September 17, 2009
Telling your co-workers you're gay
I finally watched the film Milk this summer. I loved the movie and was enthralled by Sean Penn's performance. But I couldn't help but feel a bit disheartened about how little some things have changed in the 31 years since Harvey Milk's assassination.
Sure, same-sex marriage is now legal in a handful of the United States and same-sex domestic partnerships enjoy the same employment perks as heterosexual ones at many forward-thinking companies. But between Proposition 8 being passed in California, conservative forces using Referendum 71 to try to overturn Washington state's same-sex domestic partnership laws, and gays in the military still expected to keep mum about their sex lives, progress seems glacial at times.
In July, Wall Street Journal columnist Alexandra Levit offered up these sobering statistics:
"A recent Harris poll conducted with Out & Equal and Witeck-Combs Communications indicated that 44% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) participants feel unable to talk freely to co-workers about their partners, and up to 78% don't feel comfortable bringing their partners to corporate social functions."
Admittedly, I've always worked for LGBT-friendly employers. So I haven't witnessed firsthand an officemate having to hide the details of his or her personal life.
Curious about where my gay and lesbian pals now stood on coming out at work, I took an informal poll. Their answers ran the gamut: Those with gay-friendly employers didn't bat an eye at putting a picture of their partner on their desk or bringing them to company events. But some who worked in much more of a "don't ask, don't tell" environment kept quiet about their personal lives.
"I'd love to give you a quote using my real name," said one pal who works in academia. "But I'm trying to get tenure and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that."
A few responses took me completely by surprise:
"I'm not flamboyant, but it was obvious from the start that I was gay," said Michael, a pal from the San Francisco Bay Area who works at a boutique car dealership, a workplace he says is pretty macho and prone to lots of locker room talk.
"I never hid my partner at all," Michael continued. "My co-workers have all met him, and he's always included in dinners and parties."
What about his straight co-workers' boasts of their latest dating conquests?
"I give it right back to them, and everyone takes it and laughs," said Michael, who's well aware that he and his colleagues could never get away with that much oversharing at other companies.
Say what you will about a bunch of bored office guys getting lewd around the water cooler, but the fact that my friend doesn't have to worry about his professional reputation -- or worse, his personal safety -- for crowing right along with them is progress.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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