Hi. My name’s Josh, and I’m gay. There are always varying degrees of “out” at the office. But I strive to be authentic wherever I am, here’s how I do it.
While no one who works at Adpearance is surprised by that revelation, there are likely professional circles of mine that are. I’m by no means closeted at work, but in sales intersections or presentations, it doesn’t tend to come up. For context, I’m in sales in the automotive industry, which is not known for its strong LGBTQ+ culture. It exists, of course, but few people feel safe to talk about it.
Let me paint a picture of my dedication to being authentically me through a recent work trip.
I was traveling with two consultants, both of whom I’d known for a little over a year. We had business in Oklahoma City and Little Rock, and carpooled the five or so hours between the two cities. After arriving in Little Rock, we went to dinner with one of their largest clients. We were having a blast, drinking whiskey and telling stories, when the subject of homosexuality came up. I could feel where the conversation was headed. My table mates were likely to start sharing their perhaps conservative opinions on the topic, so I interrupted and said, “Before we go there, I want to let you know I’m gay. Feel free to say anything you want. I won’t call you wrong or get upset. But I don’t want anyone to feel like they put their foot in their mouth.”
It was completely silent. But I just picked up my glass, did my best what’s-everyone-looking-at face, and the discomfort broke with a round of laughs.
Turns out, they don’t know many gay people, and had never had the experience of talking with someone openly about it before. They had a bunch of questions. So we sat around the table talking and continued with our positive evening. It felt good to break bread together knowing that we had just navigated something that can feel fraught with risk.
As a white, college-educated male in a very liberal city, I know I’ve got it good. I don’t speak for the LGBTQ+ community at large nor claim to have all of the answers. But I do get a lot of questions from people who struggle to be authentic in a professional setting. How out is too out? Is my sexuality going to inhibit my career path? Do I need to change my clothes or speech to succeed? Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, but I can share a few lessons I’ve learned with the hope of helping other LGBTQ+ professionals navigate this sometimes tricky playing field.
Do the Work First
Part of the reason I think the conversation that night in Little Rock went so well was that everyone at that table respected me and the work I did. They knew I was a hard worker and good guy before I came out to them. Generally speaking, that’s the order I feel is easiest to navigate in professional relationships—especially with people who you don’t work with day-in and day-out. Depending on what you do, this can leave you feeling like you are coming out 25 times a year. But when you are great at your job, people don’t want to sacrifice a relationship with you. It typically goes well.
Your Sexuality Isn’t Precious
This may surprise some people, but everyone is sleeping with someone. Also, people have opinions about other people’s business. Shocking news, I know.
Try to remember that in the moments when it feels like your sexuality somehow became the world’s central conflict— it isn’t. You get to show who you are and celebrate your sexuality. You don’t have to own the conflict or be worried about everyone agreeing with you. Embrace people’s flaws and don’t correct them all of the time. You’re not responsible to change the world.
Find Your Tribe
Occasionally, I encounter someone who really doesn’t like my sexuality. My general response is, “Oh that’s too bad. Bye.”
To be so cavalier, I draw strength from my strong relationship with others. I know that others around me have my back.
If you don’t have that community at work, go looking for it. A few ideas if you’re unclear on where to start:
- Join a committee. Being part of a smaller group of problem solvers is a great way to become known and develop allies who you can introduce to the real you.
- Start a digital group. We’re heavy Slack users at my office, and there are tons of groups. Last year we started a channel specifically for the LGTBQ+ crowd, #Adqueerance. It’s a simple way to feel less alone. And for those who aren’t ready to be out, it’s private.
- Leverage Pride. Whether it’s your scene or not, annual Pride celebrations are a great way to identify who in your office is LGBTQ+ friendly. Pay attention and plan to be pleasantly surprised by the advocates you’ll find.
Change the Energy
There will be days and situations that are bad. I’ve reported co-workers to HR and gone through conflict resolution. Sometimes that’s necessary and productive. Other times it’s just as effective to use extreme absurdity. To be unflinchingly direct. To use irreverence when you are in uncomfortable situations. There isn’t one way that you have to be. Do not accept that X is the way the world works. Nope. Play with it.
Remember Your Position of Strength
I believe that whoever you are—gay or straight, cat-person or dog-person—your unique identifiers are your superpower.
I choose a mindset that sees my sexuality as a professional asset and not a fight. I was born this way, I’ve navigated the world this way, and it’s given me a powerful perspective that makes me better at my job. Because I see social constructs differently, I’m more adaptable and open to change. That makes me really good in the software world. Because I’m frequently on the fringe, I’m really good at hearing things other people miss and reading the energy of a room before a word is spoken. It makes me really good at sales.
My sexuality isn’t a distraction that I need to hide or apologize for. It’s a big contributor to why I’m so good and why any company in the world would want to hire me.
So that’s what I know. It’s allowed me to carve a path that I’m uniquely and exclusively prepared for. I’ve been active with my local OutInTech chapter along with my incredible alma mater, Juniata College—if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a very special place. As I’ve begun to explore how I share my story and support my peers in the LGBTQ community, I’ve spotted new opportunities for advocacy. My close friend, Amber Daniel, and I are at the precipice of launching our own organization. We are calling it Diversity Alliance and are on a mission to help companies connect with our community in meaningful ways.
Long story short: I believe there’s no personal you and some entirely separate professional you. There’s just you, and your sexuality contributes to making you a great employee.
If you feel you can never be authentic in your current workplace, here are two final reminders.. One, you’ll never know unless you try. People will always surprise you. Two, if it doesn’t work, you don’t have to stay. There are other more open, accepting companies and cities that allow you to be more carefree. You too can make those choices.