October 11th is National Coming Out Day. It doesn’t matter much which day a person decides to come out; for a queer person, a specific date can be a good reminder to check in with themself, see how small the closet is feeling, and assess whether or not it’s worth coming out at work right now—or at all.
Working from “inside the closet”—or, as a non-openly trans or queer person—can be suffocating, but coming out at work is terrifying. We all rely on our jobs to keep ourselves alive, and for some folks, there’s a significant chance that coming out can jeopardize one’s employment status.
After sharing how lawyers can support the LGBTQ+ community in June for Pride Month, I wanted to share my own experience of how staying closeted had its own set of professional consequences. My hope is that sharing my story will encourage understanding and empathy for the trans and non-binary people who will be coming out at work today. At the end of this post, I’ve included resources for employers and colleagues of trans people to learn more.
My professional life as a non-binary person
I don’t remember when exactly I realized I was non-binary, I only remember bargaining with myself for years, trying to be literally anything else. About six years ago, I remember telling my partner, “I think I would identify as non-binary if I didn’t think it was dumb.” He responded with a blank stare, which is about all the dignity a statement like that deserves.
Acceptance of my trans identity was the biggest hurdle for me personally. But when I finally accepted myself as non-binary, the most question to myself became: “What does this mean for my career?”
Trans folks have a lot to consider before coming out at work, and over half aren’t comfortable coming out at work at all. Some people have positive experiences, with lots of support from their colleagues. Others aren’t so fortunate, and face discrimination or harassment for their trans identity.
There’s an entire spectrum in-between, too, and despite the diversity in our experiences, one strong common thread is feeling fear and discomfort about coming out at work. You can’t predict how people are going to react, and sometimes those reactions aren’t always positive.
Every new interaction as an openly trans person is another roll of the dice. We are well aware of the way society views our deviance from gender norms, and the vast majority of us have experienced some form of intimidation or harassment. The lucky few who haven’t know that it could happen at any time, and this cycle of discrimination and fear is reflected in a disturbingly high unemployment rate among trans people.
When I realized I had to come out
I asked my closest friends and loved ones to start calling me Jasper, but stayed closeted to my family and at work. Being aware of the social perception of non-binary people, I planned on keeping it that way. I didn’t want to lose professional credibility, or be one of the 90% of trans individuals who experience harassment and mistreatment at their jobs.
I thought I could just be Jasper at home, and go by my deadname [redacted], or the name I was assigned at birth pre-transition, at work. After all, everyone has a “work persona.” I figured mine could just have a different name and gender from my real self.
There was no way I could ever find a good job during the pandemic where I could be Jasper and still be respected as a professional, especially in Oklahoma, where I currently live. But the popularization of remote work during the pandemic opened up new possibilities for me and many others.
The day before I was supposed to start a new job I was on the fence about, I got an offer at Hennessey Digital which seemed to have an open-minded culture, and the people I interviewed with seemed really cool. In all my professional life, I’d never felt more relieved.
Because I got along well with my new colleagues, I considered disclosing my non-binary identity early on. Still, the fear of rejection gripped me. I knew I probably wouldn’t lose my job, or be verbally harassed by my manager. But I was still fearful that openly identifying as non-binary might affect others’ perceptions of my competence and professionalism, so I remained in the closest my first 10 months at Hennessey Digital.
My experience coming out at work
Eventually, though, the weight of carrying a split identity wore me down. My stomach turned every time I heard my former name, [redacted]. I had been taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for several months, and I was nervous that someone might call attention to my deepening voice, which was beginning to crack.
This fissure between my work persona and my true self had grown wider with each passing week, and I noticed myself becoming more irritable and disconnected. Eventually, I realized that staying closeted was hurting me, my creative work, and my ability to form real interpersonal relationships with the people I was beginning to trust.
The closet was hurting more than it was helping, so I had to come out.
After many pep talks and “today’s the day”s arriving and passing, I finally mustered up the courage to come out at work. I started with the two people who interviewed me, Creative Director Jason Covert (“JC”) and Director of Communications Liz Feezor.
With their support, I decided how I wanted to share the name change to the rest of the company. Logistically, that’s all there was to it: changing my name in every tool and system we use, and letting the company know there had been a change.
I coordinated with Senior Director of People Success Jill Wenk on the announcement, and on September 8th, 2021, she sent out this Slack message to the entire company:
After some warm congratulations and hunting down all the instances of my deadname to change them, I got to settle in as Jasper. JC has gone out of his way to learn a lot about non-binary people, recommending documentaries like My Name is Pauli Murray to me.
Liz has given opportunities like this to share my voice on the Hennessey Digital blog, and Jill helped me start an employee resource group (ERG) so others can see that it’s okay to come out at work when they’re ready. Helping others through serving as an example has helped me grow and establish my voice at work, too.
People value my work as a designer here, and I’m proud to put my new name to it. The enthusiastic support and curiosity from others at work has meant a lot to me, and I cannot overstate how lucky I feel to have this kind of support when many other non-binary, trans, and queer professionals don’t.
What changed since coming out
Since coming out at work, I’ve felt better getting to know my teammates and have been able to focus the energy I was wasting maintaining my false identity back into my creative work. I think it’s made me a better employee, a bolder artist, and a more honest person. I’ve spent my whole life missing out, afraid to let people know me. I still carry a lot of fear and pain, but I’m slowly coming out of my shell.
It breaks my heart knowing that not every trans person gets to have a positive experience like the one I’ve had at Hennessey Digital. When I see the statistics on unemployment and workplace harassment, I see so much wasted talent. I see all my trans friends who struggle finding gainful employment. I see passionate and skilled people I love being left behind.
When I think about the 50% of trans people that aren’t comfortable being out at work, I’m reminded of how hard being closeted at work was for me. Trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not is exhausting, and people can tell when you’re not engaging with them in a genuine way.
Things employers should know about coming out at work
When an employee comes out at work, sometimes it can seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, and there can be pressure to handle it well. Official policies and guidelines are great, but your understanding and support as an HR/People Success professional can mean a lot more than words in a handbook.
Understanding builds empathy, which builds trust, and trust is vital for healthy working relationships and true psychological safety at work. With this in mind, here are some things for consider when someone you work with comes out:
- For a trans person, coming out at work is a leap of faith. Ultimately the person coming out can’t predict your reaction. They are trusting you with information they know that you can use to hurt them. Please don’t brush aside someone’s fear of coming out, even if you think it’s obvious that your workplace wouldn’t discriminate against them.
- Most trans people don’t necessarily expect folks to know much about what it means to be transgender. They don’t expect you to become an expert, but learning the basics will probably mean a lot to them. Mis-steps and misunderstandings are inevitable, so if you can show that your heart is in the right place, that matters a lot more than saying the “correct” words.
- Every trans person’s experience is different, and we each have very different views on gender, just like everyone else does. What feels respectful to one trans person may be offensive to another. This is why listening to understand the individual is so important.
- Remote work represents an incredible opportunity for transgender people. Being openly trans in certain geographic areas makes finding gainful employment especially difficult, regardless of skill or experience. Being able to work from anywhere means that talent can now be found and nurtured into success.
- When someone comes out at work, celebrate for them. Because it means they can finally reach their full potential, personally and professionally.
Transgender employees deserve to have their true identities seen, their talents appreciated, their perspectives valued, and to simply feel safe at work. With all the misinformation, prejudice, and violence towards the trans community, it can be hard to stay optimistic about the future.
Although I feel like I’ve found a rare pocket of safety at Hennessey Digital, it’s still going to take awhile for me to settle in and feel 100% comfortable. But it’s getting better every day.
More resources for employers
If you’re curious to learn more, please check out these great resources for and about coming out at work.