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Are you out at work?

By Attitude Magazine


Author John Browne’s new book The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, released in a new paperback format on Thursday June 11, examines the risks and rewards of coming out in business.

Browne combines his own story with illuminating interviews with men and women inside the closet and out, and outlines steps businesses and individuals can take to shatter the glass closet. The new paperback edition of The Glass Closet has a new foreword written by John Browne that reflects on the response to the book over the past year and the wider changes in the LGBT community during that time, notably Apple’s Tim Cook coming out, making him the only gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Linked to the book and launched in June 2014, has quickly become a unique and illuminating resource of the experiences of gay people in the modern workplace. Real-life stories of both success and failure remind us of the great progress we have made, where we have gone wrong, and what organisations can do to create a more inclusive environment for gay people.

Below, writer Jack Flanagan looks at the still thorny issue of coming out at work: Who do you tell, and when? How do you broach the topic of your sexuality in a workplace setting? Read on… 

I’m sitting at my work station typing away, and my new colleague offers me a coffee. “First day,” she says. “You nervous?”

I nod glumly, and she tells me not worry. “So, what do you do on the weekends?” I take a deep breath before replying.

“I hang out with my boyfriend.”

She smiles at me, a little weakly.

“Oh,” she says, a little red in the face. “…Good for you.”

Awkwardness is often a factor when coming out at work. While few are explicitly homophobic anymore, the awkwardness often comes from the weirdness of coming out in the workplace. It’s having to make a declaration about something as irrelevant to your working life as how you organise your sock drawer. If you go down the seemingly organic route, dropping a well-timed “my boyfriend” into the conversation, a lot of straight people, embarrassingly, feel the need to commend you.


Oscar from the US version of The Office eventually came out to his workmates, but their reactions ranged from support to disgust to outright sexual harassment. 

Does this stop people coming out at work? Perhaps. A startling high number of gay men, 34%, say they are not comfortable with the idea of coming out at work (according to a survey in Stonewall’s workplace equality index) . The number for bisexual men is much, much higher: 73% stay in the closet at work. Why?

“There are a number of typical reasons why men will stay in the closet [in the UK]. They worry about how they’ll be supported by the organisation [they work for]. They may not feel safe if their company requires international travel. And some men can’t see their career trajectory after coming out, because there are no gay men higher up in the ranks,” says Simon Feeke, Director of Workplace at Stonewall.

Talking to those who are out at work reveals interesting truths about the modern LGBT workplace experience. Maruska is a senior executive at an advertising firm. She says she is out, but has found herself retreating ‘back in’, recently.

“I’ve stopped coming to office parties […] Even though everyone’s really positive about my coming out, it’s a bit weird at times. People ask really personal questions, they wouldn’t ask if I were straight. Sometimes they can be quite graphic,” she laughs.

“I’ve also had bicurious women come onto me. They think because I’m a lesbian, they can experiment on me. And men do, too, because they think [I’m a] challenge.”

Maruska’s experience almost seems the reverse of homophobia: it is literally (using that word correctly, for once) homophilia. But, rather than feeling accepted and at peace, Maruska feels pursued and harassed. Being a lesbian is seen by her colleagues as mystical and ‘other’, exotic and more than a little sexual.

Maruska’s case is perhaps extreme, but the ‘otherness’ syndrome of being gay in the workplace is very real. Michael* is a financial analyst for a multinational Dutch bank. In telling me why he’s not out at work, he lists a lot of the same reasons Simon cited – the possibility of work travel to Dubai, and a fear coming out would affect future promotions in his conservative finance sector – but there is also a fear that as soon as he comes out it will be kicked out of all the work social groups he’s clawed his way into.


Pictured: Salvatore from Mad Men, who survived in the office by keeping his sexuality largely hidden. 

“I think, won’t people look at me differently after I come out? Like, with a new pair of eyes. I’ve heard them say homophobic things, not seriously but just joking around. There’s one gay guy in the office who’s very effete. I don’t want to come out because I don’t want people to think that I’m like him.”

I relayed Michael’s fears about people thinking differently of him to Maruska.

“I think that’s why coming out initially for me wasn’t very hard,” she said.

“I don’t care what people think of me. I’m strong that way; I know who I am. If people think of me differently as a lesbian at first, they change their minds eventually, because I never change. I think people just need to be told how to see you, you know, and assumptions they make are only short-term.”

What’s the answer, is there one? It might be just a question of time. Simon at Stonewall speaks optimistically about all the changes that organisations are bringing into the workplace to make gay people feel more comfortable. Eventually, people might think of being gay as just another thing that makes up the tapestry of a person.

That’s the hope, anyway. The reality? As Maruska says, we make it for ourselves.

*Name changed to protect identity