The Workplace Closet

[This article was originally published in DIVA’s June 2018 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]

Over the years, it has become apparent to me that part of the role of an LGBTQ+ and feminist activist is, more often than not, just to listen. I’m unendingly touched by the trust people display when they decide to come to me to talk. Be it about activism and campaigning, matters of the heart (why anyone would want my advice on love is beyond me, since I’m a notorious car wreck with romance) or even mental health issues, each message I receive reveals an interesting juxtaposition of fiercely intimate worries about issues which broadly affect all of us in some way

At this time of year, when we’re in the middle of Pride events and celebrations, the tone of the messages I receive start to change. In a stark contrast to Pride, where we come together to celebrate progress in the fight to be who and what we are, and refuse to be invisible in a world that often overlooks or intentionally erases us, there is shaking and voracious uncertainty about what being a ‘good gay’ means, and whether visibility is a fundamental qualifier.

It’s a definite reminder that, despite the victories along the way, there is still much to be done around LGBTQ+ acceptance – both by others and by ourselves, and nowhere is this more apparent than where we spend many of our waking hours; our workplace. Knowing how much of our true selves to share at work can be a tough line to navigate for anyone (looking at you Derek, and your 30 minute conversations about crack, back and sack waxing) but it can be especially fraught when you’re not straight or not cisgender.

So, let’s start with the obvious. No one should feel obliged to come out at work. You are no less valid for choosing not to, and no one has the right to cause you to feel ashamed for making what is an incredibly personal decision. We also know that coming out isn’t  a one-time thing; it’s a lifelong, ongoing process and so there’s no ‘quick fix’ way to do it.

If, however, you’re dabbling with the idea of coming out at work and just aren’t sure whether now’s the time, let’s have a brief chat about the pros of escaping the work closet, just in case you want to make the leap.

 

  • It’s good for your productivity: Believe it or not, OUTstanding found that over 85% of those who said they were still in the closet at work felt they were wasting much-needed energy just on trying to keep their identity hidden and that, subsequently, 61% felt they don’t work as hard for their company as they otherwise might.  
  • You’re the change you want to see: By coming out at work, and having those awkward conversations, you’ll be paving the way for other LGBTQ+ colleagues to come out and be fully accepted. Visibility has a snowball effect, and putting a name and a face to a cause or community radically humanises it. Your efforts now might even drive forward the equality, diversity and inclusion strategies at your workplace.  
  • It’s good for your mental health: Coming out at work is also good news for you. Having to hide a central part of yourself from others can be a huge drain on your emotional wellbeing, and can contribute to mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety. Conversely, coming out at work can help you to feel more authentic and less isolated, as you’re more able to build genuine relationships with your colleagues. Dinner round Julia’s house on Thursday? Great, I’ll bring my partner!

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to be out at work is a complex, multifaceted one. You might need to consider company policy, culture and leadership. Think about the sector and how it might impact your opportunities. But, if nothing else, remember the words of Goldman Sachs’s CIO, Marty Chavez, who said “Gay people are happier, healthier, and more productive if they feel they can bring their whole selves to work.” You decide when, and if, you can do you.

Cerian Jenkins

Queer. Hodgkin's Lymphoma Stage 4b. Activist. Oversharer. All views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and not that of my employer, academic institution, family or pets.

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