It happened to me just the other day. I was having coffee with a colleague, and we’d moved onto the subject of partners. Rather esoterically, we were discussing how he and his girlfriend had learned to play the piano in different ways: one by ear, the other from reading sheet music. It reminded me of my boyfriend, a conductor, with whom I have had similar conversations about music. “Yes,” I said, in reply. “In fact, my boyfriend and I talked about this just yesterday.”
And there it was. That same old, subtle freeze of the eyelids, when someone realizes you are gay.
It still isn’t entirely comfortable being out in the workplace. Victimization has largely been replaced with the sort of awkwardness I described above, which likely has more to do with not wanting to offend someone then with homophobia. However, for me and for millions like me, it is an alienating experience, which makes a person think: “Why bother?” when it comes to coming out. It just doesn’t seem worth the hassle.
But there are, in fact, a lot of reasons to come out. Goldman Sachs’s CIO, Marty Chavez, shared why he encourages people to come out at work in a recent talk he gave to an assembly of tech LGBT people at Goldman Sachs. He said, “Gay people are happier, healthier, and more productive if they feel they can bring their whole selves to work.”
A recent survey of 200 senior LGBT business figures from the LGBT professional network seems to affirm his view. In the survey, 85% of those polled thought closeted workers were spending too much energy pretending to be straight, and 61% said as a result, they will not work as hard for their company. Almost all participants–over 80%–said they thought hiding your true self at work reduced confidence, created anxiety, and isolated LGBT workers from their colleagues.
OUTstanding CEO Neil Bentley says we’ve come a long way in helping people see that they can be themselves at work, but we’ve got a long way to go yet. “Judging from our members, the state of people out at work is good, but there’s room for improvement.” He reports another statistic from the survey: “Just 24% of the executives polled believe middle managers have an inclusive attitude towards LGBT colleagues.” In a similar report from Out Now, 20% felt they could not be out at work at all.
Bentley says it isn’t just individuals who suffer. “If you’re hiding things about yourself, people perceive that, [which] drains morale. Individual productivity suffers, so team performance suffers,” he says. “Especially at a time when competition, as in the tech sector, is so stiff. [Leaders] need to make sure employees are performing at their best.”
Adrian Barlow, a partner at the law firm Pinsent Masons, describes his experience coming out in the 1990s along similar lines.
I tried to come out to my line manager in 1990, but he told me, rightly or wrongly, that several senior partners would not be accepting of my being gay and that I should stay in the closet. I felt deflated. It had been a major step to come out at all, even to one person.
I felt I had lost my way, and that the firm didn’t value or support me. I didn’t want to perform well for the firm that was rejecting such an important part of who I was. I started to care about my work less, resulting in a poor performance review. That then made me look for employment elsewhere: I started to look for employers where being gay wouldn’t be an issue.
Barlow remained at Pinsent Masons, eventually rising to his senior role where, today, he can act as an example for younger gay lawyers. He says:
I realized that I was just seeking to hide in a ghetto. I took advice from the then chair of Stonewall, who told me to come out in my own time as my confidence grew. I was advised to be the best I could be at my job, become valued as an employee and colleague in the workplace, and once I had established myself and earned the respect of my colleagues, I would be more likely to rise to a position of influence, where I could help change the culture of the business from within.
Bentley recommends two things that businesses can do to improve the situation for LGBT people in the workplace. The first is having senior role models like Barlow, who encourage younger gay employees. As empathy is such an important quality in leaders, it’s important to realize that being gay today means still seeing that people like you are still second-class citizens in many parts of the world.
He’s not suggesting hiring people for senior positions because they’re gay. But making clear from the upper echelons that being gay is not a hindrance or an issue for middle and upper management will lift a weight from their shoulders.
Simon Feeke, director of membership programmes at advocacy group Stonewall in the U.K., says LGBT employees feel anxious about the views of upper management on personal issues. “Gay [people] go to work with very real anxieties about management, for instance, whether they are supportive or not of their sexual orientation. Depending on what they perceive, they might not feel comfortable enough to come out.”
The second of Bentley’s suggestions is a mentorship system, or space available in which LGBT people can relate their experiences: both Pinsent Mason and Goldman Sachs have such a system. This allows communication of any possible issues and concerns they have. But it also creates a sense that they are welcome, and their voices are being heard.
While the culture in businesses today might be more liberal, there is still work to be done. Feeke is especially concerned about “conservative” industries like finance, insurance, manufacturing, and construction, where upper management role models are scarce–as is diversity in general, for that matter.
But the news on the whole is good. Leaders care about LGBT employees, and the culture is changing. Barlow says he feels positive about where things are headed: “On business trips to the Far East and the Gulf last autumn, I participated in discussions aiming to promote religious tolerance and understanding between Christians and Muslims. On the gay issue, I was heartened by a male Muslim colleague wearing traditional dress saying that he was proud of our company’s stance on LGBT rights.”
Even in countries where there is a recent record of terrible treatment of LGBT people, there is rapid, encouraging progress. As Barlow says: “In this context, we need to pursue with vigour, tempered by patience, the pursuit of our human rights.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a statement to Neil Bentley instead of Simon Feeke.
Jack Flanagan is a freelance writer and content consultant based in London. His writing about technology and mental health has appeared in the Observer, New Scientist, the Daily Dot, and Attitude, among others.