Coming Out at Work


Coming Out at Work

by Alyse Knorr

My daughter is just out of college and has a new job as a teacher of science for 7th and 8th-graders. She wants to be open about her sexuality at the workplace, but I am concerned it will jeopardize her future career.
— Anonymous

Alyse Says:

First off, I understand your concern for your daughter’s career, especially since she’s fresh out of college and perhaps a little less experienced with the working world. It’s noble of you to want to protect her and look out for her in this way—that impulse is a very generous one and your daughter is lucky to have such a loving, attentive parent.

Before we get into the legal intricacies of coming out in the workplace, I want to emphasize that this is her choice. It’s important to be careful about how you bring this topic up with your daughter. Remember that even though it’s only natural for you, as her parent, to be concerned, she is an adult now and must make her own decisions. Ultimately, she’s going to do whatever she wants and needs to do and feels safe doing, and it’s very important for you to respect her maturity and autonomy—no matter how new to the working world she might be.

This means that instead of telling her what to do, you should try to open a safe dialogue with her in which you ask her questions about your concerns and truly listen to her answers. Be a loving, positive resource she can go to for help. Trust that you raised her to make smart and healthy choices for herself and that she may even know more about this topic than you do. Frame your concerns as that—concerns—not as admonishment or as though you are advising her to stay closeted and hide her true identity. She wants to feel your support, and definitely not to hear any lectures! So coach, ask questions, listen, and be supportive.

Now, as I’m sure you and your daughter both know, this is a very complicated situation, with many points to consider and no single black or white, “yes” or “no” answer. Part of what makes this question so complicated is that there is no federal legislation protecting individuals from employment discrimination on the basis of their gender identity or sexuality. The proposed Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a federal law that would protect LGBT people by making it illegal to discriminate against individuals in any state based on their orientation or gender identity during the hiring process or during employment. ENDA has been introduced in Congress every year (except one!) for the last twenty years, but has unfortunately never been passed.

Without a federal law, anti-discrimination laws vary by state and sometimes even by city or county. Some states have anti-discrimination laws and others do not, and the legal landscape is constantly changing. In states that do not have a law protecting LGBT employees from employment discrimination, it is legal to fire an employee for their sexual orientation or gender identity. And sadly, this awful practice does happen. Just last summer, a California Catholic school teacher was fired after school officials learned about his same-sex marriage. Our country is making great strides for LGBT equality, but employment discrimination does still happen and your daughter needs to be aware of that. I say this not to scare anyone or make you think that if she does come out at work she will immediately be fired—that’s not the case. But I do want to stress that it’s an important decision to make and that knowing all the facts can help.

So the first question to consider is, in what region of the country is your daughter teaching? Does the state or local government where your daughter teaches have an anti-employment discrimination law that protects LGBT people? Knowledge really is power—if your daughter isn’t familiar with the laws (and lack thereof) protecting LGBT employees from discrimination, she should read up about them. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund has a great state by state map of protections for LGBT people as well as a helpful “Know Your Rights” resource and a wonderful legal helpdesk. And don’t forget that some laws and policies may cover orientation but not gender expression.

The second question is—is your daughter teaching at a public or a private school? Some state and local anti-discrimination laws protect only public employees. On the other hand, some private schools—even those located in states without their own anti-discrimination laws—may have an anti-discrimination policy in place. So your daughter should find out whether her state, city, county, or school has such a law or policy. When researching the school’s policies, it’s best for her to consult the employee handbook or call Lambda Legal or the school’s HR team (perhaps even anonymously) with her questions instead of asking someone at the school itself in person (since asking may come across as outing herself).

Furthermore, your daughter might take into account the ways she wants to be open at work. Does she want to be able to talk about her weekend getaway with her girlfriend with colleagues in the break room?  Or to stand on a desk à la Dead Poets Society and scream “I am gay!” to her students? Does she want to mentor a Gay-Straight Alliance at her school? To comfort or advise a gay student? There are many levels and layers involved in coming out at work, and this becomes even more complicated in a school setting, so these are all questions to reflect upon. I would recommend that your daughter read a wonderful book called This Assignment Is So Gay, an anthology of essays by LGBTQ teachers about the art of teaching and the role, pedagogically, of coming out at work—or choosing not to. Knowledge will empower your daughter to make whatever choice is best for her.

Above all, respect how important it is to your daughter to be open at work. It can be frustrating, exhausting, and depressing to be closeted in the workplace. Just think of how isolated you might feel if you had to hide your orientation from your co-workers and could not talk about your life and what matters most to you. First jobs are big and scary enough on their own, and the added element of whether and how to come out makes this situation very tough for your daughter. Continue to be a supportive, attentive, and respectful parent first, and you’ll have a great and healthy conversation. Good luck, and congratulations to your daughter on her new job!

Alyse Knorr is the author of Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books, 2013), as well as the chapbook Alternates (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly,Caketrain, ZYZZYVA, Drunken Boat, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. She received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist press, and teaches English at the University of Alaska Anchorage.