For some gay, lesbian, bisexual or otherwise queer workers, trying to constantly conceal a substantial part of life and identity can be emotionally wearing. For others, letting coworkers in on intimate particulars and personal information — details you yourself might not be comfortable with — may generate more acute stress.
There certainly can be advantages to coming out at work, said Jennifer*, a 29-year-old lesbian and manager of a New York City restaurant. "It's out there, it's open... I would hate keeping that in and having it affect my ability to bond with coworkers."
But Jennifer added that coming out at a job isn't right for everyone. While she's out about her sexuality at work and with friends, she largely conceals it on social media lest it affect any future employment opportunities. Once the cat's out of the bag, she said, it's not easily recaptured.
"People also need to trust their heart and gut," Jennifer advised. "I'm lucky. I know there are certain environments where it's more welcome than others."
Indeed, working in more tolerant locations is a luxury for many LGBTQ workers. America's uneven employment discrimination laws mean coming out could cost you your job in certain places: A person can still legally be fired for their sexual orientation in 28 states and for being transgender in 30.
Even if you don't fear a pink slip, you might be afraid of subtler ways workplace bias could affect your finances or career. Research suggests lesbians and gay men earn less than straight peers: Straight women make an average salary of about $51,460, while lesbians earn only about $45,610, a recent Prudential report suggests. And straight men earn nearly $83,470 on average, while gay men make only about $56,940.
To be fair, that study wasn't controlled for factors like job type or education — making it hard to know for certain whether the wage gap is the result of discrimination.
In fact, the pay difference seems to invert if you're married: Same-sex married couples out-earn straight peers, at least according to joint tax filing data released by the United States Treasury in August 2016. Same-sex male couples had a shared average adjusted gross income of $175,590, and female couples had a shared AGI of $123,995. Straight married couples trailed behind both, with an AGI of only $113,115. But the Treasury study also did not control for factors like industry or years of schooling.
In short, there's uncertainty around whether it will help or hurt you to be openly gay at work, at least in places with LGBTQ protections. And the professional, financial and personal pros and cons will be different from person to person.
But if you need a little guidance, there are some rules of thumb you can follow. Here are three approaches or steps you could consider taking to make life a little easier. And remember: Coming out does not have to be all or nothing; there is plenty of middle ground.
It's smart to learn your company's and state's discrimination policy
Before you decide to come out or not, it can help to figure out if your company has a policy on discrimination, specifically with regard to sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign provides a list of suggested questions in its "Coming Out at Work" guide. Here are a few to consider:
• Does your employer have a written nondiscrimination policy?
• Does it specifically cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression?
• Does insurance cover domestic partner benefits?
• Does health coverage cover transitioning costs?
You can also find if and how your company ranks in HRC's Corporate Equality Index, which rates LGBTQ equality in the workplace.
Importantly, it's worth studying employment discrimination laws in your state. If your local laws protect LGBTQ workers, you are in a safer position, whether or not your employer has specific policies in place.
As Ayesha* — a 33-year-old professor at St. John's University, who is in a long-term relationship with a woman — points out, your need for legal protection might feel more or less pressing than it does for others in the LGBTQ community.
"It doesn't affect me as much because I'm not visibly 'gay' — whatever that means — so people never assume that I'm gay," she explained. "But nobody ever doubts my girlfriend is gay, which means she thinks about things like the lack of anti-discrimination protections a lot more."
Still, no matter who you are or how you look, it's safest to know where you stand. You can check your state's rules on LGBT discrimination via HRC's interactive map. Other organizations, like Lambda Legal, also provide interactive maps with details on state discrimination laws.
There are steps you can take to protect your privacy
If you decide you aren't ready to come out at work, you might take measures protect yourself online. You can tighten up Facebook profile security settings, or even suspend your account, and consider the same for whatever other social media you're plugged into: Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, etc.
It's unwise to leave a digital trail of your sexual orientation if being out could threaten your personal safety. You also don't want to run the risk of someone else outing you — or using it as leverage.
Managing the available information about you will provide a greater sense of security. Painstaking as it may be, if you want to thoroughly ensure privacy online, you'll also have to fully read and understand privacy settings of the social platforms you're on.
For example, on Facebook, you might want to be careful of what groups you are invited to, because if someone adds you to a group or event, it may send out a notification without your consent or knowledge.
This is how a young gay woman and gay man in Texas were accidentally outed to their parents after a friend made them members of a queer group online, the Wall Street Journal reported. So make sure you do your due diligence.
Finally, remember you can peek out of the closet instead of coming out all the way
Coming out at work doesn't mean marching into your open-plan office with a bullhorn: You can start by telling only those you trust and who are closest to you — if you live or work somewhere that will provide you legal protection for your orientation, that is. (Otherwise, even telling people you trust could put yourself at risk, as the best of humans still slip up sometimes.)
Sharing might actually be advantageous to you, as Jennifer explained, by helping to foster closer relationships with your colleagues.
If you want a low-key alternative to coming out to everyone, don't swear those who know to secrecy. News travels fast once it's made public, so you can let your colleagues do it for you.
Remember that the more relaxed you are about your identity, the more comfortable others will feel. And while being "different" might feel isolating right now, it could actually end up bringing you closer to others in the end.
"Being gay gave me social skills that many other people might not have," said William*, a gay man in his 30s who works at a hedge fund in New York City. He said not being straight has actually helped him in his career.
"I think empathy is a big part of it," William continued. "I think in my case, growing up as a white, middle-class man in America, I had privilege. But I also found a lot of it very difficult, which helped me develop a greater sense of empathy. I found that especially helpful in trading, psychologically, and in understanding the people I work with."
Still, if you're not ready to come out? That's okay, too. More than half of LGBTQ employees are closeted, according to a 2014 study by Human Rights Campaign Foundation. While coming out as a whole may be an important part of empowering the community, your individual choice is yours to make.
"Coming out is such a difficult process for any person," Jennifer said. "If it's done out of pressure, or if they feel like they're serving the greater good but they're not ready, it could be detrimental to them and the LGBT community.
She added: "You can really only be fully proud when you're ready to come out."
*First name has been changed to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.
June 19, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated to change a real name to a pseudonym to protect the individual's privacy.
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