Coming Out at Work Is More Complicated Than You Think

When it comes to being “in” or “out of” the closet at work, things aren’t as black and white as you may think.

Earlier this year, Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, hosts of the podcast Nancy, asked listeners to share their experiences of being out at work. After nearly 3,000 people responded, Tu and Low visited listeners at work and recorded their findings. They found that while 52 percent of respondents said they were out, 13 percent remain closeted. The most surprising result, they said, came in the significant chunk who said they were “somewhat out” at work—35 percent. In an episode released earlier this week, Tu and Low analyzed the results and spoke to a diverse slate of working queer people to figure out what it takes to be out at work today, and what may be holding some of us back.

VICE spoke to the bicoastal duo on their most staggering “out at work” anecdotes, what’s keeping people in the closet (or halfway out), and the most problematic professions for LGBTQ people, in their eyes.

VICE: The “Out at Work” episode of Nancy included this major survey of queer people. What were your findings?
Tobin Low: Overall, it’s not a “yes or no” question, something like “Are you in or are you out?” I just heard myself say that—it’s very Heidi Klum Project Runway. Anyway, I think what we found, and we were hoping it would go this way, was just how nuanced everyone’s stories were. There was this spread of people who were either very out or not out at all, but in between were so many variations on, “There’s a couple of people I feel out to,” or, “I’m comfortable being out about my gender identity but not my sexuality,” or “I’ve come out at some jobs but not at others.” It’s very nuanced, how people think about it.

Kathy Tu: There are also people that can’t help but be out, like certain trans folks that, as they transition, they’re just out. Sometimes it’s not even an option.

What’s keeping people in the closet at work?
Low: [We found that a lot of people] felt like they couldn’t be out, especially if they felt their gender identity wouldn’t be accepted in the workplace. We heard from a lot of teachers who were really trying to figure out what the right way was, if at all, to talk about it with their students, and a lot of them were deciding not to have that conversation, because a lot of them didn’t want to enter the fray. It can be a very fraught territory.

Tu: There are plenty of reasons not to come out because sometimes laws don’t protect you. There are certain people who don’t think it pertains to their work. There’s no one good reason why someone is not out. It’s such a personal decision.

Did anything in your findings point to the effect being closeted at work has on one’s mental health or quality of life?
Low: There were certainly stories of discrimination and how difficult it was to get a job, especially from a lot of trans folks we heard from. We also heard from people who were just trying to figure out how to share their pronouns at work and the terrible experience with telling a boss or a HR person, and all of a sudden there’s an email blast, and the thing they were trying to manage on a private level is suddenly the knowledge of everyone at the company. They’re stories where you are trying to navigate this very personal thing, and suddenly the company culture isn’t there to support you. We’ve also gotten stories of bisexual folks who would love to be out at the workplace and be vocal about it, but couldn’t, either because they felt the stigma against bisexual people was so strong or they were in opposite-sex relationships where coming out would force them to be very vocal about it. That clearly weighed on them a lot—this complicated thing, like, “well I’m not obviously out and there is not a reason for me to be, but I have a lot of guilt about that.”

What were some of the more surprising anecdotes you’ve heard?
Tu: I spent a little time in Brookline, which is near Boston with a man named, Asa Sevelius and he’s definitely one of the first trans principals to be out. He made the announcement to his school, and it’s a very liberal place where everyone is very accepting. The teachers have been great, the students have been great, his bosses are great, but it was still a big decision to transition publicly because he has to lead this entire school. The student’s parents and the community are learning his pronouns and watching him transition—because the physical changes are going to happen to him as we go through the school year. He’s still very nervous about it, but he’s still gonna do it. I am super proud of him. Everything he does is a great example to his kids.

In what professional area did people feel the most unsafe to come out?
Low: It felt like education was maybe the most fraught in trying to find the right way to handle it in the workplace, because of the kids to consider. We heard from one listener who said how retail was particularly hard for them to navigate being a trans person and not having an HR department to go to.

What advice would you give to those who are frightened to come out at work?
Low: It doesn’t have to feel like it’s just you during this process. If you find the right people who are your allies at work, and can really activate them as ambassadors, then you’re among a set of people who are setting the tone for how you want to be out at work.

Tu: People should come out if they feel safe doing so. You should feel no pressure. Until then, you’ve got to feel out what’s good for you. I don’t think there’s a need to push yourself to do something that could put you in a dangerous situation. You have to listen to your gut on this.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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