Coming out at work: FT staff share their stories
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When did you put a label on your sexuality or gender identity? Was there a definitive moment when you figured it out, or was it a gradual realisation? Such questions tend to weigh more heavily on people in the LGBT+ community than those who identify as heterosexual or cisgender, both in their personal and professional lives.
Openness about being LGBT+ at work is good for both employees and businesses, suggests research published in the Harvard Business Review. Closeted LGBT+ employees were found to be using energy to conceal their personal lives, and that effort slowed down their productivity. Being “out”, on the other hand, could give LBGT+ employees a better chance of promotion.
Nevertheless, the workplace was listed by 56 per cent of cisgender respondents as the most common place they had avoided being open about their sexual orientation, according to the UK’s National LGBT Survey. In the same survey, 59 per cent of trans women and 56 per cent of trans men said they had avoided expressing their gender identity in general, not only at work. That number jumps to 76 per cent for non-binary people who responded to the survey.
Ahead of Pride in London, FT staff shared their experiences of coming out in the workplace. Their stories show that it may not always be easy, but it does get better.
Read more about the FT’s employee-led networks, including Proud FT.
We would like to hear your own stories, if you are willing to share them, in the comments below. Please also note that this thread is being actively moderated. You can review our commenting guidelines here.
When someone talks about being gay as a “lifestyle choice”, it makes me wonder what goes on in their head. What choices do they think I am making? What choices do they think they are making? You don’t get a choice about who you fall in love with. You do get a choice about whether or not you accept yourself. You get a choice of being open or hiding.
That’s not to say we should judge those who aren’t out — there are situations where the choice is taken from you because it would compromise your safety. It’s not limited to threats to physical wellbeing; it could be psychological and social. Work should not be one of those situations.
As soon as I need to use a pronoun when talking about my partner, I have to make a choice: in or out? Hide or be open? Not being out is pretty uncomfortable. I don’t want to lie to people I respect and like but at the same time you can never tell what sort of response you are going to get. While the majority are fine, it only takes one or two narrow minds to make things difficult, which is why businesses need clear policies spelling out acceptable behaviour.
Before 2003, there were no legal protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, so early on in my career there was even more at stake. For some years I either avoided talking about my home life, or jumped through linguistic hoops to not give away my partner’s gender.
People know when you’re being evasive. I think on some level someone is less likely to trust or confide in you if they have a feeling you’re not going to reciprocate, even if they have figured out what is going on and have no problem with LGBT+ people.
Being out at work means I can get on with things, I can build better relationships with my colleagues. I’m no longer wasting my concentration on watching where a conversation is going. There is no need to keep track of what has been said and to whom.
Programme manager, Headspring Executive Development, a joint FT/IE Business School venture
When my former boss offered me a move to the London office 11 years ago, I didn’t hesitate. The feeling was it was time for me to move elsewhere and be who I really was. In fact, in London I started wearing a different mask — one that kept me and my boyfriend well hidden in a sort of Russian doll — one closet inside another.
One Friday, my boyfriend was on his way from Paris to spend the weekend. My stomach was an explosion of butterflies, something only those who have been in a long-distance relationship can understand. Too many beautiful butterflies to keep them all inside without sharing. Until then I had used the word “partner” during my social conversations. This was made easy by the English language that doesn’t require nouns, adjectives, verbs, and articles to be gender specific.
“My partner is coming to visit from Paris.” I said.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said my colleague.
“Yeah . . . ” I replied. And then, looking down: “He tries to visit every other weekend. Next week it’ll be my turn to see him.”
I was expecting time to stop. A newsflash email would be sent to the whole office from HR. “Paolo is gay”, the subject would read. Phones would buzz all around the office.
Nothing happened. My friends carried on with the conversation, asking me how difficult it had been in a long-distance relationship and how long we had been together.
It wasn’t me coming out, really. It was my colleagues coming out for me. I just tailed along. And I loved it.
Senior product manager
I only realised that I was gay when I was 25; it was always there but I wasn’t able to put the pieces together. I worked in consulting at the time, for a company recognised by Stonewall for its inclusiveness towards LGBT+ people. This should have made it easy, but the nature of consulting meant you often worked alongside other companies that were not so progressive. On one of my projects I’d hear homophobic and sexist remarks. As a result, I didn’t come out. Consulting also meant changing clients regularly; this raised the constant question of whether to come out — an assessment of how safe it would be to do so. This isn’t as simple as staying quiet, it’s a deliberate effort to edit out things that might result in you being outed. It could be exhausting.
At the FT, I’ve tried to do the opposite — I helped form and lead the FT’s LGBT+ network. I still find there are occasions when I have to come out to people. The default assumption is that you’re straight and your chance to correct that is fleeting; do you take the easy option and let it pass or disrupt the conversation with something that might make someone uncomfortable? A corporate environment makes all of this harder, where looking too “queer” or talking about your personal life can raise eyebrows. I know people who’ve felt the need to tone down their dress for fear of not being taken seriously.
What I’ve learnt from my experience is that it is being able to be yourself at work which helps you to be successful. This is true regardless of your sexuality or gender. If you’re not in a place which allows you do this, then change it — you’ll be rewarded with greater confidence and better working relationships.
Chief technology officer
My back-story was growing up in the Midlands, in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. I attribute my academic failure largely to the internal turmoil I faced as a 15 to 16 year old: not knowing where to go or who to turn to in a pre-internet age, and in what felt to me like a hostile environment.
And it was a hostile environment you could not really escape from. So it wasn’t really until I got to my late 20s that I felt comfortable talking about it with my family, then later in life talking to new friends, more aligned with who you are, and then to old friends — who are effectively people you have deceived for the duration of that friendship.
For work at the FT I have always been more relaxed. It is never something I have actively championed in terms of the LGBT+ community and what that should mean but as my career has progressed — I am now in charge of 250 people — I have felt it more important to a: tell my story, but b: invest in creating a culture where people can feel spectacularly relaxed about being different.
And that for me is the biggest underlying message: it is not about conformity to a stereotypical norm or a particular view of the world. It is about celebrating differences in all their shapes and forms. I am continually on a journey, and as I learn more and more about differences and how those differences are important to people, I can say that within my community at the FT, within technology, the more people feel relaxed about being open about their differences, the richer the organisation.
When a call went out to ask for volunteers to write about coming out at work I was struck by two feelings: one of utter fear at stepping into any kind of limelight to say anything too personal, and the other an overwhelming sense of how important it was to step out of my comfort zone and respond.
In 2009 I moved from Dublin and had just come out as being gay. I can’t say that there was anything particularly stopping me from doing it any sooner, but there was a sense of great freedom in being far away from anything familiar — it made it easier to be me. These 10 years have seen many a challenge from break-ups, rough patches, sadness, silliness and ultimately a path to contentment that has made me feel incredibly grateful to be where I am.
A lot of my personal journey has happened at work. During my first two years at the FT, I volunteered with the Samaritans and the need to rest on days after a night shift was always met with understanding and support. The fact that I’m openly gay was always met with the same level of support and acceptance. I marched in my first Pride parade with the Samaritans, and last year I marched with my friends and colleagues from the Proud FT committee.
I wouldn’t have been able to find my way to this point without the support and belief from my colleagues and I don’t ever want to forget that there is an immense sense of privilege in that. We all deserve to feel free to be who we are and I will be marching on Saturday to celebrate that, but also to show support to those of us who don’t yet feel safe or supported enough to be themselves.
Deputy head of audience engagement
It was hot. Sweat trickled down the temples of everyone around me. We were all crammed into a student bar in Auckland, New Zealand. I’d been volunteering for the independent radio station and was buzzing about being a part of the team who had helped set the event up.
As I bobbed about, I caught glimpses of Canadian musicians Tegan and Sara as they took to the stage. It was the first time I’d been to a show dominated by women — a lot of queer women — in the audience. As my teenage heart pinged, I wondered whether any of my new workmates could tell, like I could, that I was a bit different.
A few years later, now employed in a newsroom, I bumped into a workmate I really admired at the supermarket. I walked away from the store with my heart pounding. I’d been with my new girlfriend. I wasn’t out at work. I wasn’t out to many people at all.
I’d overheard comments, or entire conversations, about other people at work who were (or were suspected to be) LGBT+. The thought of my name being at the centre of a conversation like that made my stomach swirl. Would the weight be on me to explain myself? Did I know how to do that?
The next day that workmate bounded up to my desk and gently teased me about the cute girl I was with the night before. They didn’t force a coming out moment on me or make me feel like I had a secret to share. Instead, they simply made me feel like they bumped into me at the supermarket. A nice encounter, but entirely unsurprising. It was a relief.
Coming out can be exhausting, particularly at work when you don’t get the chance or simply don’t want to unpack the complexity in a shared space. It certainly never stops. I’ve had a lot of practice over the years, but I still feel at least a flutter of nerves each time. Even after pitching this story to the editor, knowing the importance of visibility, I thought about stepping back. I highlighted all of the copy and almost hit delete.
Principal, FT strategies
To most non-LGBT+ people, “coming out” probably sounds like a one-off event. A fabulous ta-dah! moment when a person leaves the straight world and begins a new chapter in life. But most LGBT+ people will tell you — and I can only speak as a gay man — it is less of a moment and more of a process.
First, you come out to yourself and your immediate friends. It’s about personal acceptance.
Then you come out to your family and the wider community. You find yourself using words like “gay” with increasing ease — and sometimes even joy. This time it’s about social acceptance.
Finally, you choose to come out in the workplace. To your colleagues, managers, subordinates and clients. This time, it’s about professional acceptance. Or as I like to call it, coming out for the third time.
As a community we expend a lot of energy discussing the first two, but often neglect the third. That’s unfortunate because it can be just as challenging. Indeed, it can be so challenging, many gay people choose to stay in the professional closet all their working lives.
I know countless gay men who are at ease with themselves in social settings but choose to leave their sexual orientation at the office door. They fear it will hold their careers back, so they convince themselves that it is irrelevant.
A difficult process is exacerbated by the need to continually come out, again and again, whenever you have a new colleague or client.
Being your authentic self can be exhausting. But not only has it been great for my sanity, I deeply believe it has made me better at my job.
Trust is the foundation of all relationships, whether romantic or professional. The precursor to trust is honesty. If you’re not honest about your identity, you’ll never build deep, trust-based relationships with other people. Through being myself at work, I’ve somehow built a deeper, stronger professional network than I ever imagined.
People don’t have to struggle through this process alone. Groups within organisations or cross-industry groups (such as Series Q, where I’m proud to serve as chair) help create inclusive environments. Networks such as these really helped me build my professional confidence.
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