should I tell my conservative coworkers that I’m gay?

A reader writes:

I’m an associate at a mid-sized law firm (approximately 40 employees in three states), and I’ve worked here a little over a year. I love the job, and enjoy most of my co-workers, except for the handful of very conservative, religious ones (as you’ll see in the next paragraph, this isn’t just liberal vitriol). People don’t talk much about their personal lives, but all make casual references to spouses, fiancees and weekend plans occasionally.

My question is about the appropriate level of personal disclosure. I’ve been with my girlfriend for three years, but everyone at work thinks I’m single and straight, and neither is true. I’m getting tired of lying, but don’t want to deal with the reactions of my conservative colleagues who could also influence my performance reviews and possible bonuses. Do you have any suggestions, or at least a sense of how long it’s appropriate to keep things to myself? I’m closest to the managing partner, who is wonderful to work with but is very socially conservative as well.

If the question is about what level of personal disclosure is appropriate at work, the answer is that casual references to your girlfriend’s existence and activities you did together over the weekend or upcoming plans you have together are all appropriate, just like they are for your coworkers and their own significant others.

But this question is really about coming out at work in an environment that you think might not be safe to do so in. So:

1. Do you want to work somewhere that might penalize you for something so fundamental to who you are and also so none of their business? I know that sounds like a loaded question, like of course you have to answer “no” to it, but it’s actually a genuine question. Different people weigh different things differently, and it’s legitimate if your bottom line is that you want the job and the peace of mind of not worrying about bias. So to some extent, this is about knowing what’s most important to you.

2. However, in a broader sense of what’s good for the world, there’s a real advantage to your being out, in that you’ll be someone they know, like, and respect who they learn is gay. Bigotry becomes harder when the object of your bigotry is right there in front of you in likable form, and many a homophobe has been reformed by learning that a daughter, brother, or friend is gay.  Of course, you’re under no obligation to be a learning opportunity for the bigots of the world, but it’s something to think about.

3. Last, I wonder if you know for sure that these conservative, religious coworkers are also homophobes, because there are certainly plenty of conservative, religious people who are not. So if you don’t actually know that and are just guessing based on their politics, you might be pleasantly surprised if you give them the benefit of the doubt. Or, of course, you might not.

Any advice out there from others who have dealt with this?

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Suzanne Lucas*

    I think you'll find that most "conservative" people are far more understanding than you think. A couple of years ago, I had a gay coworker who got engaged to her girlfriend. And what did all of us, in our big conservative company, in a conservative suburb do?

    We said congratulations and threw her a bridal shower. Then when she came back after the honey moon we all looked at her pictures and commented on how pretty they both looked.

    I'm not a huge fan of over sharing at the office. (Really, there are some things your coworkers don't need to know about. Honest. I'm talking to those people who call their gynecologists from their cubes.) But, if I were you, I'd just start referring to your girlfriend in conversations as "your girlfriend." If you don't make a big deal out of it, I doubt anyone else will.

    And for some reason, I find it amusing that my word verification for this comment is "barry."

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    Casual references to your girlfriend are fine.

    However, "coming out" and pushing it down somebody's throat are two different things. By announcing to the world that you are gay sends up red flags to people that you're one of those activist types. If people figure it out from your casual references, fine.

    BTW, I'd feel the same way if Joe from Accounting touted off every Monday about how many women he slept with over the weekend.

    And don't be surprised if they don't know already. Lawyers are generally a pretty smart bunch.

  3. Eric*

    Do your co-workers routinely make comments that lead you to believe they are anti-gay? Seriously, "conservative" and "religious" have become bad-words to the gay community that have no basis in fact. If they are bigots, however, do you really want to work there?

    If it is in your personality, I might suggest making it very clear to your coworkers that you are gay. Show them that gay people are just like normal people. Many of us really don't interact with a gay person on a regular basis.

  4. thomast*

    @Wilton – the problem is that "girlfriend" is not a clear indication of a romantic relationship when used by women, unlike "boyfriend" when used by a man. Something more clear than subtle references may be called for. Coming out is not "pushing it down somebody's throat." It is correcting a false assumption about this person that her colleagues have made. And it's not remotely in the same league as tales of sexual conquest. She wouldn't be telling them about what she does sexually – she'd be telling them about who she is. Someone who refers to their opposite-sex spouse as "my wife" or "my husband" is coming out as heterosexual – for this unmarried gay woman in particular, something a little more pointed may be required to achieve the equivalent level of appropriate personal disclosure.

  5. ImpassionedPlatypi*

    "(as you'll see in the next paragraph, this isn't just liberal vitriol)"

    Alison, did you edit down the original email for this post? I can understand if it was too long or named names or something, but it might be a good idea if you're going to do stuff like that for you to also that out and references to parts of the email that you take out, like the one I've quoted.

    If you did take out her proof that the question isn't based on "liberal vitriol", I'm curious what was said. As things stand, the person seeking advice seems to be judging her "conservative" and "religious" coworkers a little harshly. As other commenters have pointed out, not all people who are conservative or religious are bigots. I think that the advice people give for this would be very much influenced by whether or not the person seeking advice has definitive proof of her coworkers' bigotry.

  6. Ask a Manager*

    Nope, didn't edit the email at all.

    I agree with you that the advice depends very much on whether she has actual reason to believe these coworkers are homophobic (other than politics/religion). Tried to cover those bases in my response.

  7. Shauna*

    I would just like to offer another way that you might make your decision. Imagine yourself 1 year from now still not having mentioned your girlfriend. If the thought makes your stomach turn over then I think you should do it now. Secrets dont get easier to tell over time, they get harder. Best of luck to you I hope you are pleasantly surprised by your co-workers reaction if you choose to tell.

  8. Naama*

    Unfortunately, this is one of those rare cases where giving coworkers the benefit of the doubt might not be in this person's best interests. If her coworkers end up NOT being accepting of her, there might be some pretty serious repercussions. Better safe than sorry.
    There are ways to test the waters, like get into conversations that skirt the issue to see how they think about GLBTQ folks in general. But for sure, this person has to know that her manager and/or HR will be in her corner if she comes out. If there ends up being a really serious problem, she needs to know where to turn.
    And what level of homophobia is this person comfortable with? There's "let's run the lesbian out of our workplace with pitchforks" homophobia, and then there's casual, everyday homophobia like "Well, I'm fine with it, as long as she doesn't push it down our throats" (and then defining "push it down our throats" as talking about weekend plans or something else that it's totally OK for straight people to bring up). Does that make sense? Anyway, the OP will have to decide what level of discomfort she can work with…especially in the beginning, when no one's used to it yet. It's more nuanced than "are they homophobes? Yes or no?"

  9. Anonymous*

    I'm a Christian and a moderate Republican and I have no problem whatsoever with anyone who happens to be gay. As far as I am concerned, it is better to be honest about who you are than to lie to the world. A lot of the hatred toward gays comes from fundies and those who believe in literal interpretations of their bible translations (of which there have been many). There is a lot of theological and historical debate in that area. Don't feel like religious people are out to get you since most of us aren't. You would be welcome in my church on any Sunday! As for work, well, just be honest about who you are. You don't need to be showy but you also should not have to hide in a corner out of fear.

  10. Anonymous*

    Unfortunately, some people think any mention of being gay is "pushing it down somebody's throat."

    Perhaps she might find a confidant at work who can give her insight into how her coworkers might react? I wish the letter writer luck.

  11. Interviewer*

    I agree that the OP might not be giving these conservative co-workers the benefit of the doubt.

    I would also point out that working in a law firm, my expectation would be that many of her co-workers are highly educated about laws that prevent a lot of the workplace behavior and repercussions she fears. Her close relationship with the managing partner should be instrumental in dealing with any perceived issues or unfair treatment she may get as a result of casually referring to having a girlfriend.

    I would also point out that some of your co-workers are much more perceptive than you think. Your "secret" may not be much of one to them.

    Good luck to you.

  12. Anonymous*

    Sounds like Wilton Businessman doesn't have a problem with gay people as long as he never has to acknowledge that they exist.

    OP: Some people might be acting like they think you're single and straight as a courtesy to you, since you haven't come out and they might assume you're trying to keep it under wraps. I've done this myself.(If they keep trying to get you together with their single friends, on the other hand… haha.) But I don't think it's unreasonable to be scared, since sexual orientation isn't a protected class and it's completely legal for your bosses to fire you because you're gay.

  13. GeekChic*

    I'm sure this won't make the OP any more comfortable but my experience with GLBT in the workplace is you have to be prepared for hostility for someone (if not everyone).

    I work in a field that is still very male dominated and am "accused" all the time by co-workers (both male and female) of being a lesbian. My general response is "And what if I were?" But that response has gotten me at best the cold shoulder and at worst being told that I should get AIDS and die because I'm "wrong" in "God's" eyes.

    I largely don't care because my family, friends and few co-workers are supportive – but also because I'm obnoxious enough to take petty name calling and snarling without paying attention.

    For what it's worth, almost every person I've met that's self-identified as "religious" has been very negative about GLBT.. with the notable exception of a Wiccan co-worker.

  14. Anonymous*

    @Interviewer: To the best of my knowledge there is no federal law which prohibits a workplace from firing someone for being gay. More than half the states have no such legal protection whatsoever.
    LGBT rights in the U.S.

    There's also a glut of lawyers on the market as well. So while I wouldn't assume that the conservative religious colleagues are bigoted, I understand the OP's trepidation as well.

  15. Mary Sue*

    @GeekChic – Hi. I'm Mary Sue. I'm Christian, and I am a fiscal conservative. I sing in the church choir, and I volunteer in the parish office a few hours a week.

    And I'm queer.

    Yes, you can be religious and GLBTQ. Even Christian!

    While I'm completely out at church* and online and in my private life, I'm not at work. It's a conscious choice– my work life is my work life, and my private life is my private life.

    I'm also what I like to refer to as "obsessively single". I don't currently have a partner, I haven't had a partner in a while, and I'm not looking too hard for a partner.

    Being single in the workplace sometimes brings with it a social stigma of "poor dear, here, date my [relative!]" , along with the workload stigma, "Oh, she's single and has no one to go home to, she can totally work overtime every night, and come in on the weekends/holidays!"

    If this was me? I'd see if the firm has an EEO statement, and find out if your state has sexual orientation as a legally protected class. That would determine whether I began casually dropping mentions about my girlfriend at work.

    If you do take that step and people start giving you crap? Document, document, document.

    *kind of hard not to be when your priest asks, "Why did you leave your last church?" and you tell her, "Because I mentioned my ex-wife and security escorted me to the door and told me not to come back until I'd repented"

  16. Anonymous*

    Our company followed our city's lead and added "sexual orientation and or gender identity" to the list of protected classes.

  17. Lani*

    I might test the waters a bit by mentioning weekend plans with a gay friend or something like that. If they all say "eeew, that's disgusting and wrong!" or bring out their bibles and other religious literature, then you probably shouldn't come out to them.

  18. ImpassionedPlatypi*

    Alison- Ok, it just kind of looked like something was left out. And I thought you covered your bases pretty well, I was referring more to the advice here in the comments. :)

  19. Cassie*

    Honestly, I don't care to hear about coworkers' personal lives (spouses, partners, whatever). I know it makes me anti-social, but when I'm trying to do work, it's nice not to have to hear people chatting in the cubicles about their personal lives.

    If I'm having a casual lunch with a coworker, then of course – talk all you want about your family. But don't be surprised if I tune out every time you mention your three-year old and all the cute things she does.

    We have a couple of people who are gay in our office. One of them mentions his partner by name, hosts parties at his home (with his partner there, of course), and is a member of an LGBT group (the group published their members' names in the campus paper). So people know he's gay, although it's not like he makes it a habit of specifically telling people.

    The other person is female and I haven't actually heard her mention anything about her partner or her personal life. She did talk to another staffer (my friend) about her partner and my friend mentioned it to me.

    And there's a third person (female) who mentions her roommate a lot but I'm not sure if the roommate is just a friend or is actually her partner (and she just doesn't want to come out and say it).

    As we're a college campus in a large metropolitan area, someone being gay is not really a big deal. I consider myself more conservative, but I know plenty of gay people (have had a couple of friends that were gay, through the years)and my personal feeling is that as long as it doesn't affect me, then I don't care. I know some people "care" a lot – they think it's their job to "save" others (from whatever it is that they need to be saved from). It's like how some people continuously badger you if you have reached 30 years old and aren't married yet. I think you'll always run into people who try to tell you how to live your life so the less you share with them, the less they'll have to badger/judge you with.

  20. Anonymous*

    Yes, expect that people will treat you differently. After all you have been living a lie, and in effect you've been lying to them.

    Don't expect that because you feel good about coming out that they will be relieved to know. For some it may be a non-issue, but I doubt it.

    You will be subjected to whatever opinions that your co-workers have about gay people. I say look for a firm that hires openly gay people or prepare for whatever your announcement will bring – good and bad.

  21. Anonymous*

    OP, while you are trying to avoid being a target of discrimination and homophobia, aren't you essentially prejudging your coworkers via their being "conservative and religious?" In your letter, you did not give any reason to believe these people would become your adversary at work if you came out. Do you see the contradiction?

  22. Anonymous*

    I thought I'd bring this up since I've only seen it mentioned once in the comments…OP, check your state laws on discrimination of LGBTQ people in the workplace, as well as your company policy. In many states is is legal to fire someone just for being gay. That doesn't mean all your co-workers who are conservative will not accept you… It only takes one in the right position for you to lose your job with very little legal recourse.
    That being said, if you do choose to come out to them, best of luck and I hope it goes well for you!

  23. Michael Rochelle*

    In my opinion, the way the person should handle it should be completely based on what she is comfortable with and not based on the potential reactions of her coworkers. Her coworkers are out there living their lives and I'm pretty sure they aren't thinking about how it will impact the person posing the question.

    It's hard to be in a relationship and not be able to share your personal experiences when your "allegedly" heterosexual coworkers do it so freely. Something as simple as "My husband and I went to the movies last night" can make you feel like less then a human being when you can't chime in to say that you and your girlfriend did the same.

    The person who posed the question should evaluate how strong she is and whether the acceptance of her coworkers really even matters. After that, if she decides to share, she needs to prepare herself for whatever happens. If her co-workers become cold and judgmental, she needs to prepare herself for that possibility. If they welcome her being gay with open arms, she should prepare for that outcome as well. However, the reality is that no one can tell her the best thing to do in this situation. Our opinions may give her something to think about, but this is totally on her since only she knows how much her closeted status is bothering her and only she knows the climate at her job.

  24. Anonymous*

    jmho judgment is everywhere. The OP is judging their co-workers thinking they in turn judge them. The only opinion of you that matters is yours.

    No-one here can tell you whether or not being upfront about your personal life will be cool in that workplace, gay, straight or shades in between. But I can tell you from personal experience that fear of doing something will bother you until you conquer it.

    By fear I'm not talking about doing something you know is crazy, rather something you want to do but can't find the guts.

    Chances are your co-workers already picked up on your preference but recognized you were uncomfortable. They probably think they're being polite waiting for you to bring it up, and then everyone will know not wonder. Most likely, nothing exceptional will happen except in your relationship, where your SO will finally feel accepted in your life.

  25. A Girl Named Me*

    Late to the party here, but have my 2 cents ready.

    Unless there is concern of being fired or harassed, the OP should just start sharing the casual things. "Jane and I went to see Harry Potter this weekend." "Jane and I had dinner with her mom."

    If asked who Jane is, you can refer to her in whatever way you most frequently do, "partner" or "girlfriend" seems most appropriate.

    My thought is to keep it casual. No big deal. Because, really, it shouldn't be a big deal.

    We had an employee (male) who referred to his partner as his "friend." I found out later, they'd been together for more than 25 years. It's a shame he felt like he had to hide such an important part of his life.

    And I had a friend who told everyone that her partner was her cousin and they lived together. Just. Weird.

  26. Anonymous*

    I would tread very, very carefully here. I was fired from my job for being gay—and that was literally the reason that I was given. I came out to my boss on a Tuesday, and was terminated 5 hours later. I thought, surely they can't fire me for this. Oh yes, yes they can.

    In Texas, an employer can fired you for 1. being gay 2. identifying as transexual/gender non-conforming.

  27. Jamie*

    I have to echo the thoughts others have expressed regarding not painting all "conservatives" with the same broad brush.

    I'm a Catholic and a Republican (gasp) and I couldn't care less about anyone's orientation.

    Whether my co-worker talks about a movie they went to with their partner or spouse doesn't matter to me – I'll nod politely while pretending to listen in either scenario. I'm an equal opportunity anti-social personality :).

    The only people I am biased about in the workplace are those who embrace the slacker lifestyle while on the clock. I would totally vote for legislation to make it legal to discriminate against the lazy.

    Do what makes you comfortable, but don't be surprised if some of your more conservative colleagues don't care one way or the other.

  28. Anonymous*

    I'm the OP, and wanted to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments.

    In answer to a few questions about whether AaM edited my post, the answer is no. My comment about "liberal vitriol" was just intended to clarify that my dislike wasn't merely because my co-workers were conservative, but because they've said things that make me uncomfortable (ie, occasional pejorative comments about gay people, particularly lesbians). However, the point that not all conservatives are homophobic is well taken.

    I still haven't decided if/when to come out at work, but will continue mulling it over, and will write back when I've made more of a decision.

    My firm is relatively small and doesn't have written policies on many issues, but a little digging should produce an EEO statement (if it exists), and the applicable state law shouldn't be too hard to find, so that's an easy first step. Thanks again, everyone.

  29. Anonymous*

    OP, I think you have your answer: If they are saying things that make you feel uneasy about coming out, I would probably advise you not to.

    I'm in a similar position, though my company is more diverse: I leanred years ago that it is STILL not OK to be openly Pagan in most workplaces. I have a friend who was fired for it. How did they get around religious discrimination charges? They made up another reason and fired him for THAT instead, but he said it happened only after a key person saw a bumper sticker on his car declaring that he is Pagan Clergy.

    Whatever you decide, I wish you the very best of luck, but mainly I hope that you find the right work environment for you.

  30. Anonymous*

    Don't. It'll make everything you do filtered through the lesbo light. Every time you screw up it's because you're one of those — not serious, not normal. You'll get fired for things that anyone else would be forgiven for because minorities might be tolerated but they better be perfect workers.

  31. Anonymous*

    Most conservatives want to be allowed to live their own lives freely. They don't want to hear about how many men/women someone's slept with or around. They tend to be willing to give the shirt off their back to a stranger. But, because of the politicalization of homosexuality, they don't (usually) want anything to do with it. They will want to get to know you as a person. But, unlike liberals, conservatives don't tend to accept "group think". So, deal with them as people, just like their dealing with you. As conservatives, they know they don't have all the answers. Just remember to ask yourself, how much do they disclose about themselves? Use that as a guide…

  32. Anonymous*

    I’m the OP, and forgot to send my update to AAM, so thought I’d put in here in case anyone else finds this post and is curious. I came out to a handful of co-workers in May 2011, and assume that most people at my office know by now. Some people say awkward but unoffensive things, but most are completely indifferent. The nice thing about working at a law firm is that my bosses really just care about the quality and quantity of my work (ie, are the clients happy and have I met my billable hours requirements).

    As most of the other commenters suggested, it’s a huge relief to be out, and I really appreciate all of the support I found here. My office doesn’t have an EEOC policy (but I’m in a jurisdiction where employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal), so this has encouraged me to become more active in firm management/employment policy issues as well, since if I don’t say anything, it’s certain that nobody else will either. So while coming out at work obviously isn’t appropriate for everyone, it was definitely the right decision for me.

  33. Ladys2Sense*

    No. it’s not necessary to tell your coworkers that you are gay because your being gay happens in your personal life and in YOUR bedroom, therefore it is PRIVATE.

  34. Ladys2Sense*

    Additionally because its happening in YOUR bedroom and in YOUR private life, I don’t want or need to hear about it. Heterosexual people don’t need to announce OUR sexual preferences or private lives to coworkers in business and professional environments.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Do you ever refer to your boyfriend or husband at work? Or to a date you went on? That’s what you refer to as “announcing your sexual preferences or private life to coworkers,” and gay people have just as much a right to do it as you do. I hope you’ll rethink what you’re saying here.

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