Being the only queer in the office can be a daunting prospect. You are forced to navigate suit and tie, “kind regards”, office conduct as a queer freak, with probably weird hair and potentially, a secret to keep.
Speaking from experience, it feels like my email@example.com inbox accommodates a healthy influx of inclusivity and diversity related emails, each of them instructing on how to behave towards diverse people in the office: including, training quizzes with thought-provoking questions like, “should you tell your homosexual colleague that you think their lifestyle is unnatural?” On paper, most workplaces will offer policies which promote the inclusion of LGBT+ employees. For instance, “the majority” the 500 largest US companies, ranked by total revenues, “have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1995, and have offered partner benefits since 2006” (Degrees of Equality Study, 2009). However, in practice, a workplace environment can feel exclusive, generally being easier to manage for those who are cisgender and heterosexual, encouraging some LGBT+ people to WFC (work from the closet).
Whilst your colleagues discuss romance and relationships, you sit there silently debating, ‘when is the appropriate moment to let the lesbian cat out of the bag?’ Even for those of us who may have previously felt secure in our queerness, we begin to sweat when the topic of romance and partners inevitably rears its head at work. For many, progressing career-wise can mean regressing on a personal level, as over 60% of graduates who were formerly out as LGBT+ at university, refrain from disclosing their true sexuality when they enter the workforce (CIPD Podcast, 2016). If employees were formerly comfortable in their identity when in other contexts, like university, then this begs the question: why do employees feel pressure to present a straight facade at work?
I would offer that work is a unique social setting because you are forced to build relationships with a set of people who you may have nothing particularly in common with, but, on some level, must get along with. Partially because of this, queer people may avoid disclosing this part of them in order to avoid an adverse reaction from work peers. Not only because it could be a bit awkward, but also because having colleagues who are unwittingly prejudiced against LBGT+ co-workers may be detrimental to the LGBT+ individuals’ career within that company. This isn’t to suggest that we all necessarily have overtly homo/transphobic colleagues, but it is the small, likely non-malicious, microaggressions which queer people pick up on within any context which encourage a hetero veneer: the questions about your partner, which presume a heterosexual relationship; the hypervigilance some co workers may have about saying the ‘wrong’ thing to openly queer colleagues; the ‘tongue and cheek’ jokes about pronoun controversy; and the use of “gay” as an insult (still). This type of language is what encourages 35% of queers to conceal their sexuality at work (Stonewall, 2018).
The crumbs of intolerance which LGBT+ workers pick up on isn’t just anecdotal. The Cost of the Closet (2015) research discloses that there lies a concerning double standard for straight versus LGBT+ desk-based chit chat. In their study, “81% of non-LGBT respondents feel that LGBT people “should not have to hide” who they are in the workplace,” bravo! “Yet less than half of non-LGBT employees would feel comfortable hearing LGBT workers talk about dating.” Building on this, “70% of non-LGBT workers agree that “it is unprofessional” to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace.” Ostensibly, this only applies to those who aren’t in conventional straight relationships. This suggests that different rules apply for queer people when divulging personal information; emphasising that although there may be some policy to protect LGBT workers, social attitudes within the workplace need to shift.
Within most mainstream settings, especially a corporate formal setting, cis/straight experiences are considered ‘normal’, and the co workers who occupy this identity don’t necessarily even realise that they are talking about sexuality when casually referring to his “wife” or her “hubby”. “Their status as being part of a majority culture shields them from reflecting on this and being aware of the extent to which they reveal their own identity in the workplace”. However, when queer people do the same, it is received as more of an over-share. This can dissuade queers from discussing these topics, limiting the personal depth of work-based relationships. Ultimately, excluding them from the group; leading to the exhausting camaraderie of pretending that you are potentially straight, because it hasn’t been disclosed otherwise.
Personally, sexuality is overwhelmingly something I would rather leave out of workplace conversation. In an ideal world, I would treat the office as a get in and get out procedure, where no one perceives anything more personal about me than my work email address. Hiding your true identity and part of your personality at work can be soul destroying, as if being chained to the desk for eight hours wasn’t enough.
Obviously, the onus should be on the workplace to enforce stringent policy and training to staff cohorts in order to avoid LGBT+ wasting time and energy on a minor personal detail. Of course, this disadvantages both the queer individual, and the organisation. If more is not done to intentionally include all genders and sexualities in the workplace, queer people will be excluded and deterred from career security.
Ultimately, once you do build the courage to come out at work, your fears of being found out melt away. It is liberating to stop wasting energy being vague about the innocuous details of your love life, you gain a small piece of power because you have decided to reveal something about yourself, which avoids it being disclosed against your will. Additionally, it gives you the power to utilise any policy or legislation that was created to work in your favour. Claiming your identity at work may lead to at least a slightly more comfortable work experience, so go on, let the queer cat out of the bag.
The Cost of the Closet (2015) Cost_of_the_Closet_May2014.pdf (hrc.org)
Degrees of Equality (2009)
Degrees of Equality: A National Study Examining Workplace Climate for LGBT Employees (hrc.org)
LGBT in Britain Work Report lgbt_in_britain_work_report.pdf (stonewall.org.uk)
CIPD Podcast (2016)
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