At an office Christmas party in 2018, a coworker from BGLAD (our LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Bain) leaned over and said "tell me something nobody here knows.” And I broke the seal—I came out at work. I was out (ish) in my personal life, but I never felt like it was the right time for “the workplace.” I should have felt relieved, like a weight was taken off my chest: everything should be great now . . . right? After years of build up, coming out was supposed to be a release. That definitely was not the case.
I quickly realized that having one person know was almost worse than having nobody know. He would invite me to LGBTQ+ events and I would be terrified to go—what would people think of me if I showed up? Do I really want to have those conversations right now? What if other people found out? Before, I never had to address these questions, and now they were open and taunting me.
Eventually, after much convincing, I went to my company’s global LGBTQ+ event in New Orleans. Even then, I tried to hide the purpose of my trip from my colleagues. I eventually came out to my manager to get the days off work—a terrifying experience in itself. The day before the event, I told 2 of my close colleagues I was going to New Orleans and they congratulated me: "you of all people would be able to sneak your way into a LGBTQ+ event"—they didn't even understand I was trying to come out!
I'm lucky to have had a supportive work environment. Not everyone does. Since then, I've had to come out hundreds of times over the last 3 years, both inside and outside of work. Over time, I’ve gotten better at saying the right words at the right time. Here are some learnings I've gleaned along the way to help allies understand what it’s like to be in the closet at work (part 1) and help those considering coming out think through if and how they should come out at work (part 2).
Part 1: What it's like to be closeted at work
46% of LGBT workers are closeted at work. Here’s a snippet of what it can feel like:
**I acknowledge that coming out is different for everyone based on their gender identity & sexuality, the country they live in, and their support system around them, to name a few factors! This post series is based on my own personal experience and opinions.
You have to edit your conversations: Every Monday during our weekly check-in, I needed to think through what I did that weekend, and how much of it needed to be edited. ‘HER’ (queer dating app) was edited to Tinder; ‘Church Street’ (a LGBT street in Toronto) was edited to ‘King Street’ (a mainstream clubbing area). Sometimes, I would catch myself mid-sentence in a story that would out myself, and have to steer the conversation sideways or just fade out, hoping nobody noticed. It was exhausting, and I was constantly torn between lying and avoiding my way through conversations, knowing that messing up would mean outing myself.
You can’t get as close to the people around you: When people around me opened up about their lives—their relationship issues, their sex lives, their family situation—I nodded empathetically and appreciated how much they trusted me. Then they’d ask me—“what about you? What’s going on in your life?” I would either respond with a half-baked, edited story of my own, or I would outright lie, and then feel terrible. The next time around, I would feel the invisible wall (or maybe I’m imaging it?) between the two of us, and wonder if I should have just told them what was actually going on.
Your partner and/or friend group has to be kept separate from work: You spend so much time at work with your supervisor and your coworkers. It’s natural to want to share those parts of your life with your partner through picnics, barbecues, office parties, and office bonding events. However, being in the closet creates two separate worlds that don’t speak to each other. If your partner is out at work and you see how it “could be”, it can be especially challenging, creating an incomplete feeling that constantly gnaws at you.
You avoid social situations:Social interactions meant there was a higher chance of conversation around personal life—something that should be fun, but often was anxiety inducing as I constantly anticipated the next story I needed to ‘edit’. Social interactions meant there was a higher chance of drinking and letting loose—something that should be relaxing, but often felt scary due to the chance of spilling more than I intended (like at that Christmas party). It takes real practice until editing your conversations becomes second nature.
You aren’t living your authentic self, and disassociate from aspects of your identity: When you fail to discuss (or even hide) a core part of your identity at work, where you spend much of your waking hours, your inner and outer reality start to become disconnected. A non-pathological process called selective inattention may occur, similar to when you tune out the background noise on a busy street. Your relationship with yourself and with others rests on a half-truth. It becomes disorienting to understand who you are and what you want out of life.
It takes a toll on your mental health: All this is to say that it’s stressful spending psychic energy on editing, lying, hiding, avoiding, being scared, and questioning. 17% of LGBTQ+ workers were exhausted by the time and energy they spent hiding their identity (and that percentage is much higher for those closeted).
Figure 1: Top reasons for being closeted at work by Human Rights Campaign Foundation (2018)
Thank you for reading my story! Hopefully this was helpful to allies looking to learn more about being queer in the workplace. I’ll be posting part 2 soon (update: posted here!) on deciding when and how to come out at work!
I know each person’s story is beautiful and unique—I’d love to hear your thoughts. DM us on ig @shimmer.care or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741