Being Out At Work: An Interview With Nancy's Tobin Low & Kathy Tu

Generally, one of the top concerns when a person starts work each day is to get certain tasks done. A variety of hiring decisions, company policies, office cultures, working conditions, and government regulations govern our ability to get that work done, overall. But another big factor is our interactions with other people in that work environment — bosses, customers, clients, and colleagues. People can put their heads down and "get the job done," all day long, but the relationships most workers cultivate (or not) with other people can make a huge difference.
There's a variety of interactions at any given job: Talking about Game of Thrones might be a diversion, but it can lead to comfort and camaraderie. Discussing your dating life on the job may be entering into private or TMI territory, but that secret-sharing can lead to trust and long-term relationships. Building those relationships at work is a whole lot harder when who you are as a person feels like an off-limits topic of conversation, something many LGBTQ workers face.
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Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, the hosts of WNYC Studios' LGBTQ-themed podcast Nancy, have been exploring what it means to be queer at work in the first season of their show. Earlier this year, they launched a survey called the Out at Work project, asking listeners to share their experiences and thoughts about being out at work. Nearly 3,000 people responded, sharing that 52% of them were out, 13% were not "at all," and 35% said they were "somewhat out."
The Nancy team created six categories along the spectrum of out-ness based on the responses, including "professionally queer" (My queerness is an essential part of my work.) to "I can't come out" (Being out would threaten my job security or safety.).
We talked with Tu and Low about what being out looks and feels like in America's workplaces today.
For some of the people who responded to your survey, being out wasn’t a choice; maybe they didn’t have the ability to pass as straight, or pass as cisgender. How did those stories complicate the idea of being out at work?
Tobin Low: "'Complicates' is the perfect word. I think most people imagine a coming out moment as you tell people, you’re out, and you figure it out from there, but so many stories were in this gray area. Maybe they came out to a select number of people, and then it spilled out to the rest of the office. For others, they don’t feel like they can be out, but the way that they present sort of outs them to the rest of the workplace. The stories that really interest us, and that seemed to be the majority of the stories we heard, existed this gray area."
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What about the concern that people being asked to be a representative at work for LGBTQ communities, and become a spokesperson in some ways, versus just keeping their head down and doing their jobs?
TL: "One of the funnier examples we got was from a man who talked about being the only gay person in his office. He became the de-facto person other people went to talk to about fashion or their sexual escapades. What made me laugh was that I have absolutely been there. I know what it is [like] to be the Office Gay.
"It's funny: In that situation, I found it a useful tool to keep people at a distance. For example, if [my coworkers] were like, 'Which dress do you think is cuter?', I would be like, 'Girl...' I would have a moment where I would perform what they were essentially asking me to do, and then we would go along our merry ways. It was almost a way of satisfying their desire for a superficial interaction; we were both enacting a shorthand for what that relationship would be like, as opposed to engaging with who we actually were as people.
"Work can be such a bizarre space for these things to be acted out because it’s where you spend most of your waking hours, but it can also be the space where you are least yourself — or most yourself. It’s very interesting the way that manifests for people."
In an ideal world, people would feel comfortable being themselves anywhere, including at work, but there are often real risks and dangers. There are still 28 states where people can be legally fired for being a lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 30 where you can be fired for being trans. What risks or considerations did you see people making?
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TL: "We had career counselors from the SF LGBT Center share some of their best practices with us, and some of the answers we got really surprised me. A lot of Nancy listeners expressed anxiety about whether or not to come out in a [job] interview as a way of vetting whether their workplace was LGBT friendly. The advice the counselors gave was don’t talk about it in the interview, because if you end up feeling like you didn’t get the job because of that, you can’t prove in an interview that discrimination happened. I think we often talk about being out in terms of this very personal journey, but when it enters the workplace, you have to add all these considerations about policy, and the bureaucracy in the workplace."
Kathy Tu: "One man we spoke to [said his] coworkers were fine with him being out until it became an official thing; then, suddenly he was fired. Even when you’re out to all of your coworkers, because you spend so much time with them, you don’t know what the larger bureaucracy has in store for you. You have to figure out what rights you have, what rights the state has given you, what rights people are still fighting for, and determine the best and safest choice for you."
What are things you observed that companies can do to ensure their employees feel safe — even in their own, smaller work community if not on a larger, bureaucratic level?
TL: "I think it’s a matter of making sure that whatever policies you’re enacting, or whatever ways you’re attempting to educate your employees, are not centered around the individual LGBT workers that you have, but feel more like a company-wide cultural change.
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"We heard from a lot of people who have attempted to manage either sharing their pronouns or their transition with HR or their bosses, and then it got handled as, 'Oh, everyone: Please be aware of this specific person.' That can be well-intentioned, but it’s still a way of othering that person. I think a better way to do it is to make it feel like a company-wide cultural change — saying the company is going to be more aware of pronouns now; or the company is going to feel like a safe space where everyone is sort of an ambassador or a representative of how it should be, and is practicing that in their own spaces. Making it less about the individual and more about what the company culture is on the whole."
Were there companies or industries you observed that were particularly good at this?
KT: "I don’t know if we could say on a whole a specific industry was doing better than others, but we did hear from a lot of teachers who felt like it was an even more complicated decision for them. They had to think [beyond] themselves or their coworkers, but also about what their students and their students' families would think. It was this spreading out of their decision about how they were going to be out to people.
"It seemed like teachers went back and forth over what was the right thing to do. I talked to Asa Sevelius [the principal of the Heath School] in Brookline, MS, and he decided that he was going to be a role model for his students in that way, but I feel like there are definitely a lot more teachers struggling with that decision. To what extent are they out at work? Do their students need to know? How far do they let people into their personal lifves? It’s a difficult decision for them."
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TL: "I’d add, and this is more anecdotal than it is based on research or responses, that we’ve seen this interesting conversation [about] the tech industry. It paints itself as a bastion of inclusive spaces and healthcare policies, but I think there’s another conversation going on about their responsibility for spaces outside of the workplace. Within the walls of the company maybe it’s a very supportive space, but they’re also actively participating in this questionable online community, which can be very hostile."
Can you talk about the emotional impact of not being out at work when you want to be? What did you hear from listeners about how that impacted their ability to be themselves or do their work effectively?
TL: "We heard from a lot of bisexual folks who had a lot of angst about maybe not owning up to this part of their identity because they felt like it was a Pandora’s box; especially for people who are bisexual and currently in opposite-sex partnerships. They feel like their identity is a big part of who they are, but to come out at work and own that identity would bring on a flood of judgement and stigma; or [they feared a] discounting of their identity because they’re in an opposite-sex relationship and are, to the outside world, straight. It’s a conversation that is really uncomfortable to have because people brought a lot of baggage to their assumptions about sexuality and what it means to be bisexual."
You also interviewed a paralegal named Will, who talked about the intersections of his identities. He has a disability, he’s gay, he’s black, and he’s older. He talked about being very out and very proud early on in his career, but then intentionally went in the opposite direction over time. Why did you see some people choosing that route?
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TL: "I think we really got a sense of the journey from older folks who responded; that maybe at different jobs, it was about context for them. It wasn’t like, Once I decided to come out at one job, never again would I be in the closet! Maybe you’re super out at one job because it feels like an amazing space, and then the next thing you get, you feel like it isn’t. That journey was interesting to us because owning up to the fact that we are millennials, and that Kathy and I are both 'professionally gay' now, it feels likes a door we kicked open that can never be closed again. Hearing from people that had more of a journey was really interesting to me."
KT: "I found Will’s story really interesting. Because of his disability — he's blind — and because he’s a black man working as a paralegal, he decided that those are the two things he cannot hide while he’s at work, but he can hide his sexuality. I thought it was so interesting that he chose to deal with those two and not layer on another thing, just in case his coworkers or employers discriminated against him. It just showed me that there are so many decisions people have to make across the country about how they want to be out to people. It’s not just about your sexual identity or your gender identity; it has to do with other facets of what you are dealing with at the time."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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