To be out or not to be. A difficult, often agonizing decision that those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) must grapple with continually.
Recent events would lead us to believe it’s safer to be out today than it has been in the past. Last year’s implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military and the increasing number of states recognizing marriage equality are just a couple of landmark societal shifts. Yet, despite this progress, bigotry and discrimination endure and fear of judgment or rejection prompts many still to keep their LGBT identity hidden.
In fact, a 2011 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy revealed that 48 percent of those who are LGBT do not feel free to be out at work. This comes at great personal cost and it robs organizations of getting the best contributions from their LGBT talent. By covering a fundamental part of who they are, those who remain closeted must divert a substantial amount of their creative and emotional energy to obscuring and deflecting aspects of their identity. Pronoun minefields must be navigated, weekend plan conversations must be repositioned, preferred ways of expression must be curtailed.
So energy draining is this closeted existence that LGBT employees who are not out report significantly greater feelings of being stalled in their careers and greater dissatisfaction with their rates of promotion and advancement. They are 40 percent less likely than those who are out to trust their employer and 73 percent more likely to leave their companies within the next three years.
Companies pay a heavy productivity cost due to this disengagement. Closeting behaviors—and the non-inclusive work environments that induce them—not only drag down workers’ spirits, they hinder companies’ productivity. This is one of the big messages of National Coming Out Day (October 11).
On this day, thanks to the LGBT community, we also have the opportunity to raise the banner on behalf of others who feel they must hide who they are. While not presuming there is an equivalency in the ways people address their hidden difference, people with hidden disabilities, for example, often weigh whether they should reveal what makes them different from their colleagues. Same for caregivers of someone with a disability. Or the parents who have created a family through adoption, surrogacy, or other non-traditional methods. Or the introvert who has been faking it to succeed in a world that values extroversion. As we can see, there are many people limiting their potential because they don’t feel free to be who they truly are at work.
The LGBT community has led the way in illustrating both the impact of not being out and the power of being out. It’s our differences that make us stronger and the world we live in better.
The way forward is to recognize that coming out isn’t just about the individual. The environment we create impacts the coming out experience and, for many, the decision of whether to come out at all. This is particularly true in the workplace.
Unless there is an inclusive work environment—one where those who are closeted can feel free, for example, to put pictures of a partner on their desk or discuss the help they need in addressing their hidden disability, or surface their preferred introverted way to share their key insights—they will continue to check an essential part of themselves at the door each day when they show up for work.
On this Coming Out Day, ask yourself: Where is it that you are complicit in your language or silence, behaviors or inaction, in keeping people, including yourself, in the closet?
It’s time to stop being bystanders and instead start pressing more forcefully in nurturing welcoming environments that draw people out of their closets.
And for those who are feeling trapped, as these environments begin to change, it’s time for the courage to push the door open from the inside and step out of the shadows.
Adelante (onward) in the work!