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Leadership

Coming Out to Colleagues: What I’ve Learned and What’s Changed


Coming out to my coworkers was not a distraction and it wasn’t unimportant.

© Ekaterina79/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I am gay.

I have long debated whether I should come out professionally. To me, there didn’t seem to be any positives, and the looming possibility of a negative reaction – no matter how remote – just wasn’t something I wanted to risk. Moreover, I thought that coming out would be perceived as unprofessional, or at the very least immaterial to the work that I do.

I was already out to some people on my team, and each time I came out to a coworker, I was filled with anxiety. I wasn’t hiding anything; I just didn’t feel like it was relevant. But conversations I have had with colleagues have changed my mind. My team helped me realize coming out was not a distraction, it wasn’t unimportant. It was a sign of trust, and it was important to me, so it was important to them and to the work I do. 

Coming Out

I’m not sure it is immediately obvious but whether someone comes out to you says a lot more about you and your organization than the person coming out. Not every LGBTQ+ identifying person comes out professionally. In fact, just under half of all LGBTQ+ identifying respondents to a survey conducted by the Human Right Campaign indicated that they were closeted at work.

Reasons for not coming out to coworkers vary from person to person, but I was deeply afraid that my coworkers would either see me differently or wouldn’t accept me. In the aforementioned Human Rights Campaign survey, other reasons for not coming out to coworkers were the possibility of being stereotyped, making people feel uncomfortable, and other coworkers thinking that you will be attracted to them because you are LGBTQ+. My team hadn’t given me any reason to think that either situation would occur, but you still don’t know until you come out.

I came out to my teammates in a slack message right before last Thanksgiving. In the days leading up to sending the message, I was nervous and changed my mind repeatedly on whether coming out to them was a good idea. Finally, I found ten seconds of courage. I composed my message, and I hit send. Then I saw both starting to respond. They responded quickly, but the few minutes they took to compose a thoughtful response made me incredibly anxious.

When a coworker comes out over a slack or Teams message, you have the ability to respond thoughtfully, but in the few times I have come out to a colleague over video, I have been grateful and uplifted by immediate displays of support and encouragement.

Conversations Matter

The first conversation that changed my mindset on coming out to my professional network was with FEI’s CEO Andrej Suskavcevic. I came out to him on a Teams call. I had asked to join our DE&I committee, and I felt like it was something I wanted to share. While Andrej and I hadn’t discussed LGBTQ+ topics before, I felt like he was someone I could trust. That said, I remember my heart beating through my chest, my palms beginning to sweat, and my voice shaking as uttered the words, “I’m gay.”

Andrej immediately expressed support; he then asked whether I had considered coming out to the entire office. I almost laughed out loud at the question. “Of course I wasn’t going to come out to the office,” I thought. Maybe sensing my trepidation, maybe wanting to underscore the support, Andrej calmly added, “If that is something you want to do, know that you can do it. I want this office to be the kind of place where people are comfortable living authentically, because they know they will be supported in doing so.” I don’t know whether Andrej understood what that meant to me, or what that kind of assurance means to someone in my situation. Too often LGBTQ+ individuals see organizations change their logos on LinkedIn and other places to show solidarity for Pride Month – only to see the logos change back on July 1. For many LGBTQ+ individuals, this is a microcosm of how we are supported in the workplace – a lot is said at many organizations, but comparatively little is done to create safe environments where people feel not only safe in living authentically but also supported in doing so.

Andrej’s desire for the workplace to be the kind of place where people can feel safe in coming out is the end goal. People come out or don’t for myriad reasons, but an inhospitable work environment shouldn’t be one of them. An environment where an individual can feel safe and supported coming out is one where every employee can live authentically and trust that they will be supported – such an environment is one where employees thrive. In building this kind of an environment, words and policies do matter; however, management teams need to take tangible steps for this kind of environment to thrive. Leaders can take steps by prioritizing training on anti-discrimination for their teams.

The second conversation that changed my mindset was one I had with my coworker and mentor Olivia Berkman. We were discussing different types of content for a new platform. We discussed LGBTQ+ focused content, and Olivia and I reflected on when I came out to her and our boss Chris Westfall before last Thanksgiving. Olivia said something that humbled me, she remarked “when you came out to me, it felt like such a privilege.” She’s right. It is a privilege that is earned. The second part of that conversation that changed my mindset was when Olivia asked me if I wanted to pen a post on coming out professionally for FEI Daily. I was hesitant at first, but Olivia helped me understand that this part of my experience is worth sharing. We are all better when we exercise trust. We are all better when we live authentically. Our organizations are stronger and more resilient when people have trust and feel supported.

What’s Changed

The support that my team provides me, and the support that I can provide to them now that I’m living authentically has created more meaning for me as a professional. Also, my team can now suggest projects that they know have significant meaning for me.

So much has changed for me since coming out to my coworkers. I feel supported for I really am. This support really has enabled me to feel more purpose driven, and that I really am able to bring my whole self to work. Bringing my whole self to work no longer merely entails living authentically, it means feeling energized and engaged in the work that I perform – and proud of myself as a professional.