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How to come out to your place of work

By Maya Khamala

Back in June 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled that it’s now illegal to fire gay, bisexual, or transgender people (in all 50 states!) for simply being who they are, the LGBTQ+ community and their allies celebrated.

“Just a week ago, an employee in Alabama could get legally married to her same-gender partner but be legally fired the next day for being gay,” says Kelly Dermody, an attorney and chair of the Employment Practice Group at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. 

“This is a sweeping workplace...change for millions of LGBTQ workers, and no doubt it will also influence further cultural acceptance of LGBTQ people.” 

But, as Dermody is quick to point out, “The ruling does not apply to smaller employers, and it includes exceptions for religious employers.”

While all progress is progress, the reality is that although discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, etc., has been illegal for many years now, that doesn't mean it doesn't still happen. So even though it’s now legal to be out at work (for some), it’s rarely easy or simple.

Once you’ve weighed the risks of coming out, giving special thought to whether or not your particular work environment will be receptive and positive—you may still decide to come out at work, and congratulations are surely in order! 

But also consider the following pointers to help you choose the strategy that best suits your needs:

1. Be casual about it

One way to go is to casually mentioning it—and sooner rather than later if you don’t want people assuming you’re straight. No big announcement is necessary here. You might choose to drop little hints in conversations. You might try inserting a “my wife” or “my girlfriend” into a story you’re telling or referring to “the woman” you once dated who was next-level obsessed with Kathleen Turner.

2. Opt for the organic route

If you don't feel like forcing the conversation, you’re not the only one. You might instead simply wait for the right moment to present itself—particularly if you're a bit shy and not feeling rushed about it. Maybe the moment you’ve been waiting for happens when your new love interest sends flowers to your office—signed card and all. Since outing yourself at your workplace can be somewhat terrifying, a little hesitation is perfectly normal. If you're not ready, know that sometimes, the right opportunity presents itself unexpectedly, and sometimes, people's reactions are far more positive and supportive than you imagined they'd be.

3. Get choosey

Don’t feel comfortable coming out to everyone? Who can blame you? There is zero shame in that. Instead, you might simply be selective about who you feel safe confiding in. You might start with coworkers who are already out themselves, as they may have valuable advice for how to proceed. You might also reach out to colleagues who are known LGBTQ+ advocates, even if they’re not LGBTQ+ themselves. The most important thing here is to come out only to people you absolutely trust—and if you’d rather keep it private, just remember to tell them not to share. 

4. Rely on others to do it

It’s totally valid to be out to everybody outside of work, while simply not wanting to deal with it at work. If you feel that discussing your sexual orientation/gender identity at work is irrelevant to your work and therefore whatever, you might simply choose not to come out in any official capacity. Maybe you don’t bother, but if a coworker or employer asks you, you answer honestly. For some, it’s a lot less labour-intensive to speak openly when asked, rather than bringing it up themselves. Of course, there’s no need to wait for people to ask you either: you can also tell a trusted colleague or two to help you spread the word.

5. Inform your higher-ups

For some, coming out via formal channels (i.e., telling HR, or your boss) feels safer and more controllable. You might start by identifying which of your higher-ups are known allies (or maybe even out themselves). After all, if there happens to be backlash to you coming out, an ally in a position of authority may be able to help navigate the situation. For instance, rather than re-explaining your preferred pronouns to every single employee you encounter, you might instead bank on convenience by asking a trusted employer to take this on for you. As well, if you’re transitioning, you may want to formally inform your employer so they can help with updating your employee records.

6. Be loud and proud

If your work culture is one that feels safe and supportive, getting colorful and creative may be the way to go. There are countless original ways to come out, after all. Maybe outing yourself via quirky e-cards is what’s up, or maybe you take advantage of the staff talent show to put on a show in which you out yourself via song. People may be surprised, but they may also be totally there for it.

Bottom line: If you need to wait a little longer to come out at work, that’s cool. If you choose to never do it at all, that’s cool too. Whatever you do, do it on your own terms. And if/when you do decide to come out at work, remember that there really is no one-size-fits-all approach. You got this. <3

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