Coming out at work: four women on the pros and cons of revealing their sexuality at work

Posted by
Corinne Redfern
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Pride 2019 is a worldwide, month long celebration of members of the LGBTQ+ community and the movement’s history, which takes place every June. In the current climate of political uncertainty, not to mention the terrifying regression of women’s rights in the US and Northern Ireland, it’s more vital than ever that awareness of LGBTQ+ issues are raised. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, letting people know who you really are can be difficult and painful, especially at work. We spoke to four women about their experiences of coming out to their colleagues.

Nearly three quarters of lesbian and bisexual women still hide their sexuality from their colleagues. Stylist investigates the double-glazed ceiling...

It’s the annual office party and the boundaries between work and play are suddenly blurred. “Who are you spending Christmas with?” slurs a colleague. It’s meant innocently, but for a massive 73% of lesbian and bisexual women in the UK, it’s enough to prompt panic. Sure, it’s 2016, but they still feel too uncomfortable to come out at work.

It’s a brain-bendingly huge statistic – and discussing its implications is long overdue. According to Sarah Garrett, CEO of Square Peg Media and one of the country’s leading diversity experts, “Two thirds of gay and bisexual women go back into the closet when they leave university because they’re worried that their sexuality will hinder their job prospects”.

And while gay men are discriminated against too, it’s not to the same extent. “There’s evidence to suggest it affects women more than men – potentially because they’re already disadvantaged due to their gender,” adds Matt Horwood, a spokesperson for Stonewall.

With that in mind, those who do feign heterosexuality aren’t being unduly cautious. “Evidence shows that 64% of LGBTQ women will experience a negative reaction if they come out at work,” says Garrett. “Financial discrimination, diminished opportunities and open bullying are all commonplace.”

The monetary implications of coming out at work are particularly clear cut: just last month a study revealed bisexual women can earn nearly a third less than their straight or gay counterparts, because they’re more likely to be perceived as “immature” by their colleagues.

But for all our statistic-induced outrage, for thousands of women, these figures don’t come as a shock. After all, they’ve spent 40 hours a week bashing their heads against that double glazed ceiling ever since their first day. We asked four of them about how they handle their sexuality in an environment that consistently assumes that they’re straight.

“I pretend to be single from nine-to-five”

Sophie*, 23, charity manager, London

“I’ve been with my girlfriend, Zara, for a year, and she makes me ridiculously happy. So I do hate having to hide the fact that I’m in a relationship from my colleagues – but I can’t seem to find the confidence to come out. Instead, everyone assumes I’m single and straight – and I don’t tell them otherwise. Every so often I think about opening up, but then someone makes a comment that makes me hesitate. Recently the other girls in my team were all talking about relationships, and someone asked me why I don’t ever mention the guys I’m dating. One of my colleagues joked, “Maybe she’s gay”, and they laughed, which made me feel like my sexuality wasn’t something they’d take seriously even if I did tell them. But this time of year is particularly difficult – Christmas parties end up as five-hour-long marathons of deflecting questions and lying about holiday plans. I feel like I have to watch everything I say in case I slip up. My career prospects are also a factor. As a woman, it’s bad enough dealing with the threat of being underpaid and overlooked – but evidence shows all of that is heightened if you identify as LGBTQ. I’m very ambitious, and I don’t want my sexuality to hold me back.”

“I’d rather be out at work”

Shyla, 24, marketing executive, London

“I told my boss I was gay by mistake. Halfway through an office lunch (in front of the company chairman), he asked me what I was doing at the weekend – and with a mouthful of food and without thinking about what I was doing, I said I was going to my girlfriend’s house. It was only after the words left my lips it that I realised what I’d done, and I froze. But he just nodded and seemed completely fine. Since then, I’ve just applied that approach to the rest of the office, and it hasn’t been too tough. Thankfully, everyone is quite young and I do think living in London can expose you to more walks of life, which helps. Legally, I know I’m protected at work – which I find incredibly reassuring. If I experience any discrimination, then I can fight my corner and win. But that’s not the same at home. I come from a traditional South Asian background, so my sexuality is a very big deal. My parents are mostly OK with it, but I still haven’t told my grandparents or most of my aunts and uncles. I can’t bear the thought of upsetting my grandparents – they’re of a different generation, and I know they couldn’t handle it. The thought of losing my job doesn’t upset me anywhere near as much as the thought of losing my family.”

“I can’t risk the parents of my pupils finding out”

Isabelle*, 29, teacher, Newcastle

“Last weekend, I proposed to my girlfriend. We’d been together nearly two years, and I’d been planning it for months. But when I went into school on the Monday afterwards, I didn’t wear my engagement ring, and I didn’t tell any of my pupils. They’re all nine and 10 years old, and they ask me incessantly about my love life. But I can’t risk any of their parents finding out. A lot of the kids are from small villages, and it’s hard enough to get them to stop seeing ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ as insults. It isn’t fair, but I’d hate it if any of my pupils’ parents questioned whether I should be left in charge of their children. The other teachers know I’m gay, but when I first started the job five years ago I did keep it to myself for a while. Then I heard the headteacher mentioning her own daughter’s girlfriend, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. I feel grateful to work with people who understand my sexuality has no bearing on my talents. But we’d still have to develop an official ‘action plan’ if I was to come out, so when I’m with my girlfriend, I always hope that we don’t bump into any of the pupils when we’re holding hands.”

“I used to be open about it”

Bethany*, 31, clinical research officer, Bristol

“I didn’t plan to climb back into the closet. But when I moved to Bristol two years ago, I started a new job in a very corporate environment, and I instantly got the feeling people would respond badly to my sexuality. So I never mentioned it and now I think it’s too late. I do struggle with it. I used to work for a women’s charity in Sheffield and everyone there knew I was bisexual. But that office was full of open-minded employees. Nobody would use the word ‘boyfriend’ by default – it was ‘partner’ unless you specified otherwise. If you did mention that you were gay or bi or trans or whatever, it wouldn’t warrant a reaction. That’s what you’re hoping for when you come out to somebody new – that they won’t raise an eyebrow. And at work, you’re even more sensitive to your colleagues’ responses, because you’re so desperate to make a good impression. These days, I shock myself with how far I’ll go to hide my preferences. I’ve even found myself changing pronouns. The other day, I told the woman who sits next to me that ‘we’ had booked a trip to Copenhagen, and then she asked whether ‘he’ was excited about it. I couldn’t find the energy to say, ‘Actually, it’s with my girlfriend’. It does affect my professional relationships, and that impacts my job satisfaction – I’d like to find a new role soon.”

Stonewall can provide details on issues affecting LGBT people; 0800 050 2020, Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm

Photography: Getty Images
*names have been changed