What happens when you don’t really feel comfortable being ‘out’ at work? Jesse Jones spoke with three people who came out reluctantly in their workplaces.
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Jez* has been bullied out of two jobs for being gay.
Now in his fifties, he has worked in four call centres and never chosen to come out. He’s stayed quiet in two workplaces about being gay, and been outed in the other two.
“It was—and probably still is—very homophobic,” says Jez.
“I was terrified. There was a lot of gossip and innuendo about me.
“I was eventually sacked because vicious co-workers hated me and plotted to get rid of me.”
Jez says the company was so unhappy with his homosexuality that they looked for “dirt” on him to justify ending his employment.
“I was summoned to the HR manager several times to explain petty little apparent indiscretions, such as: Why had I asked another employee for a cigarette? Didn’t I have any money? Was I on drugs?” he says.
“I’d never experienced anything like it before.”
He was finally let go for not being “a team player”, though he says the company wouldn’t explain what they meant by that.
“I was escorted out the door,” Jez recalls.
“I bumped into one of the women [I worked with] outside the building. After telling her what had happened, she blurted out the truth: she and another person had been asked to spy on me.
“I walked away in tears and caught a taxi home.”
Another call centre, in the health insurance industry, sent Jez to a psychologist for “being a little too flamboyant”.
“They said that they didn’t mind if I was gay, but I wasn’t to talk about it or subjects like Mardi Gras at work,” he says.
Eventually worn down by being singled out and harassed about being gay, he resigned.
“As you can see, there is a pattern,” Jez explains.
“Other companies are not quite so bad. But the homophobia is there and it’s very hard to know what to do.
“You certainly don’t dare to reveal it upfront as you’d never get a job.”
Since those days, Jez believes acceptance of gay people in some workplaces might have gotten even worse, because of backlash from the marriage equality debate.
For him personally, though, things are going great.
He made a career change two years ago, leaving call centres behind to become a nanny (or manny) looking after a toddler part-time.
Jez is “very happy” with his job now, and his employers aren’t fussed at all about his orientation.
He says being able to be out at work is liberating after the long, difficult lie of pretending to be straight.
“To start working at a new job based on a lie is very unsettling,” he says.
“I lived in fear that I would be found out. How can one perform around their best under circumstances like that?”
Jez’s negative experiences might be extreme, but plenty of other LGBTI people have found themselves suddenly out at work when they hadn’t planned it.
Steve* was 18 and working at his first job in retail when he was outed to his colleagues.
“No-one knew til we were out drinking after a shift and I said women weren’t my cup of tea,” he recalls.
The co-worker he’d made the passing comment to turned it into gossip, telling all their teammates about Steve’s orientation that night. While he hadn’t been keeping it a secret, Steve found having his private information shared invasive.
“It was funny looking back, but at the time made me a bit uncomfortable, because here’s a guy that I work with, who doesn’t know any queer people, running around the room sharing that information like it was his to tell,” he says.
“I hadn’t considered my sexuality at work as anything to be afraid of, but as I was new to that kind of job I didn’t lead with it.”
Colleagues’ reactions were mixed but Steve says people seemed accepting—”The fact we were all drinking helped,” he adds.
“It did make me a bit nervous to go into work the next day.”
Work was fine, to his relief—though he did get a booty call message from another colleague not long after.
“Suffice to say I did not take that offer,” says Steve.
He was lucky to be treated largely the same by everyone at work after being outed, but Steve wants straight people like the colleague who did it to be aware of how serious outing can be.
“The whole thing became much larger unnecessarily,” he says.
“In the wrong environment it could have been much worse for me.”
While cis gay people like Jez and Steve might be able to take their time coming out at work—at least in theory—many trans folks find their choice is forced by biology.
IT worker Riley* was faced with the need to come out at their current office after they started gender transition last year in their mid-thirties.
“I was paranoid as hell coming out at work,” they say.
“I still needed prodding from my therapist that the changes from hormones were getting noticeable.
“And even then, I waited until after a performance review before coming out, so just in case those scores mysteriously started dropping later I’d be able to prove it was them, and not me or the hormone effects.”
Despite Riley’s misgivings about coming out, their workplace has been accepting.
“HR was a teensy bit old-fashioned, and seemed to want to assume I’d take a holiday after they sent out my coming-out and new pronouns email—like I’d be embarrassed, or needed isolation from office gossip—but they were ultimately willing to work with me,” they say.
Riley’s workplace is inclusive and supportive, with unisex bathrooms available, and their colleagues even correct people on Riley’s pronouns for them.
After worrying that they could lose their job, Riley has instead found their supervisor has been supportive since they came out.
“He was one of the people I worried about, but he uses my pronouns, and he’s said all the right things to make me think he’d have my back if it came to a harassment thing,” they say.
“On the whole, I’ve been really lucky, and none of my fears have eventuated.”
* name has been changed to protect their identity