Ask Me Anything: Coming Out at Work

October 7, 2010  |  advice

From the Ask Me Anything questions from Sugarbutch’s 4th anniversary:

I’m completely femme and work in a very straight environment. A few of my co-workers know that I’m gay, but I haven’t come out to all of them, and I’ve been at this work place for a year. I don’t usually hide my sexuality, but it’s been extremely hard for me to relax at this workplace. I hate that, and my partner is somewhat hurt that I haven’t been open about it and talked about her. I want to be able to do so, and I want to be strong in myself and come out with it. Any ideas on how to do it? The longer I wait the more awkward it is.—Tuesday, from tuesdayateleven.blogspot.com

It’s been months since you wrote this, so this might be an outdated question at this point—have you changed things? Did you start slipping your partner into conversation more frequently? Did you out-right come out? Did you let it leak to the office gossip?

Telling your co-workers things about your personal life can be tricky, especially since you’ve already been there for a year and you still haven’t said anything, because now, when the reveal happens, it will seem out of place. So how do you start bridging this gap between yourself and your co-workers, such that you can reveal more personal things? Maybe it’s time to have a happy hour after work, or host a weekend event, if you’re comfortable doing those things. Maybe it’s time to invite someone out to lunch and open up a little about your lives.

You don’t have to start with, “By the way, I’m gay,” you might want to start with the more impersonal. In The Art of Civilized Conversation, Margaret Shepherd says that conversations start with facts, then to opinions, then on to feelings. There are a lot of facts you can gather about each other that I bet you don’t have, if you’ve avoided any discussion of your partner so far. Where do you live? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? Why did you move to where you are now? What do you do in your spare time, what are your hobbies?

I think it’s also in that book that she says the way people deepen with each other is to start revealing little things about themselves in the conversation, and then guaging the reaction of the other to see if it’s safe to continue revealing.

My mom always used to say, “Find common ground, then elevate the discussion.” See if finding some common ground about other topics makes you feel more comfortable talking about more personal things. Ask questions of them, too—as you find out more about them, you might feel more safe revealing things about yourself.

I kind of hate to say this, so I’ll tack it on at the end here, but it also could be that you are dealing with a little bit of internalized sexism, and some complicated feelings about your own femme in/visibility. I don’t know you, so this could be happening a teeny tiny bit or a ton or not at all, but I figured it’s worth throwing out there because I spent the last few paragraphs on one direction, but it might not have anything to do with that. You might be a very open, revealing person in the workplace, but have this particular snag when it comes to your own sexual orientation visibility. That’s a complicated thing to work with, as a femme who can, if she chooses, “pass” for a straight girl in the larger hetero world. There are many ways that femmes construct identity which are not strictly through visual markers, however, and articulating that identity—namely through speech and communication—is a big one. It might be a hurdle to examine and investigate in yourself a little more.

What say you all? Do you have more advice for this person in coming out at work? Are you out at work?

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9 Comments


  1. I am a femme and I definitely struggle with making my queerness visible in the office. I agree with Sinclair that starting with small facts about your life in everyday conversation is a great way to approach this. I make an effort to always use female identifiers when telling stories about my personal life – i.e., “the girl I’m dating does x or (useful if you’re not currently dating anyone) “I used to date this woman who x.” I worried in the past that this would make people awkward, so I would talk about “someone I dated.” After awhile though, I realized that it’s other people’s job to manage their surprise or awkward feelings – not mine. Same goes for the fact that you have been in the job for a year and people don’t know you’re queer – you can come out when, where, and however you feel comfortable. If it’s taken you a year, that is totally okay! If people are surprised or it’s awkward when you start mentioning your partner now, that’s on them and not on you.

    I also think Sinclair’s point about internalized sexism and femme invisibility is well worth considering. This post also made me think about the way many women-identified people are socialized to feel like we have to manage other people’s emotions at our own expense.

    I should add that I am lucky enough to work in an office that is fairly traditional but also very liberal. I definitely experience a lot of heteronormativity and sexism directed my way, but I will never lose my job because of my sexuality. This makes coming out obviously a whole lot easier.

  2. (Also, the above obviously only works if you’re dating/have dated someone who uses female pronouns, which seems to be the case for this reader.)

  3. "I don’t usually hide my sexuality, but it’s been extremely hard for me to relax at this workplace."

    This sentence was the most significant part of the whole question to me. There is something you're likely picking up about your coworkers that's making you uncomfortable and unable to come out to them. Don't ignore that. Your gut is telling you something.

    I get it – at my last job, I worked with a team of women who were incredibly petty, and happily threw each other under the bus on a daily basis. All they did all day was talk about their lives. I knew about that one's alcoholic husband, this one's latest conquest's dick. And yet, I never ever shared anything about myself because I saw that they were not nice people. I never threw anyone under the bus and I never gossiped, and they eventually pushed me out of there. I wonder sometimes if I'd been open about being gay if things would be different, because several coworkers (in another part of the office) were clearly gay and lesbian and open about it. I guess I just didn't like nor trust them and didn't feel I owed them anything about my personal life whatsoever.

    I've never been out at work as of yet. It definitely is a choice when you are femme, and it's a hard one to make. I like my privacy and really like to keep my work separate from my private life so I don't know that I will come out at work, at least not now while I'm single. But it does get harder and harder to stay in because I can't pretend I think the UPS guy attracts my attention for his package that doesn't come in a box.

    If you do want to come out and mention your partner at work, do so with the help of the coworkers who already know. Perhaps in the cafeteria, talk about your partner with the coworker who already knows in front of coworkers who do not. If you have that safety of someone you trust there, it will be easier to broach the subject with those you're still feeling out.

    • Disagree with first paragraph here. Feeling uncomfortable might be a reaction to something about the coworkers, or it might well be a reaction to the unnatural, uncomfortable situation of not being open with them about basic aspects of one's own life.

      • Possibly, but the next sentence of her question says this:

        "I don’t usually hide my sexuality, but it’s been extremely hard for me to relax at this workplace. "

    • That same sentence set off an alarm for me, too. I'm very femme in appearance, and I pass easily. In my last workplace, both of my bosses were gay men, so I knew I wasn't going to lose my job or respect for my sexual orientation. Hell, they hired me knowing I was queer. But my co-workers were huge gossips who loved to talk dirt about anyone. My supervisor made it clear he was very sexist, through nasty comments about how pregnancy leave shouldn't be allowed and by referring to my clients and coworkers as "whores" behind their backs. So I left my whole personal life out of the office. I was polite with everyone and careful not to make negative comments about anyone. But I didn't answer personal questions and I didn't talk openly about my personal life. Granted, I wasn't close to anyone there, so as you said — it made it hard to relax.

      I did find that when people started asking about who I was dating, I slipped my girlfriend's name into a conversation I was having with the biggest gossip in the office. I didn't have to out myself to anyone else, because he did it for me. Also, I think it's easiest to start with the people you feel comfortable with first. You can always slip things into conversation on a neutral topic — "Oh, did you see this movie? I saw it with my girlfriend this weekend and we loved it!" I find that pop culture references are really easy ways to start a conversation, because movies, music, etc. are so widely known and pretty value-neutral. Plus with so many gay/lesbian characters and actors/actresses on TV, you can sometimes judge someone's reactions by mentioning Ellen or a specific movie with a gay/lesbian subplot.

      Good luck with everything. I have to agree with Sinclair saying their reaction is their problem (and their loss if they shy away from you), not your own — "give me the strength to change what I can and the patience to accept what I cannot" kind of thing. :)

  4. Wow Sinclair,

    Thanks you for featuring my question here! Your thoughtful response and insight helps.

    Acutally, you do kind of know me – I'm one of your friends on flickr :)

    To answer your question, I haven't completely come out at this point. One of your reader's responses is true. There is something about this particular group of people that makes me stop and think about sharing this part of myself. It's that many of them are religious. I'm trying not to make assumptions though about religious people. I'm trying not to make assumptions in general in life (have you read The Four Agreements?- very good book). Some of your readers have great suggestions. I am trying to feel it out with each of my co-workers ( I definitely don't discuss my sexuality with my clients. I teach pilates and am a personal trainer). It is tricky to know how much of yourself to share sometimes, but also true that I feel like a large part of who I am, of my strength and power, is related to my sexuality, and in a sense I'd love to be able to put that out there and for people to get it. I think you know what I mean. I have come out to one more person at work lately, and that went well. I just slipped my partner's name into conversation ( I think this co-worker already had her suspicions or heard from someone else that I've told). I don't want people to feel like I'm ashamed of it, and you're right.. I have been trying to think about my feelings around sexism. That's important.

    I think that really, my work place is not as uptight as it seemed at first to me. But yes, if people have a strong reaction to this, it is THEIR THING and not mine. I think I need to really feel this, know it, and be okay with it.

    Thanks again.. so very much,

    xo,

    -Tuesday

  5. I'm also struggling with coming out at work. I'm a femme who hasn't had a lot of practice coming out, because I only came out to myself shortly before going to college, and then I went to Smith College, where I never had to Come Out because I never felt that people assumed that I was straight and I didn't feel like I was making a big revelation when I talked about my past or present girlfriends, attractions, etc. Now I live in DC, and it's hard for me to get used to the fact that people assume I'm straight.

    My coworkers all appear to be liberal, accepting people. I'm not afraid of coming out to them. What makes it hard, though, is that I'm now married to my butch, and she prefers to be referred to as my husband. This means that I can't refer to her in casual conversation without either feeling like I'm misrepresenting her identity (by calling her my partner) or erasing my own identity (by calling her my husband) or creating a socially awkward situation in which I will probably be expected to explain our relationship and gender identities in more depth than fits easily into casual office conversation (by calling her my husband and pointedly using female pronouns, which she prefers). Since I have moderate social anxiety (and I'm socialized as a woman to be accommodating), I find it pretty threatening that I may make someone uncomfortable by so blatantly challenging their ideas about gender, and that I would feel compelled to give at least some minimal explanation – if only to confirm that yes, I just said "husband" and "she."

  6. I worked in the cellular industry for most of the last five years. I also started my relationship with Jay at the beginning of five years. At that time Jay was Jennifer and she was my first true relationship with a female. I was fairly young when we started dating. I was Twenty-three, fresh out of a four year marriage with a preacher’s son, and had no CLUE what the real world was like. I came out to my family without hesitance. I’m one of the lucky few that have family that have always stood by my side. However, because I had only worked as a teenager before getting married, I was unsure about the world I was stepping into. When I started working, I talked about Jennifer they way I would have talked about any significant other. I’m extremely feminine, so this brought about a whole slew of questions. That got irritating very quickly. I’m from Tulsa, OK, the belt buckle of the bible belt. I once had a lady tell me that I was too pretty to be gay. How do you respond to that? Then Jay started transitioning. Talk about confusion. Oy. It did make conversations with clients easier, well at least the new ones. I’m a personable person. I tend to open up with people and they open up to me. I’ve heard a lot of ignorant comments and answered a lot of ignorant questions. I was lucky to work for a company that claimed to value diversity, so having a queer around helped them maintain that they are diverse, garsh darnit. It’s hard. Sometimes, it’s just easier to avoid the conversation. Sometimes, I don’t want to have the conversation. Not because I’m scared, but because I just don’t feel like having a conversation about queer gender relationships. Sometimes, I just want to talk about my relationship. Sometimes, I could care less about talking about my relationship and Jay’s name just happens to pop up in a conversation about shopping. I suppose that makes me rude. I don’t mean to be. Like I said, after Jay started transitioning it made the conversations with strangers much easier, but it made conversations with people I knew longer and kind of boring. It can make things uncomfortable. It can cause arguments. It can show you how truly ignorant some people are. I understand wanting to avoid those conversations. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to choose who you want to have those conversations with. Who are we sharing ourselves with? Are they people who want to know more about us for possible friendship or just so they have something to talk about over the “water cooler”. Is it someone looking for a debate or for answers to their questions? We never know where our words are going to plant themselves after they are spoken but it’s still worth looking for good soil. (so corny)

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