I love my job, I love my job!


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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.


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6 Comments

Filed under coming out, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

6 responses to “I love my job, I love my job!

  1. I was wondering what the ripple effects of that bold decision to come out as closeted-in-the-(educated?) workplace to a room of queers/allies would be.

    Two things I thought I haven’t heard/seen here yet are

    1- Wow. That took a heck of a lot of courage to stand up and say a deeply personal, highly likely to be unpopular thing in front of a room full of people. And, when people do things that take a lot of courage, it’s time for those who bear witness to stop and ask ourselves why? Why did that act require so much courage? What is the role of the listener here?

    2- How do we begin to measure career ramifications of being “out” in workplaces (in public sectors) in full freedom to work states? There have to be measures/studies that have approached this. I haven’t looked for them yet.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dana! I think it’s critically important to hear the stories of the closeted (or the “re-closeted”), because it paints a picture of reality. We don’t usually hear these stories, because by definition if someone is closeted they’re trying to stay under the radar. I bet if we heard more of those stories, it would be much harder to blame the victim, because it would make the heteronormativity of the workplace much more clear.

    It would be interesting to frame the research question differently – instead of asking what are the ramifications of staying in the closet, investigating whether being out can be a career asset. I’d bet that outness as a career asset would depend on a number of different factors.

  3. Oh, Gayle, I am over the top about this blog — just responding here because of this posting being a great example of real discourse. I saw your blog posted on Linkedin and feel quite fortunate to have followed it. Thanks for keeping things both real and rational.

    Now, for this particular posting: 30 years ago there was a body of research that questioned the impact of presentations — particularly panels — of a target population on changing the perspectives of agents of oppression. In other words, evidence suggested that for everyone who made a slightly favorable movement toward greater acceptance there was someone whose resistance became calcified. So, I am left wondering if the experience you are having locally suggests a termporal or institutional readiness to change; change in the direction of deeper discourse about the myriad complex issues associated with living large and real as LGBT people in the US today.

    On a personal note, I came out 47 years ago and disclosed my orientation in my job as a high school teacher in 1982 when Wisconsin passed its first employment protection legislation. I will never know if this decision was better or worse than that of my colleagues who did not (and still do not) disclose. I do know this: my decision made things different, and I would not change that for the world.

    • So glad you’re liking my blog! Keeping it real is what I’m all about.

      To respond to your comment – I recall that research that you’re talking about, and I think the researchers even put a name to the phenomenon you’re talking about (the term “boomerang effect” comes to mind). I’ve seen this in action in other situations, such as in multicultural competency training workshops. Some people’s eyes get opened to the reality of oppression and they want to work to change it, while others become even more resistance (this is the “boomerang”). I think you’re right in the sense that change is definitely happening. We’ll have to wait and see whether people can hang in there for those ensuing challenging conversations.

      I’ve been out ever since I interviewed for my current job. I wouldn’t change it for the world either.

  4. Interesting blog! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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