National Coming Out Day – what being out at work feels like
Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work
National Coming Out Day is Wednesday, 11th of October. It’s a day to celebrate LGBTQIA+ people feeling comfortable sharing who they are. Beckett Frith, senior content officer for Mental Health at work, is a trans man. Here, he shares his personal experiences of being ‘out’ in the workplace, and asks other LGBTQIA+ people what bringing their full selves to work means for them.
What do you think of when you hear ‘coming out’?
You might imagine a single moment. Someone speaking their truth, telling the world who they are or who they love. There might be hugs and congratulations, if they’re one of the lucky ones. Or tears and raised voices – or worse – if they aren’t.
And while for many LGBTQIA+ people, we have had experiences like that, that isn’t the only time we’ve come out. In real life it isn’t a single moment – we come out, again and again, many times throughout our lives.
Take me, for example. I’m a transgender man. At the time of writing this, I am on testosterone to masculinise me, but I have not had any surgery. I have some facial hair starting to peek through, my voice bounces around but is a little deeper. I dress in men’s clothes and have a man’s hairstyle.
I’m pretty open about being trans. I usually introduce myself with my pronouns, but still most people upon first seeing me assume I am a woman.
I get called ‘madam’, strangers tell me I’m in the ‘wrong’ bathroom, people invite me to women’s only events. I’m not offended by any of these things, but they act as a constant reminder I don’t look on the outside how I feel inside.
Who do I choose to ‘come out’ to?
And they raise a question, too. Who do I choose to ‘come out’ to? Is it worth my time to tell the bartender who has been calling me ‘miss’ all night that I’d rather be called something else, or shall I just try to let it wash over me? Is it safe for me to tell the man in the toilets that actually, I’m in the right one? Will the nice woman inviting me to a ladies’ fitness class still want to be my friend if I tell her why I won’t be going?
When we come out to you, these questions will run through an LGBTQIA+ person’s mind. Before we’ve said a word, we’ve had to analyse whether the situation is safe, whether it’s worth our time explaining, how we think you’re going to react, and if it’s going to change our interactions going forward.
One of the places we must think very carefully about coming out is work. Having a stranger react poorly is one thing, but if it’s a colleague you need to see or work alongside every day, then the stakes feel a lot higher.
But we know allowing people to be themselves at work is beneficial to both the individual and their organisation. Research from the University of Maryland published in 2019 found that employees experienced higher levels of anxiety, anger and fatigue on days when they hid their sexual orientation. However, they reported feeling more self-assured and energetic on days when they were comfortable being open with their colleagues.
I feel I don’t have to lie by omission
For Jocelyn (who asked us not to share her last name), who is transfeminine and non-binary, being out at work has helped her feel more comfortable.
“I feel I don’t have to lie by omission,” she says. “And being open about who I am means many colleagues make an effort to gender me correctly.”
And George Ankers, who is aromantic and asexual and used he/they pronouns, has found that being open about his own identity has helped colleagues feel safe talking about their own identities. “For me, coming out at work was happily uneventful,” they say. “I didn’t make a big thing of it – simply mentioned it to inform a point I was raising in a meeting or two – and it was treated as such. But doing so empowered another member of the team, who’s not closeted as far as I know but hasn’t had a particular reason to mention it at work, to reach out to me in solidarity which was lovely for both of us. It’s nice to feel a little less alone.”
For me, working at Mental Health at Work in Mind’s national team in London is the first job where I have been fully ‘out’ to everyone. The difference it’s made to my mental wellbeing is huge – it’s the first workplace where I can wear the clothes I feel most comfortable in, use a name that fits me, and be part of a bigger LGBTQIA+ community. It feels like a big weight off my mind – I’m not anxious about how I’m presenting myself, and not being careful to word things just right to make sure I’m not giving something away I’m not ready to.
In a lot of ways, it makes me feel like everyone else. And that’s a relief.
Encourage staff to add their pronouns to their email signature
But in a lot of organisations, staff might still not feel comfortable coming out. So, what can you do to help? Our LGBTQIA+ toolkit from Pride 2023 is still relevant, filled with tips and advice from an expert at Gendered Intelligence and links to helpful resources.
But Jocelyn warns that this should never be made mandatory. “Forcing the issue could harm closeted employees,” she explains. “For example, imagine if someone is out to only their immediate team, but not the wider organisation. Or, if someone is in the closet still, it might be forcing them to either come out sooner than they want to, or list pronouns that they aren’t 100% happy with.”
You might also want to talk to the LGBTQIA+ staff in your organisation who are already out, and ask them what you could do to make your workplace more LGBTQIA+ friendly. George says they are often approached by teammates who want to make sure content they are writing is using inclusive language, and he’s happy to help.
“Me being out gives writers someone they can come to if they have questions about sensitivity for any subject matter that might be particularly relevant for LGBTQIA+ readers, which makes our work better and hopefully constitutes a tiny micro-difference in terms of making the world a little queerer and a little better,” he says. “It’s worth saying that such a position of ‘default receiver of questions’ would certainly not be a positive thing for everyone but I’m comfortable with it personally and it works well for my particular job.”
Sometimes, people aren’t sure how to react
However, they also suggested colleagues should be aware that asking LGBTQIA+ colleagues for their opinions frequently can be draining. “If I were in a ‘worse’ workplace with perhaps less knowledgeable colleagues, being the only out LGBTQIA+ person in the team could open me up for being the lightning rod whenever anyone has any ill-conceived questions that it would have been more respectful to Google instead,” he explains. “To be clear, that hasn’t happened to me – my team’s been great! – but it’s definitely going to be variable depending on each person’s workplace.”
Sometimes, people aren’t sure how to react when someone comes out to them. If a colleague tells you they are LGBTQIA+, though, it’s worth remembering that they have probably considered whether to tell you, and have decided they feel safe and comfortable with you knowing. You know you’ve passed their internal checklist – you’re safe, you’re worth the time and effort, and they hope you’re going to react well.
Don’t make assumptions about them or their relationships, but do feel free to ask them if there’s any changes you can make to accommodate them – for example, using different pronouns going forward, or ensuring other staff aren’t assuming they are with an opposite-sex partner.
And, you can say ‘thank you’, if you like. They’re trusting you with a big part of their lives, and that’s an honour.