Gay & Lesbian Manners: Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are

Gay & Lesbian Manners: Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are
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How do I come out at work (and keep my job)?

Q: I've worked at a fairly conservative firm for years and have always brought opposite-sex "dates" to parties. But now that I am partnered with a wonderful woman I'd like to come out, but how?

A: Congratulations on your new romance. Having a significant other is often the impetus for people to come out at work because being in a couple makes the issue seem more concrete--at least to your colleagues--and there are more ways to bring the subject up. You don't even have to say, "I'm a lesbian," for instance, because it will be clear that she's your girlfriend if you introduce her as such.

But first, consider the pros and cons of coming out at work. Let's start with the pros:
•You won't have the stress of living in the closet or worrying about switching pronouns at the last moment any more.
•You can talk openly about your relationship.
•You may make deeper friendships by being honest with your coworkers.

On the other side:
•You may lose your job or otherwise be discriminated against (i.e., run up against the pink ceiling).
•Your colleagues may not accept you in the way that you hope, and that could hinder your work performance.
•You may find that LGBT partners are not treated the same as heterosexual spouses.

Before making a final decision, find out whether your company has a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. See if there is an LGBT affinity group in your workplace that can provide you with guidance and support. Still, I'm in no way trying to dissuade you from coming out - in fact just the opposite--but do your due diligence.

How can I be out without causing problems for my kids?

Q: I have two kids in junior high who already don't want to have anything to do with me or their other mother - not because we're gay, just because we're their parents. We purposely don't wear our T-shirts that say, "We're Here, We're Queer," but do wonder how out can we be without causing problems for them?

A: That can be a tricky age for kids. Any difference makes you suspect. A foreign accent. An idiosyncratic haircut. Same-sex parents. Needless to say, the answer to this question depends to some degree on where you live. For families in the Castro, Greenwich Village, and other gayborhoods, it's fair to say that LGBT parents are not just common but ubiquitous.

But for parents and kids in areas where LGBT families are less visible, it makes sense to deploy a step-by-step coming out strategy. First, take stock of your new neighbors and figure out who has kids more or less the same age as yours. Much as you may have done when you first came out, befriend three or four of them who you think might be welcoming. Invite them and their kids over for some sort of function--a birthday party, summer BBQ, or the like. More likely than not, you'll soon find yourself being welcomed as a family into your neighborhood circle. At the same time, make an appointment with your kids' teachers so that they can introduce you to other LGBT parents in the school as well as keep an eye open for any trouble - especially anti-gay bullying (because of your sexual orientation). And, of course, talk with your kids directly about their own feelings regarding your sexuality.

Do I have to be labeled by my sexual identity?

Q: I'm a guy who's had a couple of relationships with other guys, but I've also had two girlfriends. So, I'm not exactly sure if I'm gay, but I know that I'm different. Everyone I know seems to care about labels - "straight," "gay," "bi" - but I'm just not sure what to call myself. What should I be telling people?

A: First of all, you don't need to tell anyone anything. How you define yourself is your business and just because someone is asking you a question doesn't mean you should feel obligated to answer it. If a friend or family member asks you a direct question about your sexuality, you can reply, with a smile: "Thanks for asking, but I prefer to keep my private life private." You don't need to be snarky, just firm.

But as you've noticed, our culture values labels - whether it comes to race (black, white, Asian), politics (red or blue state), or sexuality (gay, straight, bi).

Things aren't always that clear, however. A recent study of non-straight young people asked them how they define themselves sexually. The results suggested that more than 7 out of 10 endorsed the usual sexual identity labels (gay, lesbian and bisexual), but 10 percent, those like you, showed resistance to those labels or fluidity in their sexual identities. Thirteen percent reported they were "questioning" their sexual identities. So, take comfort that you're in a sizeable minority - a minority that is often referred to as "post-gay," and, in fact, should probably be considered avant-garde in having rejected sexual identity labels.

Steven Petrow is the author of The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette. Find him on the web at