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“I Naively Thought That This Field Would Be Okay With Who I Was”

Despite working at a sexual assault center in a liberal city, Nichole Williams experienced “very overt backlash” from coworkers after coming out as bisexual.

“I Naively Thought That This Field Would Be Okay With Who I Was”
“I don’t think I want to work somewhere where my sexual orientation is a problem,” one 24-year-old former social worker reflects. “But in any field, you just don’t know until you do come out.” [Illustration: Shreya Gupta]

Nichole Williams, 24, worked for several years at a sexual assault center in Tacoma, Washington, where she specialized in helping commercially exploited teens, many of whom, like her, were LGBTQ people of color. Williams believed her profession would be accepting due to the nature of their work, particularly in the relatively liberal Northwest, so she decided to come out as bisexual.

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But the responses of her colleagues and superiors took her by surprise. Here’s what Williams, who has since gone back to school for a graduate degree in psychology, learned about coming out at work in a supposedly progressive field.

Her account has been edited for space and clarity.


Micro-Aggressions

I didn’t view it as a big “coming out.” I naively thought that I am working in social services with people who like and want to help other people. I thought that clearly my sexual orientation would not be a problem. So I very casually mentioned that I lived with my girlfriend, or when someone mentioned something about their spouse, I would say, “My spouse, she does the same thing.” It was very natural and second nature. I didn’t think it was something I had to worry about.

Nichole Williams [Photo: courtesy of Nichole Williams]
I now know that that was not true. I had some very overt backlash. I now think that I had the young, millennial belief that this field would be okay with who I was.

There were noticeable micro-aggressions. For instance, when I mentioned that “my girlfriend and I did this or that,” people would literally correct me and say, “Oh, you mean you and your friend.” It happened a lot. A lot. I once had a very weird, long back-and-forth with a coworker who asked me if I was seeing anyone. I said, “Yes, I live with my girlfriend and we’ve been together for three years.” But they just could not register what I was saying. The coworker kept saying, “No, I’m not asking if you have a roommate, I’m asking if you’re dating anyone.”


Special Report: What It’s Really Like To Be Out At Work In 2017

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“I Stood My Ground, But I Kept Getting Dismissed”

There were also some overt forms of aggression from one of my supervisors. I passively outed myself in front of her, and after the fact, she barely spoke to me or made eye contact with me. Almost everything she said to me was passive aggressive, where before we had [had] a decent relationship. I was very taken aback by it.

She also did some things that I felt were homophobic and said things about the LGBT community. We debrief with one another after talking to our clients to try to get advice–although confidentiality is a big deal, so we don’t share details. There was a particular LGBT client, and normally these cases are discussed in a tone that is nuanced and empathetic. But those elements were not present when she was discussing his case. It felt more like a weird fascination, like, “Can you believe that these guys use Grindr?” It was missing the point, because this person had experienced an extreme trauma and was coming to us for help. I was really upset by that. I was really angry.

I went to a supervisor above her and I told her what I had witnessed. I said that it had really hurt me personally and that it does a disservice to our clients. The response I got was that I must be wrong and that nobody at this agency would do that and that I must have misinterpreted the situation. I stood my ground, but I kept getting dismissed.

Feeling Invisible

I work with commercially exploited people, and the LGBT community has high rates of exploitation. I had one client who was involved in sex work, and unfortunately was being manipulated by someone she was romantically involved with, who was a woman. My supervisor tried to convince me not to put that fact in the notes. The LGBT issue was just something that nobody wanted to touch, and I don’t know why.

I feel that if I had come in with a complaint about sexual harassment by a male, I would have been taken seriously. I am also a racial minority, so if I had come in and said someone had done something racist, I think I would have been taken more seriously. But when it comes to LGBT issues, there is a level of discomfort. There is a sense that no one would do that. I think there was also a lot of discomfort with the idea of minorities being peers. For me to be a peer, it disrupted [my colleagues’] narrative [of working on behalf of, rather than with, LGBTQ people of color].

The Liberal Excuse

I live and work in Tacoma, Washington. Our state has a reputation for being liberal, but I think that this often excuses people from thinking about it. People think that [homophobia] is not a problem here, so very often people don’t think critically about what they are doing and [assume] that they are not doing anything offensive. It is very hard to speak up against it; it is assumed that everyone is on the same page.

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I assumed that everyone was accepting and I could be whoever I wanted to be. I was shell-shocked to find that there are a lot of people who are going to indirectly pressure you into not speaking about your life. I was still an “other,” and it made them uncomfortable.

I had a colleague who invited me out to lunch. At one point she said, “You’re really open about your sexual orientation at work, and I think that was a big mistake. I know you assume people are accepting, but I don’t think our coworkers and supervisors are. I think you made things harder for yourself.”

She was kind of right, but I can’t take it back. I felt bad about myself after she said that–like I should have known better. That maybe I should not have said anything and hid who I was the entire time. I began to feel like it was my own fault that this happened to me. Moving forward, I don’t think I want to work somewhere where my sexual orientation is a problem. But in any field, you just don’t know until you do come out.

I am who I am. And I’m not a good liar. I always want to be out. It may be difficult and I may get backlash. It may add more to my plate. I may have to push for change. But I feel like someone has to.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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