Although I feel very comfortable about my sexuality, I was not out in the workplace before starting my MBA. Convincing myself that it was not important for my professional life, I usually danced around innocuous questions like, “Do you have a girlfriend?” or, “What did you do over the weekend?” I didn’t mind telling my colleagues once they knew me better and wouldn’t be influenced by any prejudice they may have towards gay people.
I’m not sure if coming out early on would have changed my professional path or achievements, but I did come to the realization that until then I didn’t have the courage to be my true self. Hiding my sexuality meant consistently having to twist messages about my personal life for superiors, subordinates, and clients. These colleagues and clients could sense my discomfort, diminishing the trust between us.
People often refer to business school as a place for exploration–a safe environment where they can try new things, whether it’s professional, social, or personal. A few days into my MBA, after the term “gay” had been mentioned for the third time in conversations, I realized I was about to fall back into my old habit–pretending to be straight and hiding a part of who I am.
This time I wanted to be more courageous, so I told my study group I was gay. After one week in the MBA program, I was out and it felt surprisingly good. And, although I didn’t plan to, I’ve explored a new level of openness regarding my sexuality.
At EurOUT 2013, an annual LGBT conference held in early November, several senior LGBT professionals shared their insights on how they dealt with difficult workplace situations related to their sexuality and how LGBT support networks are organized within their company. The discussions made me realize that the main reason I was cautious about coming out in the workplace was due to a lack of openly out role models. That’s when I decided that the presence of a support network and role models within a company would be important when choosing a job after graduation.
Many straight–and even some LGBT–professionals don’t see the importance of being open about their sexuality, considering it a private, not professional, matter. But when Apple CEO Tim Cook came out to the public, he sent a signal that you can be gay and lead one of the most influential organizations of our generation. I’m convinced it will inspire many LGBT professionals to come out, or stay out, once they join a new company. While I understand why people question the importance, I believe that hiding a piece of who you are hinders your productivity.
The main sponsors of the EurOUT 2014 conference, Bain, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey, all promote diversity. They understand that talent comes in all forms and that diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams. Moreover, they all have LGBT role models in senior positions within the organization, strong LGBT support networks, and benefit plans for same sex couples that equal those in place for straight couples.
This summer I accepted an internship with Bain & Company and attended its BGLAD conference, the biannual gathering of LGBT consultants. Besides inspiring keynotes, the conference provided a worldwide network of colleagues and friends, making me feel extremely comfortable about being gay at the company I will join after graduation.
Once I overcame the struggle of accepting myself and understanding how to deal with my sexuality in a professional context, I believe I became a stronger, more self aware, and trustworthy person.
—Thomas Artoos is copresident of the Out in Business Club. He is a 2015 MBA graduate of London Business School.