getting promoted than their closeted counterparts.
Why? Like most things in life, it comes down to networking. Think about it this way: When you share your life with your colleagues, you make genuine connections with them—something that counts when it comes time for a raise, a promotion, or even a recommendation letter. If you’re busy covering up your identity, you miss out on important on-the-job networking opportunities. Remember, it’s not always about “who you know”—sometimes, “who knows you” matters, too.
When I finally came out to my boss (three whole months after coming out to everyone else), my job got better. I relaxed. I answered fully when asked how my weekend went. I focused more on my work and was eventually given more responsibility. Even though I’ve since moved on, I still consider my boss a friend—and someone who can speak to my character in a recommendation letter. As I found, the energy it takes to be someone you’re not is much better spent going the extra mile, advancing your career, and maybe even making a few friends along the way.
At the end of the day, coming out (or not) is your choice, and how you go about it will be your choice, too. There is no handbook, no magic wand, and certainly no such thing as a free lunch. (OK, I just threw in that last bit to see if you were paying attention.) But while every situation is unique, and you’ll be the best judge of your office dynamic, don’t lose sight of the fact that you deserve equal treatment and respect—no matter what.
It’s also worth noting that, if you find that your workplace is not a supportive environment, you should consider whether you’re up to the fight to make waves and affect change. Yes, taking a stand may put your job at risk, but, as Jackson reminds us, “every important cause has its trailblazers.”
This is the first article in our series, "Out at Work." Stay tuned for articles about choosing the right moment, what to do if you get a negative response, and interviews with professionals who have made being out at the office work for them.