I’m going to tell them that I’m gay, thought Jeff Nally, SHRM-SCP, as he neared the final step in the hiring process for a job he really wanted. It was 2002, and Nally had been working in human resources for about a decade when he applied to be the director of HR for one of the largest air filter manufacturing companies in the world. The company was based in the Midwest, with locations across rural America, and exhibited what Nally considered to be a conservative culture.
As Nally had proceeded through several rounds of interviews and assessments, he hadn’t received any signals that he would be welcomed as a gay man, but he hadn’t gotten any indications that he would be discriminated against, either. Now the job was his, conditional upon an informal meeting with the president of the company, to be had over breakfast at a local diner.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be honest,’ ” Nally says, recalling the moment he sat down across from the older, austere military veteran. “As I introduced myself, I said, ‘Before we order breakfast, I want you to know that this is my family.’ I showed him a picture of me and Bob, the man who is now my husband, and our adopted son. I said, ‘These are the most important people in my life. I really do want this job, but if who I am and who I love is going to be a problem, then we can have breakfast and talk about something else, but it’s not my intent to put myself in an uncomfortable position.’ ”
The older man looked at the picture, grinned and handed it back, saying, “I promise you this is not going to be a problem. You and your family are welcome here.”
“It was total relief, like a big weight had been lifted,” Nally says. “And I felt confident that even though I knew I would have to keep coming out as I began leading HR at the company, that the president had my back and supported me. And that promise turned out to be true.”
Nally knows that not all coming-out stories go as well as his did.
“I have learned from listening to others how big a risk it was for me to do what I did,” he says. “Everyone who has told me about coming out at work has shared the universal fear and hope we feel in that moment. It’s the same whether people are coming out at major inflection points in their career or in micro ways every day.”
Great strides have been made for LGBTQ equality in the workplace in the two decades since Nally, now the chief coaching officer and CHRO at CoachSource, a leadership coaching company in Franklin Lakes, N.J., made his decisive stand at the diner.
The U.S. Supreme Court made discrimination against workers based on their gender identity or sexual orientation illegal in June 2020. The U.S. Congress is currently in the process of enacting the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act to codify federal protections for same-sex marriages. On the corporate level, employers are more supportive than ever of the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) counted 842 employers achieving a perfect score and 1,271 companies actively participating in its 2022 corporate equality index, which benchmarks participants on their LGBTQ-inclusive benefits, policies and practices. When the report was launched in 2002, there were 300 participants and just 13 organizations were awarded top scores.
But absolute equality for LGBTQ employees is an ongoing struggle, and coming out at work is an exhausting, everyday reality for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary or queer.
“Things have changed so much for the better over the last 20 years that I’ve been in the workforce,” says Mike Spinale, SHRM-SCP, vice president of people at Blue Lava, an information security management platform in Menlo Park, Calif. “I’ve only been met with acceptance. But while my anxiety has waned over the years, it is still there, even today. I still size people up when I meet them and try to determine if they’re going to be OK with me being gay. I wonder, ‘Will they think differently about me?’ or ‘Will my career be adversely affected?’ ”
Similar fears previously kept Mikal Kelaidis, currently a sales development manager at Limble CMMS, a maintenance software company in Salt Lake City, caught between two identities: “a work Mikal and a home Mikal.”
Out to friends and family a decade ago, Kelaidis was worried that being his true self at work would hurt his career.
“I just had a fear that people have biases they can’t control, and I didn’t want there to be any reason, consciously or subconsciously, that I was held back or not promoted,” he says.
Having left an in-person work environment and bounced around in remote, contract jobs during the pandemic, Kelaidis was forced to face his fears again when he accepted a full-time, onsite role at Workstream, a hiring platform and mobile app designed for the hourly workforce, in early 2022.
“I was nervous but excited,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I would, again, keep my identity hidden and try to keep my personal life and work life separate or just remove the mask and speak truthfully.”
Being hidden takes a personal and professional toll.
“It’s hard when everyone else gets to talk about their wife, or their husband, or an engagement, and you just smile and nod even though you have someone you love at home, too,” Kelaidis says. “The nagging fear of getting exposed creates a very busy inner monologue that kept me from bonding or creating deep, meaningful relationships with the people I work with, and, in hindsight, impacted my performance and overall happiness.”
Kelaidis’ fate was decided in a moment, when his new manager at Workstream, in their first one-on-one, asked about any relationships in his life. Without thinking, he opened up about his partner.
“Telling the truth was vulnerable and scary, but I knew it was the right thing to do,” he says. “And it felt really good. There is no more work Mikal and home Mikal. There is just Mikal.”
Confronting the Challenges
Despite the prevalence of corporate commitments to inclusion and increasing societal acceptance of LGBTQ people, 46 percent of LGBTQ individuals remain closeted at work, according to the HRC.
One reason is because coming out is often an act of tremendous personal courage. And prior to coming out, first accepting and understanding one’s own sexual orientation or gender identity is a gradual process.
Katrina Kibben, who now identifies as transgender and nonbinary, first came out as gay to their mother in 2001, at the age of 16. The CEO and founder of Three Ears Media, a consultancy in Longmont, Colo., focused on removing bias from the candidate experience, Kibben is an in-demand speaker and out and proud influencer. But they spent their early career in sales and marketing roles, covering the truth about who they were.
Kibben says what often keeps LGBTQ people in the closet is “the perception that these dimensions will make it harder for people to love us. I was silenced by choice. For my safety, for my mental health, I tried my best simply to pass, to pretend to be whatever people thought I was.”
Kibben still has a nagging fear in the back of their mind that people may not like them because of who they are. “I constantly worry,” they say. “I wonder if I’ll be safe every day. I wonder if a stranger can know all of me and still care about me.”
Coming out is especially challenging for junior employees, transgender workers and women, according to research conducted by management consulting and research firm McKinsey & Co. since 2020.
“For employees below the level of senior manager, it feels like a riskier proposition to come out if the organization has not made them feel absolutely confident that it is safe and career-friendly to be out,” says Diana Ellsworth, McKinsey’s diversity, equity and inclusion work leader in Atlanta. “With less of a track record of career success, they may be particularly attuned to not do anything that is perceived as career-damaging.”
At age 18, Bryce Celotto came out as transgender before starting work at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Now the founder of Swarm Strategy in Charlotte, N.C., a company focused on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, he explains that the challenge for junior employees in today’s work environment is usually not fear of acceptance among peers, but whether their employer will support them.
“Junior workers are thinking, ‘Will my manager have my back?’ ” he says. “The systems and structures that exist in workplaces, especially in more corporate settings, may make junior workers feel they have to prove themselves more or that it’s harder to get recognition, and if they come out, they may be treated differently or may not get the best projects or won’t get the respect they deserve.”
Ellsworth adds that for women, “who already potentially face certain microaggressions or more-explicit discrimination, layering on another dimension of diversity, like being gay, is likely influencing whether to make themselves known in that way.”
Natasha Getler-Porizkova didn’t feel intentionally closeted in 2017 at her first corporate job as a digital marketing coordinator at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. But at 22 years old and as the new employee at the bottom of the organizational chart, she was reticent to talk about her personal life.
“There is a hesitation that coming out at work may tokenize you, like being gay becomes your defining characteristic,” she says. After six months on the job, she was brainstorming with her team about ways to promote an upcoming musical about a young lesbian discovering her sexuality. “I threw out several ways to reach the target market—the lesbian community—and someone teased, ‘Natasha, are you trying to tell us something?’ In that moment, on the spot, I felt uncomfortable, with all eyes on me, but I answered, ‘Yes. I date women.’ ”
Getler-Porizkova, now happily married, has been proudly out in her professional life ever since, and currently works to unify digital marketing with diversity, equity and inclusion advocacy.
An Ongoing Process
McKinsey also found that transgender employees feel less consistently that they can be their authentic selves at work, compared with others in the LGBTQ community. Trans employees are less likely to be out at work, and they feel less safe and more excluded and discriminated against than their cisgender gay and straight colleagues, research shows.
According to the HRC, the main reasons for not being out at work include fear of bullying and discrimination, fear of being stereotyped or tokenized, not wanting to make others uncomfortable, and concerns over losing relationships and career advancement opportunities.
“Members of the LGBTQ community experience a set of microaggressions more frequently than others do,” Ellsworth says. “Examples include being asked to be a representative for a group of people like them, hearing derogatory comments or jokes about people like them, and needing to correct others’ assumptions about their personal lives.”
Some company policies can also be overtly exclusionary, such as not offering transgender-inclusive health care coverage or not offering parental leave for adoption.
Another cross to bear for LGBTQ employees is the necessity to come out repeatedly. Nearly half of the respondents in the -McKinsey research reported having to come out at work at least once a week, 20 percent felt they had to come out multiple times a week, and 10 percent said they had to come out daily.
“People need to understand that coming out is an ongoing process,” says Brian McComak, founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, a New York City-based consulting firm that cultivates inclusive workplace cultures and leadership. “It is not a one-time event but is repeated many times throughout a career, sometimes several times a day. It’s something that those of us who have an invisible story to tell make a choice about sharing with each new employer, each new colleague, client or customer we meet. It’s exhausting to pretend to be someone you’re not.”
The decisive moment is often driven by casual conversation, Ellsworth says. “I must decide on the spot when someone asks, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ whether to include my wife in my response or not. It is psychologically draining to be constantly coming out.”
Prevailing Over the Perils of Coming Out at Work
McComak first came out at 21 years old in a service-industry job but went back in the closet when he entered the corporate world as an HR professional a few years later. “At lunch on my first day, someone asked me if I had a girlfriend. A simple question, but it sparked a series of internal deliberations: Is it safe to come out? Will they accept me? Will it affect my job? I chose to say ‘no,’ but kept the truth hidden.”
He did come out a week later, after his new manager casually mentioned his husband. “ ‘Wow,’ ” McComak thought. “ ‘He just came out to me.’ Feeling safe to do so, I came out to him.”
Kibben tried coming out at one job where they felt safe, but it felt awkward because colleagues assumed the “Stacy” they mentioned they were dating was a man. So they stayed hidden overall, and instead started to come out slowly to closer friends at the company.
“People started to meet my partner and know that she was a woman,” Kibben says. “And it wasn’t an issue. They were incredible. It was my own assumptions that made me not feel safe. And that’s how it usually happens. It often isn’t blatant harassment; it’s people assuming pronouns or gendering your anniversary card. It’s a million signs that tell you that they want you to be the way they think you are. And as humans, we’re built to want to fit in, especially at work.”
At their next job, Kibben decided to come out on the first day. “Very casually, I just mentioned ‘my girlfriend’ and waited for a reaction,” they say. “Counting the seconds, holding my breath—and my manager was very welcoming. I later got married while I was there, and the company threw me a wedding shower.”
Tony Vincent, senior manager of global partner strategy at Splunk, a data-sharing platform based in San Francisco, was able to navigate his career while hiding who he was for 15 years before he decided to come out. “I was constantly in protective mode,” he says. “That part of my brain was always on alert when interacting with colleagues.”
At age 37, during the hiring process with a previous employer in Arlington, Va., Vincent decided he’d had enough. “What drove me in that moment was that I fundamentally got tired of having to hide who I was. I got tired of constantly dropping or changing pronouns. Instead of saying ‘he and I,’ I would say ‘we’ or ‘I.’ ”
As part of the benefits negotiations, Vincent asked for medical coverage for his partner. The company, a managed security services provider, agreed to create a workaround to do so, even though domestic partner benefits policies were illegal in the state at the time.
“These stories underscore the importance of organizations to make really clear that coming out is not only baseline safe but welcomed, encouraged and celebrated,” Ellsworth says. “If people are coming out on a daily or weekly basis, it is incumbent on the organization to help reduce that anxiety. When employers create a welcoming environment, they are not only enabling their employees to come out once, but they are also reducing the burden on their repeated coming-out experiences.”
Representation and visibility are powerful drivers of broader acceptance, and HR has a unique, compelling relationship with both employees and the organization. Because of its position, many LGBTQ advocates believe HR should go beyond its duty to create a safe, supportive environment for employees to come out at work—and be real models of change.
“If you’re an HR professional who is LGBTQ and it is safe to do so, I would encourage you to be out at work,” Nally says. “Being out at work can help others feel seen and heard—not only that they will be accepted, but that they can also be successful. Being out is a powerful accelerant to achieving diversity and inclusion.”
Kelaidis agrees that visibility is important because people who are closeted may be wondering if it’s safe to come out. “Being out has led to me feeling more empowered to try and create more visibility and communication and to bring the issue out into the open and be a face for it.”
Vincent felt this higher motivation when he came out more than 20 years ago. “I realized that yes, coming out would relieve me of the terrible stress I’d been carrying around for years,” he says, “but I also was aware that it was the only way forward for my community. Acceptance for all begins with people like me coming out.”
Roy Maurer is an online writer/editor for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition and labor markets.
Photographs by Maya Benko Photography (Katrina Kibben), Steph Grant Photography (Natasha Getler-Porizkova), Andreea B. Ballen (Brian McComak) for HR Magazine.