I had an idea to explore an important question around coming out – the need for visibility and representation by publicly out folks in all industries, occupations, walks of life balanced against the very personal decisions we make to come out. I wrote about this in 2015 regarding the workforce of the City of Pittsburgh.
In other words, there is an absolute need to create safety and privacy for individuals to decide how out they want to be at any given moment in their life. Even for people like me who are pretty visible, there are moments when I lean into the perception that I am heterosexual (heteronormativity) for various reasons, usually about my safety or because I don’t have the energy to have this conversation yet again.
I’m saying hiring and including publicly out people in your workplace and industry is different than creating a culture where people can have their private lives respected and kept private by their choice, not out of fear.
For example, during our recent vacation driving tour through the PA Wilds, my partner and I were in swathes of Pennsylvania with no protections – we could be denied a hotel room or a meal or even access to business simply because they found out we were lesbians. So I did some background work to find safe places to visit, using Facebook groups and Twitter to find allies who could help me figure this out. That’s an entire level of vacation planning most people don’t have to deal with. We were also very aware of the build up of White Supremacy groups in this region, especially in Ulysses in Potter County. So when we ended up lost on a gravel road in Potter County, it was tense.
But this happens in Pittsburgh, too. We are often asked “one check or two” by restaurant servers who don’t ask opposite sex couples the same thing (I’ve informally researched this.) We’ll be shopping for shoes or sweaters or pet food and hit that wall when the person waiting on us assumes we are sisters/friends/relatives and we have to decide – do we correct them? Is it safe to do so? Is it worth the inevitable awkwardness? Will this impact our ability to complete our task? Do we have energy to educate this person about making assumptions and heteronormativity? Does it matter?
So even for someone with an entire brand of being “PghLesbian” both online and off, there is an ongoing and everyday need to make decisions about coming out. This is a result of external circumstances, not inner struggles with my identity. I’m comfortable with who I am and how I understand my identity. I’m also well aware of the fact that my whiteness, my middle-class status, my education, my roots in Pittsburgh, and even the clothes I wear and the purse I carry feed into the perception that I’m a cisgender heterosexual woman. I’m aware of my privileges as well as the presumptions they create.
So I get to make the decision in each and every one of these situations about if and how much I come out. It is my personal decision. Any action to take that personal decision away from me is a form of outing me and is a violation of my autonomy. I don’t owe anyone this information, no matter the setting. I decide. I weigh the pros and cons, the costs and benefits. And I decide how to proceed.
Personal decisions about coming out are different than systemic issues of visibility and representation. Employers should of course not out anyone or tokenize openly LBGTQ folks. Employees do not owe their industry, coworkers, supervisors, or customers this information.
Industries and employers, however, do have an obligation to create a workplace culture that represents the people they serve, their customers as well as the larger community. This is where hiring and promoting publicly out LGBTQ folx into roles of prominent visibility comes into play. The institution should balance a culture that lifts up LGBTQ identities while respecting the privacy of each individual. That’s their job.
And this is where we hit another type of outness, one that I describe as quietly out. This might be someone who is out in their private life, but not in the public or workplace. It might be someone who is simply a private person or perhaps an introvert and does not wish to be visible. Their identity and validity is not lesser than someone who is publicly out, it is simply different. A quietly out person can often move into positions of power and authority to impact the culture for good (or not) precisely because of their quiet identity.
Being photographed in a bi-pride shirt is not going to have the same impact on other bi folx, especially youth, as saying “Yep, I’m bisexual” in a public way a la the infamous Puppy episode from The Ellen Show. We need both, we deserve both. Maybe not from the same person. But one of these is not sufficient to change the culture.
The problem is when we want to have it both ways – we want to take credit for how LGBTQ culturally competent we are as a company or organization or movement, but we are relying just on quietly out folx. That might be sufficient for many purposes, but it is not adequate to meet the responsibilities of representation and visibility.
Think of it this way – when I walk into your business and see a rainbow pride sticker or a copy of your inclusive nondiscrimination policy or some other tangible expression of your corporate commitment to inclusion, you can reasonably assume that I will know that you are an affirming company. Great.
If, however, you rely on your cousin who happens to be a lesbian and whom you love and respect and support in her relationship and spends time with your kids and all of that, if you rely on that quiet relationship to inform your workplace decisions and policies, how would I know? Or if you have quietly out employees whom you consult and trust, how would I the customer know?
I’m not saying the business should *not* have quietly out employees or that a business should say “hey Joe in shipping identifies as non binary” when I’m at the register. I’m saying hiring and including publicly out people in your workplace and industry is different than creating a culture where people can have their private lives respected and kept private by their choice, not out of fear. It is on the company to find publicly out people as well creating a good environment for everyone.
This is as much the fault of the LGBTQ community as anyone else. I have countless people in my life who are LGBTQ and will say “I don’t wear a sign on my forehead” or “I wear LGBTQ tee shirts in public” or “I don’t define myself by my sexual/gender identity” and that’s fine except they also want to include themselves in the visibility column. That’s how we tokenize ourselves. Being photographed in a bi-pride shirt is not going to have the same impact on other bi folx, especially youth, as saying “Yep, I’m bisexual” in a public way a la the infamous Puppy episode from The Ellen Show. We need both, we deserve both. Maybe not from the same person. But one of these is not sufficient to change the culture.
I recently asked someone who is the first gay person to accomplish a certain achievement in his field to do an interview with me about his accomplishment. He resisted because he felt like focusing on that gay fact would somehow reduce his other accomplishments. And pigeonhole him. Whereas I who have also accomplished a similar achievement see him as a role model and inspiration and an important part of history – he’s had an impact BECAUSE he is gay. I’m not going to push this issue out of respect for his personal choices, but I feel sad that this piece of history will be lost. And when people wrongly give me credit for being the first in this sort of accomplishment, I honestly don’t know what to say except to clarify that I’m the first publicly out person, not the first out LGBTQ person. That leads us back to this entire conversation again.
In honor of National Coming Out Day, I approach 17 different leaders who have told me that they are out and asked them to reflect a bit on the meaning of coming out.
1 of those 17 people responded to me and he’s probably the most recently publicly out person.
The others either didn’t see the email, didn’t feel inclined to participate, or forgot to get back to me. I doubt it is personal or has anything to do with me – but perhaps they don’t want to affiliate themselves as LGBTQ people with my blog. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why they didn’t respond. It matters that they opted for being quietly out and all of them are in positions to shape the public discourse in some way. They will probably all do a great job of that, but it won’t be a public job. We won’t know that openly LGBTQ folx are doing these various types of work.
If people with other forms of privilege – being white, being affluent, being highly educated, being in a job where they are protected from discrimination, being a cisgender male, etc – if they are unwilling or unable to say “Yep, I’m LGBTQ.” but are willing to occupy a visible space in society, what does that mean for the rest of us?
I invite you to read through the #AMPLIFY posts where we ask these two questions:
Please describe your coming out. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face?
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”?
You’ll find plenty of examples of people who live their lives publicly out or quietly out and even more who are almost not out. Where do they look for support in being out? Going back to my reference to Ellen DeGeneres earlier in this post, do you think Ellen’s justification of her personal friendship with George Bush is useful for people struggling with coming out? Her iconic role in coming out doesn’t lose its meaning, but her choices now as someone who is living their life out loud matter as well.
We need new visibility and representation. Icons are great, legends are important, but public visibility gets the work done.
There’s power in coming out – to ourselves, our loves, our friends, family, neighbors, the world. Power for us and for those around us.