To come out, or not to come out? That is the question.
In fact, for many LGBTQ people, it’s a dilemma that arises every day, across various situations, over and over again. And when the stakes are high and protections are low – which is often the case in the workplace – the decision of whether or not to come out can feel like a zero-sum game. We want to be true to ourselves, and we know that staying in the closet has huge consequences. And yet, being out without any kind of legal protections can also have huge consequences.
This issue came up on my radar screen last week, when I attended and participated in our college’s first-ever LGBT conference. At this conference, the keynote speaker, who was a public school teacher and Ph.D. candidate, spoke about his painful decision to closet himself at work, despite the fact that for many years he had been openly gay in all other aspects of his life. His talk clearly touched a nerve, for throughout this past week students, faculty, and staff who attended the conference have been engaging in heated debate about this issue. And while some comments have evoked some compassion, many people I’ve talked to have reacted with criticism and hostility:
He’s setting a bad example by going back into the closet.
He’s certainly not doing the gay community any favors.
What kind of message does that send to his students – particularly his LGBT students who are struggling with acceptance?
Before we vilify or exonerate this individual for his decision, let’s take a moment to consider the landscape of the workplace. In 29 states, it is legal to fire someone simply for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In 38 states, it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender. In a recent study conducted by Harvard researcher Andras Tilcsik, when a person’s gay identity is revealed on a resume, that person is 40% less likely to get a job interview than a person who is heterosexual or who conceals his or her sexual identity. This finding was particularly true in Southern and Midwestern states – the “red” states on the map shown above – which lack any kind of workplace protections for LGBTQ employees.
Of course, there’s two sides to every story, right? While it may not be advantageous in all circumstances to be out at work, being closeted has its own set of consequences. As quoted in “The Power of Out,” a recently-published report by the Center for Work-Life Policy, “Staying in the closet has huge consequences. Those who are out flourish at work, while those who are in the closet languish or leave.” People who are not out at work are 75 percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out, and mental health professionals know that isolation is strongly correlated with depression. This finding isn’t surprising – hiding such a significant part of your identity will certainly prevent you from connecting with others. Not only do those workplace relationships promote emotional and psychological well-being, they can also help us get ahead in our careers. Knowing people and utilizing those connections helps us move up the career ladder – without those connections, closeted LGBTQs are at a serious disadvantage when those promotion decisions are made. And the data seem to back this up – “The Power of Out” reports that being in the closet can negatively affect job satisfaction and growth; compared to those who are out, closeted gay men are about 50% less satisfied with their rate of promotion, and they are 73 percent more likely to consider leaving their places of employment.
So let’s circle back to the keynote speaker, who decided to closet himself in the workplace. Is he protecting himself so he can stay employed and remain in the good graces of his colleagues, or is he inadvertently contributing to his own job dissatisfaction? While this is a personal decision, I think it’s an issue that has deep systemic and institutional roots. If we lived in a country where the employment rights of all LGBTQ people were protected, we wouldn’t have to make these painful decisions. Blaming the victim only perpetuates the problem. Recognizing the deep taproots of homophobia and oppression and working to eliminate them puts us in the solution.
The Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), if approved, would extend protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice to LGBT employees across the country. It has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, and, in its most current form, it includes gender identity as well as sexual orientation protections. If we want to be in the solution, this looks like a good place to start.