“You only have to come out once, right?” were the words a close colleague of mine at a work gathering said to me. There was a pause, an awkward glance around the table, to find every face of my new-‘ish’ colleagues staring at me. Of course, no harm was meant, it was all in the spirit of ‘getting to know one another’ but they could not be more wrong.
It was the summer of 2021 and I had taken up a new role in a hugely successful company with global reach. They did all the right things where ‘allyship’ was concerned, and I mean that in its whole. But it did get me thinking, something was quite clearly still amiss. I am an outwardly open, gay woman with She/Her pronouns and a passion for DE&I, so to me this opportunity to educate was golden. This can’t be said of everyone who had ever found themselves in this position.
The truth of it is, coming out is not a one-time thing – as if the first time isn’t big enough. Sorry to break it to you.
It’s clear that there’s a privilege that isn’t talked about enough, and certainly not in the workplace. To a lot of people who identify as LGBTQIA+, the first time can be daunting enough. To some it’s celebrated, to some it’s met with relief and to others, unfortunately, it can be negative beyond belief. But here’s the catch, we have to do it again and again and again… Every time, education around the matter is missing.
I began this new job and was finding my feet. I’d agreed with myself that my personal life was off-limits at least for the first couple of weeks. During those couple of weeks, I’d experienced several comments (with no malicious intent, let me make that clear) things like, “So, do you have a boyfriend?” or “Your puppy should help you get all the boys,” and even, “I thought you were speaking to Mr Bethan.” It was after this that I made the decision that I needed to set the record straight– and there you have it, three more people I had to ‘come-out’ to.
You might be thinking, well what’s the big deal? And you’re right – a lot of the time, in my lived experience at least (let me preface this with, I have been unbelievably fortunate, and my experience is not universal), it hasn’t been a big deal. I am an openly gay woman, who talks of their personal life quite broadly. But let’s just for one second flip the reality – if I had only recently come out, or if I were only just coming to terms with who I was, this approach could be detrimental. It could cause an individual to close up, to not feel comfortable in their workplace, to not share or speak openly, to not feel supported, and therefore not be the best they can be in the workplace.
There’s a big push on ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and inclusivity at the moment. With the fluidity of the 21st century figuring its way in the world, we need to really think hard about changing habits – and your language is one of those. We need to remove the assumptions and the gendered language, and adopt a more neutral approach to our conversations. It won’t change overnight and we need to accept that we will make mistakes, but education is key. Using inclusive language is vital to having a workforce that feels accepted.
So, you only have to come out once, right?
Wrong. We have to come out every time ‘the assumption’ rears its head.