Hilarious And Heartbreaking Lessons From 3,000 Coming-Out Stories

We learned a lot when we read thousands of personal stories about what it’s like to be LGBTQ at work.

Hilarious And Heartbreaking Lessons From 3,000 Coming-Out Stories
[Animation: Franziska Barczyk]

“I am so tired, and my friends are tired, and every queer person I see is tired.”


That’s how one of nearly 3,000 people who answered a survey that the WNYC Studios podcast Nancy shared this fall, through its “Out at Work” project, about what it’s like being out–or not–in the professional world. And no wonder. LGBTQ employees explained over and over how coming out is a never-ending experience: Each new client or coworker they encounter means negotiating yet another disclosure.

Each personal story gave a glimpse into someone’s life, and LGBTQ workplace experiences likewise ran the gamut of human experience. Some accounts were gut-wrenching (the woman who had to hide her grief over her wife’s miscarriage because she wasn’t out to her colleagues), while others were more lighthearted (explaining the drag-queen inspiration for a dog named “RuPaw”).

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


While each experience is unique, there were some clear commonalities (Nancy has also identified a few major themes, along with resources for LGBTQ employers and employees, here.) For instance, having a partner can make it easier to turn a potentially awkward, “Actually, I’m gay . . .” moment into more natural conversation; talking about a significant other can clear a path for talking about yourself.

Another factor that we learned sometimes mitigates the exhaustion and isolation of being LGBTQ at work? Solidarity. “The more queer people I work with, the better I feel. It feels powerful and lucky to get to work with other queer folks, and I wish that for all of us,” one respondent explained.

Here are 10 other truisms about being queer at work in 2017:

[Illustration: Melinda Beck]

Your Well-Meaning Coworkers Will Do Embarrassing Things

“When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision legalizing marriage equality nationwide, a coworker barged into the office, threw his arms around me (the only out LGBTQ person), and proceeded to hug me while exclaiming, “We did it! We did it!” Um, pretty sure you did nothing, buddy. And please stop hugging me. I don’t know you.” —Out, Washington

You’ll Spend All Day Code Switching (And It’s Exhausting)

“I have never hid my sexuality at work, but I often have to hold my tongue when customers say things like, ‘I’m glad they don’t hire queers here, I need a man with muscle to help me with my lumber.'” —Out, South Carolina

“Being a gay psychologist is tough! Because you are not out to your clients. You’re meant to be a tabula rasa–a blank slate–to your clients. Being gay for me is a silent-minority status. It’s not immediately obvious that I’m gay, so patients have said some hurtful homophobic things to me.” —Out, Florida


“My home life comes up fairly regularly in one way or another with my clients, but I lean on the word ‘spouse’ rather than wife, which fools more people than you’d think. It feels like too much of a risk to say ‘wife’ when I usually would. I live in the South. I am positive I would lose many clients if I started being out to them.” —Somewhat out, Tennessee

“I still haven’t come out at my Army Reserve unit. My wife left the Reserves to pursue her transition, and many people still know her as my husband. We met in the Reserves and were in the same unit for many years. It’s stressful that two days a month I have to refer to my spouse as ‘my husband’ and deliberately misgender her. We had been preparing for her to come out and rejoin the Reserves, but under the current climate it just isn’t feasible.” —Somewhat out, Maryland

“No matter how directly I assert myself, how I dress, the information I share or don’t share–it’s ultimately up to the cis[gender] people who decide themselves how they will see me. It’s exhausting to exist this way at work because my identity informs the counseling work I do. When I’m sitting down with a client as a gay trans man and they’re experiencing me as a queer bearded lesbian or some other identity, wires get crossed. I try to be extremely client-centered in my approach, and it sucks when conversations about me and my identity get in the way of that.” —Out, California


Sometimes Your Colleagues Are A Source Of Inspiration And Support

“I was not comfortable being out to anyone within the workplace at all until another queer woman joined the marketing team and was very unapologetic about who she is. She is slightly younger than me, and I’ve never told her this, but I look up to her for her courage.”–Somewhat out, Oregon

“It is impossible to make enough space for all of us to breathe and exist because it is more convenient for us not to exist. I am so tired and my friends are tired and every queer person I see is tired. The more queer people I work with, the better I feel, [and] the easier it is to cope with the pain of being trans. It feels powerful and lucky to get to work with other queer folks, and I wish that for all of us.”–Out, New York

“The two male business partners who run the illustration studio where I work are also married to each other. They have ended up being huge role models for me both in my career and as examples of out, successful, married gay men the next generation up. Like, ‘Wow, you can do that?’ I thought to myself. I didn’t know anyone like that at that age. Meeting them had a huge impact on me and taught me how to be comfortable as a gay man now, eight years later.”–Out, New York


Sometimes You’ll End Up Working With Bigots

“I hear a ton of racist and homophobic jokes. The moment I start to defend the LGBTQ community, people generally respond with something hostile, saying something like, ‘Why do you care, are you gay?’ I’m a gender-fluid, polyamorous, wannabe drag queen that’s been dating a girl for four years. I know they will think I have a mental disorder, because I’ve been told by several college-educated coworkers that trans people are abominations and insane.”–Somewhat out, Indiana

“The people that I have done my very best to stay away from telling are the older people and the–sorry, let’s face it–white males. When we’re on base, when Barack Obama was president, they’d still use abusive words like ‘fag’ and ‘nigger.’ I wouldn’t want any negative views toward me directly, so I stay discreet.”–Somewhat out, California

“My adviser has expressed some very homophobic views. He has said to other members of our research group that he doesn’t want to hire gays because they will be ‘more interested in sex than in chemistry.’ I’ve had ‘faggot’ keyed into my car on campus, so clearly someone isn’t happy with me prancing around the department.”–Somewhat out, Texas


“I’ve gotten notes slipped under my office door. I’ve been called names ‘behind my back’ where they knew I could hear them, and to my face, but I’ve had multiple students come out to me, and say they really needed to see someone who feels like they do, and who will accept them.”–Out, Kansas

Occasionally Your Coworkers Prove More Open-Minded Than You Expected

“When my wife was pregnant the first time, she had a miscarriage at 16 weeks. It was my first week of work in this company. I only took off one day to be with B in the emergency room. I didn’t want my mostly Southern church-going colleagues to know I was gay until I had proven myself to them. A year later, as I was preparing for parental leave, I had to explain why I didn’t look pregnant (plus I was excited!) and I came out much more publicly. My Southern, Republican, older, Bible-studying colleagues’ response? They threw both of us a baby shower! Turns out that I was the one who was being prejudiced. I had been so scared of losing my job that I hadn’t even given them a chance.”–Somewhat out, New York

Trans Life Can Be Extra Tough

“I’m trans/nonbinary, and I feel like my colleagues need to have some sort of awareness of what that means before I can feel comfortable coming out.” Not out, New York


“If you don’t know I’m trans, you really don’t know me. One of the biggest struggles was the stupid bathrooms . . . The minutiae of navigating trans life stealth was just exhausting.”–Out, Ohio

It Might Be Up To You To Pioneer Change

“In June of this year I made announcements in four large meetings, in front of almost every employee one or more times, requesting that they use ‘they/them’ pronouns for me, and correct others if they hear me being mis-gendered. I correct people’s pronoun use a lot, and it’s exhausting.”–Out, New York

“I often feel like I take on the yoke of ‘Most Woke Person’ in the office. And I do often feel the urge to . . . educate. My boss straight-up was like, ‘Yeah, All Lives Do Matter.’ She’s a 75-year-old woman, so I took the time to try to explain to her how she should never use that phrase again. But those teachable moments also become tiresome and burdensome.”–Out, Pennsylvania


Some Employers Make Your Life Harder

“Our company has an LGBT employee resource group that is led by two straight people. There is a straight, white executive here who likes to hang out at the local lesbian bar for the ‘cool vibe and cool chicks.’ He has ruined my favorite bar for me.”–Somewhat out, New York

“My immediate coworkers have been pretty supportive, and I’ve started handing out pronoun buttons to our customers, but administration has been obnoxious. We fought against the board of trustees in order for my partner to get her medical needs covered (she’s a trans woman) and they were generally no help at all.”–Out, Ohio

“My workplace, despite being really affirming in many respects, actually violates the city’s human rights law on accommodating trans employees. I think about filing a complaint every day, but know if I do, I will be blackballed in this field and will really struggle to find work. I feel like both a subject-matter expert and a token at work. I spend way too much energy on all of the things that our HR department should be doing to fix the office policies that make it difficult for trans people at work here. I don’t know how to deal with the stress and get my actual work done at the same time.”–Out, New York


You Might End Up An Ambassador For Queer Culture

“Maybe the funniest part of being the resident gay in a corporate office is explaining queer culture. I recently named my puppy RuPaw and had to explain who RuPaul was and what drag is. My coworker was mystified by his transformation and didn’t understand that it was one person.”–Somewhat out, Ohio

Coming Out On A Job Interview Can Set A Tone

“The first time I came out at my current job was in my second interview. I had been fired for being gay in the past, and I typically use that situation as an example for the classic, “What was a difficulty you’ve overcome in a past position, and what did you learn?” question, to avoid a similar experience again.”–Out, California