Lived experience: coming out in the workplace

The decision to come out is a highly personal experience and ranges from person to person. Read on to hear stories about real people’s decisions on coming out at work. 

Mari’s story

I can remember the anxieties I felt preparing to come out at work. I was terrified. I worried that everyone would avoid me, be horrified or disgusted, be angry. I was worried that my patients would be confused and abusive. I was worried that I would lose people’s respect and not be able to do my job.

But I knew it was something I had to do. It was like there was a pressure inside me, a truth that had to come out. I’d read lots of people talking about how they thought that they’d be dead if they hadn’t come out and I found that heart-breaking. It wasn’t like that for me, but as my therapist had ruefully observed “the genie won’t go back in the bottle”. I’d realised who I was and if I went back to trying to live the life I’d lived before, I’d be angry, I’d know that who I was trying to be wasn’t who I really was and it wouldn’t end well. 

I watched lots of videos and read all the memoirs I could in which people talked about coming out, and the most important thing I took away from it was “people will look to you about how they should feel”. If you come out with apologies and shame and embarrassment, people will pick up on this and think this how *they* should feel about it.

When I told people at work I let them know this wasn’t something I came to lightly and it wasn’t a decision I had made quickly. I’d known I was trans for months, I had thought a lot about it and prepared as best as I could. I was proud of who I was and let people know this when I told them. Almost everyone was immediately positive and supportive. They were honoured that I had chosen to come out to them and wanted to know how they could help. They were curious but asked appropriate questions when I gave them the chance. Even the people whom I had worried would feel negatively about me once I told them I was trans were some of the most level-headed, practical and compassionate. 

And the ones who weren’t? Well, they didn’t invite me to talk to them as readily as they had used to, they talked about “concerns” and “just wanting to make sure everyone was okay”. They projected their own fears as things other people might think or say. But they didn’t stop me and when they realised that they weren’t going to stop me, they simply got out of the way.

I can’t promise that your coming out will be as positive an experience as mine, but they do happen this way. This is your story, you can’t let other people tell it for you. 

Thomas’ story

I worked in a team where I was witness to a conversation amongst
colleagues displaying their disgust of gay people. This was prompted by an openly gay man who worked alongside the team. They seemed to love his character because he was overtly camp and the staff laughed alongside him but when he left the room it prompted a discussion Most of the team came from countries where being gay is illegal but had no problem openly showing their disgust. 

I found it traumatising to witness the hypocrisy. I was offended by the comments which were ignorant and the difficulty I had was trying to remain impartial and asking challenging questions made me a target. 

By refusing to discuss my personal life the team concluded that I must also be gay. One member always tried to bring up issues of sexuality in front of me and because I refused to be put in a situation where I disclosed anything he openly said to the team that he believed I was gay.  

I was embarrassed and humiliated and I felt the tears well in my eyes more from anger than fear. Can you imagine a grown 40+ year old man facing this in the workplace?

The most difficult part was when I reported this in supervision I was told action could only be taken if I made a formal complaint which would be reinforced by disclosing my sexuality. My sexuality had nothing to do with the homophobia and discrimination I witnessed.

I was not willing to ‘out’ myself for this to be addressed and because I disagreed with the comments, I would be easily identifiable. I discussed this experience when talking about my experience with an “out” openly gay colleague in management and his response similar to my supervisor made me realise there are cultural differences to being gay that are unnoticed because we share much of the same stigma and traumatic experiences. 

The experience made me feel unsafe for the first time in my entire career but I was adamant that I wouldn’t ‘come out’ because my job will not be dictated or viewed through the lens of my sexuality.  

Do not feel pressure to disclose your sexuality if you do not want to. Once you have come out, you cannot take it back. Often I find that people then feel they have the right to ask you personal questions, or out you to other colleagues.  

Remember that you are employed for your skills to deliver a service – your sexuality or gender identity is personal to you. 

James’ story

I can remember when I started my first professional job in 2016. I was an intern and worked with a lovely team, who were very kind and supportive, but for some reason, I was still nervous about coming out as a gay man. 

For the first few months, I avoided any references to my sexuality. For example, I had a boyfriend at the time and we were going on holiday together. To avoid questions, I told my colleagues that I was going on holiday with a friend.  

This went on for a few months, until one day I decided that there was no reason for me to be ashamed of being gay. I’m not sure why that day was any different, or at what point I became empowered, but I casually dropped that I had a boyfriend in a conversation with my co-workers. 

There was no drama or fuss. Later on the team was curious to know more about my partner, but this was in a friendly way you might want to get to know a colleague better, not an interrogation because I wasn’t straight. 

I went on to learn that two other members of my team were bisexual, so it was a really positive experience in the end. 

Since this experience, I no longer worry about my sexuality and I continue to be my authentic self at work. 

I understand that I am fortunate to have had such a positive experience, and not all colleagues might be so supportive. But my advice to anyone who is thinking about coming out at work, I took the risk and it paid off. The relief I felt was well worth it – so if you think you’re ready then take that leap!

Thinking about coming out in your workplace? Read our article for our top tips!