Every year on Oct. 11, we celebrate National Coming Out Day, a day for celebrating the power of being out as a member of the LGBTQIA community, and the struggle that still exists for those who are out and closeted. In fact, despite 33 years of observance – and even in the face of both incremental and monumental progress for the community – it’s important to recognize the bravery still required to be fully out, especially at work. As the LGBTQIA leaders we interviewed shared with us, even the most progressive workplaces still struggle to create a sense of safety and support for LGBTQIA colleagues.
We are deeply honored to showcase and amplify a few voices and experience from colleagues and leaders in the community on their Coming Out stories to help others understand both the differences and commonalities that exist across the coming out experience. We also asked them to share their thoughts on how far we’ve come – and how far we’ve yet to go – in embracing and elevating our LGBTQIA neighbors and colleagues:
“ I spent a considerable amount of time asking myself what self-acceptance meant for me.”
“Going back to when I was 21, I wish I knew that coming out was going to help me step into the fullness of who I am as a human being and give me confidence in my own skin that I never had access to before.”
“Go where it feels warm. You can’t change anyone, and you should never have to convince people of your worthiness. Water the soil of the relationships that grow easily and beautifully; don’t break your back trying to grow flowers in the shade.”
“Our society has made progress since the groundbreaking organizing work of activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but Black and Brown trans women are still being killed every day in this country and globally around the world. “
Scroll down to read their full interviews below (Some responses have been edited for brevity):
Looking back at your coming out experience, what do you know now that you wish you would have known then? When I was 21, I came out to my family as a lesbian, and then I came out again at the end of last year/early this year as a non-binary person and queer. Going back to when I was 21, I wish I knew that coming out was going to help me step into the fullness of who I am as a human being and give me confidence in my own skin that I never had access to before. After I came out, a lot of folks said they could viscerally feel that when they interacted with me. I also wish that I knew how little other people’s opinions mattered to me. I’ve been able to build my own community and choose people to support me throughout my journey, including primary care physicians. It takes a village, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
How far do you think society has come since you came out, and what work remains to be done? So often, parts of the LGBTQ community are so focused on binary gender. They’re focused on stereotypes. There’s a lot of work to be done about thinking about gender and sexuality in a broader, more expansive way. That goes for the community itself as much as it goes for the allies and people who don’t claim to be allies. We’ve come a long way, but we certainly have to name that because we stand on the backs of some serious legends who have advanced so much equality and legislation as it relates to the rights of LGBTQ folks. But we have still more work to do.
How can leaders support and create a space of safety for colleagues who may or may not come out at work? Leaders can support the continuous advancement of LGBTQ folks and create safe spaces for them by normalizing these discussions and normalizing inclusive ways to engage and interact with our colleagues. This includes people naming their gender pronouns, even if they think it’s “obvious”. Gender identity and expression is not something that’s obvious, so normalizing and practicing the usage of pronouns, and normalizing being okay when you mess up, but self-correcting and not placing the burden on the folks who are from marginalized or underrepresented communities to correct or carry the burden of those mistakes. There’s a lot of opportunity for folks to just normalize (gender) fluidity and the spectrum of gender identity expression and sexuality. Leaders can really help create those safe spaces by normalizing the conversation and admitting when they don’t know everything.
Creating that psychological safe space for individuals to really be in their fullness in the workplace not only brings so much power to the individual, but it creates space for folks to step into their fullness to build amazing products, workstreams, etc. Coming out and stepping into my own fullness gave me space to apply all of me to my work, and I feel like my work has really benefited positively as a result of that experience.
Looking back at your coming out experience, what do you know now that you wish you would have known then? Here’s what I’d like to tell my teenage self coming out as a lesbian in 2005: The queer community is huge! A massive, vibrant, colorful community awaits you when you’re ready to explore it. It can be tempting to mimic Shane (from the L Word). In the show she gets all the girls, she’s attractive, she’s dangerous, she’s broody and mysterious. But it turns out that kindness, compassion, communication, and self-reflection are sexy too (and your body/soul will feel a lot better).
Here’s what I’d like to tell myself coming out as nonbinary in 2017: Go where it feels warm. You can’t change anyone, and you should never have to convince people of your worthiness. Water the soil of the relationships that grow easily and beautifully; don’t break your back trying to grow flowers in the shade. Queer, trans, and nonbinary people have been around since the beginning of humanity—the gender binary, and sex and gender being inextricably linked, is actually the “new fad” and rooted in colonialism. Language is limiting but we can change it. We do all the time!
And here’s what I’d like to tell myself after I started transitioning in 2020: You’re stepping into yourself, which hurts like hell right now. But it’s because you’re breaking out of the shell you’ve been stuck in. You’re becoming you. You have no idea how “right” you are going to feel. That itchy-sweater feeling you’ve had since you were a kid? Well, it now feels like a silk shirt a lot of the time, and that’s pretty cool. There’s nothing wrong with taking testosterone. If the medicine is available to treat my affliction (in this case gender dysphoria), why wouldn’t I take it? People take medicine now that wasn’t available 100 years ago, and this is no different.
How far do you think society has come since you came out, and what work remains to be done? The representation of queer and trans folks in media has completely changed since I was a teen. There was Rosie (was she even out?), Ellen (her show was canceled after she came out), and Will + Grace (and only one was gay). I sort of related to Ellen, but her path looked scary to me. I also couldn’t picture myself as an adult and I never knew why. But now I know it’s because I didn’t have any examples of someone I could grow into, who felt like “me.” I couldn’t fathom growing up and being a woman, nor a man…but now I’m happy to say that I can picture myself as an older person!
In terms of areas to address, I think the inextricable and assumed connection between gender and sexuality needs some work. Being trans or GNC (gender non-conforming) does not mean you’re a lesbian, gay, pan, bi. I’m a non-binary person (partnered) with a cisgendered woman. What does that make me? What does that make her? In general, I’d love to see us move away from gender norms, and the gender binary. I believe this will also be freeing for folks who identify as cisgender to play with how they’d like to express themselves.
How can leaders support and create a space of safety for colleagues who may or may not come out at work? Hire more queer leaders! And not just queer leaders, but visibly queer people who mess with gender norms. I often hear “I didn’t know they were gay,” when folks talk about queer folks in leadership positions, usually because gender roles are being followed. I don’t know a lot of masculine women, feminine men, or nonbinary folks in leadership positions. It would be great to see that changed. Also, bathrooms: One single-stalled bathroom on one floor in the office is not awesome—and not just because it’s inconvenient, it’s also because people who are not nonbinary find that bathroom too when they need to take their time.
Looking back at your coming out experience, what do you know now that you wish you would have known then? Looking back at my coming out journey, I would tell my younger self it might not feel like it now, but everything will be okay. You will be okay. It might take time for some of the people closest to you to accept your journey – but trust and honor that people will make sense of things in their own time. Let go of the things you can’t control. Although it can feel scary to live in your truth at certain times, in certain places, suppressing who you are to please others is much more painful. One day, you’ll stumble upon this quote by your favorite poet, Ocean Vuong, and everything will make sense. You’ll feel so proud of yourself for how far you’ve come, for still being here. “Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask: ‘Is this enough for me?”
How far do you think society has come since you came out, and what work remains to be done? I was very fortunate to live in a place where there was a BIPOC LGBTQ+ center that offered free therapy. The people I met here helped me through some of the darkest times of my life. Still, there was only one of these centers in the entire city. And many queer people across the country and globe don’t have access to such resources. We need to create more accessible/affordable resources, more safe spaces, more sustainable long-term support. We also need to be concious about the intersectionality of queerness, and center those who are the most marginalized among us, which are often Black trans folks. As a filmmaker/educator/community organizer, I believe everything begins with storytelling. We need more nuanced visibility in the mainstream where queer people can share our stories in ways that feel true and honest to us.
How can leaders support and create a space of safety for colleagues who may or may not come out at work? I think people need to be more aware of the fact that even if something may not feel like a big deal to you, it could mean a lot to someone else in making them feel seen and heard. The bare minimum is having gender-neutral bathrooms and making pronouns visible. Deeper work requires folks to engage in genuine relationship-building and creating boundaries, accountability guidelines, and communal visions that allow each team member to feel safe showing up as their full self.
Looking back at your coming out experience, what do you know now that you wish you would have known then? Before I told my parents I was queer, I spent a considerable amount of time asking myself what self-acceptance meant for me. I was fortunate to be able to work on myself first before going to them both, separately. And when I did, I told them just so they could know more about who I am – I didn’t go to them for acceptance or permission. They responded supportively and didn’t make me feel like they had lost something by me expressing my queer identity to them.
That is not the same experience for a lot of queer and nonbinary folks. I recognize my privilege in having parents who love the whole me – and not a version of someone they think I should be.
How far do you think society has come since you came out, and what work remains to be done? There’s now more public discourse, (outside of organizing and movement spaces where the discourse has always been common as a means of survival), about trans and queer rights. There’s more visibility for queer and trans people. Just think about the fact that a show like Pose was able to be presented on TV and co-produced by a Black trans woman, Janet Mock. Our society has made progress since the groundbreaking organizing work of activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but Black and Brown trans women are still being killed every day in this country and globally around the world. Black and Brown trans women being protected, for me, would be a true marker of progress. I’m thankful for the communities, organizers, and activists seeking to make that possible.
How can leaders support and create a space of safety for colleagues who may or may not come out at work? By educating themselves on queer and trans identity and by understanding that in this society the dreams, aspirations, comfort, and convenience of cishet people are always prioritized over that of queer and trans folks. We don’t know what we don’t know, so colleagues should educate themselves on the experiences of queer and trans folks. A perfect way to do this is to read articles and books about the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people. Companies should also invest in education for staff focused on building affirming spaces for queer and trans folks at work and make these guiding principles a matter of documented policy so that when new hires and existing hires read the employee handbook, they have a better understanding of what the collective standard is when working alongside LGBTQIA+ people.
Bret Rossman (he/him), Director of Strategy and Business Development & Head of Global DEI, Weihai Luda
Looking back at your coming out experience, what do you know now that you wish you would have known then? I didn’t have just one coming out experience. I came out to a small group of friends when I was in high school in Western South Dakota, which was terrifying.
I then moved to Northern Minnesota and came out to more friends in college and continued to build that community. I obviously came out to people through the dating process. I came out to people at work through the get-to-know-you process. Obviously, I came out to my now husband. I also came out to my father when I was in my early thirties. The LGBTQ plus community will go through many coming out experiences throughout their journey. Ones that will be terrifying, ones. that won’t be so terrifying.
What I wish I knew then is that I would be okay. That I would build a community of friends and family that would love me unconditionally, no matter what. And so I wish I would have known that. However, the other thing I would say is I also acknowledge the incredible privilege I have in making that statement as a white man, because unfortunately, people of color and our trans brothers and sisters within the LGBTQIA community aren’t always afforded that same level of comfort and safety in their coming out experiences. And so in that way, there’s still a lot of work to do. But I would like to believe in, and I hope in my heart of hearts, that every person in the LGBTQIA community finds some level of comfort, love and hope through their coming out experiences.
How far do you think society has come since you came out, and what work remains to be done? I think that we’ve come a long way. We now have the right to be married which, prior to 2015, we did not have. What’s interesting is when asked, “How long have you and your husband been married?” I say, “Only since 2016.” It illustrates the step forward, but it also illustrates how we have a lot of work to be done because that only just happened.
We have 21 states in the US with some legal non-discrimination protection for that LGBTQA community. That’s incredible because at one point that didn’t exist. But there are 27 states that don’t have any form of legal non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQIA community. That right there illustrates work that needs to be done. On a global level, there are 68 or 70 countries that still have not decriminalized homosexuality, meaning you could be fined or imprisoned in some countries – even killed just for being who you are as a member of the LGBTQIA community. So again, huge, tremendous steps forward, but there’s a lot of work to be done.
How can leaders support and create a space of safety for colleagues who may or may not come out at work? As it relates to the LGBTQ community, women, and people of color, I think it’s important for people within those communities to see that representation in leadership. When it comes to the LGBTQIA community, there are less than 1% in the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies. We need to see that start to change so that people can leverage their position and their place of privilege to do that work for others.
Internally it’s also important for teams to stay focused on how the work they’re doing supports the broader community. For example, one of the things we talk about in my line of work is designing inclusively. We do manufacturing for some PRIDE products. In the past, we had a lot of people from the ally community leading that work. The voice of the LGBTQIA community wasn’t necessarily being considered, asked for, or represented. We did a number of things (differently) this year that elevated the value of the LGBTQIA community internally. It wasn’t enough for us to just design the product and then get an LGBTQIA opinion. How about giving the LGBTQIA community the opportunity that platform to design that product themselves? So we brought in a designer from the LGBTQIA community who helped us design the product. We also worked with a third party to have that product vetted and tirelessly made sure that those who were commenting were from the LGBTQIA community. So in totality, what I’ve been telling my team is that it’s important to give these communities the platform.