48% of Gays Aren’t Out at Work, Even on Diversity Day

This year has been one of many moves towards progress for gays – repeal of DADT seems very likely, Section 3 of DOMA has been declared unconstitutional, and in a much talked-about Gallup poll, a majority of Americans now believe that same-sex marriage should be legally valid, something unprecedented in American history. Which is why it’s surprising to learn from the Center for Work-Life Policy that a full 48% of college-graduated queers are still in the closet at their places of work.

There are quite a few questions remaining after reading through the study released this week – the most obvious of which being why are so many queers still living in secrecy? As the Center for Work-Life Policy notes, this is a safer and more welcoming time than ever to be out at work.

Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 57 percent of them extend benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, the report says. Cisco even makes up the tax premium for its employees that gay couples in domestic partnerships pay over married straight couples, which is estimated to be at about $1,000 per year.

Is it because even these policies aren’t enough to convince employees that their workplaces are safe? Is there too wide a divide between company policy and company culture? That seems very possible; the study notes that “[thirty] seven percent of straight women and 52 percent of straight men say they prefer gay people keep their personal lives to themselves, and 29 states do not prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT workers.” Is it a lack of communication and understanding? Karen Sumberg, one of the report’s co-authors, thinks so. “It’s not just the policies, but also how well they’re communicated… What we found is that people aren’t always sure that they have these policies or what it means, both gay and straight.”


Those explanations don’t answer every question about this study. Based on the media coverage of it and without having seen the text of the study, a few things are unclear.

Namely: how is “closeted” defined in this case? Does it mean having made a specific decision not to disclose the truth about your sexual orientation to your coworkers, or does it mean that you choose not to talk about your personal life in general, either because you’re gay or because you’re private? And does it mean you just don’t talk about your girlfriend, or that you make up a boyfriend, too? The difference between the two seems significant. Another shocking statistic from the Center’s study on gay college-educated employees is the one that says “one third of them are even leading “double lives,” meaning that they’re closeted in the office while being out at home.” If those individuals are leading “double lives,” what are the other two-thirds doing? Are they closeted in the rest of their lives as well as at work? If so, isn’t it maybe a bigger story that 66% of employed college-graduated queers are apparently completely closeted?

That’s not to say that the numbers in this study actually are contradictory or inaccurate; it’s more that the statistical information being bandied about by those talking about this study seems like it is maybe not communicated clearly or accurately. Statistics can be much more complex than many people realize, even in journalism, and if quoted in the wrong context or without context can be very misleading. Furthermore, the population studied here was very specific – plenty of people, including queer people, in the workforce aren’t college graduates. Are these numbers different for them?

Without there being a corresponding study on that community, it seems at least plausible that lower-education and/or working-class queers could have more to lose by being out at work than their college-graduated counterparts. But if almost a full half of even the relatively more privileged group doesn’t feel safe being out at work, what’s the situation for people at other levels of income or education? It seems like they’d suffer the same adverse effects of being closeted at work that these study participants experience – the ones who we now know “report job-related stress and isolation than their peers, and are also more likely to say they want to leave their current jobs.”

There’s hardly been a study in the history of studies that hasn’t ultimately highlighted the need for more research in the area, and this is one more example. The message that the workplace is still an unwelcoming place to gay and lesbian employees is clear; now we just need to learn why, and what we need to do to fix it.

See also: How to Come Out at Work

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. I think another relevant question is what exactly does it mean to be “out” in the employment context? Is it that everyone at your work place knows that you’re gay? Or is it good enough for qualification if only those you work closely with do? At my current job I wouldn’t know if I qualify as being closeted or not. More than a few people I work with know, and I’ve never tried to hide anything or lie about who I am, but there are some people who I just don’t interact with (even in a relatively small office of 30 people) and others for whom it just hasn’t come up — because nothing personal has come up…

    • I’m with you if it doesn’t come up, I don’t bring it up. I work in a very straight laced, WASPy office and I don’t consider 90% of my coworkers to be friends. So those I interact with know, those that I don’t, do not.

      I feel it is any awkward situation, do you stand on a boardroom table and announce it at a staff meeting? I just hope the gossip wheel spreads it around so I can avoid outing myself 30 times to people I mildly dislike.

    • Agreed. I’m in a relatively liberal academic setting so it’s not an issue for me to be out of the closet at work, but I don’t really wander around disclosing my preferences either, because it has no relevance to anything I do at work. So my friends know and that’s enough for me. Then again I look pretty queer so people probably just figure it out.

    • I agree with you, because being out means something different to everyone. I’m not one to bring up my personal life with just everyone, and since I am single and have been since I have been at my job there really isn’t a reason to mention my sexuality in general, so the few people that I work with every single day do know, but people I only interact with occasionally or maybe only know in passing to say hey to, generally don’t know… But I wouldn’t consider myself closeted because if someone asked I would tell them, I just feel the need to tell every person I interact with because its not part of my job.

    • Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve been “out” to most people at the places I’ve worked just because it’s never come out. Not everybody discusses their personal life at work, and even if they do that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to mention your sexual orientation – like a person in a relationship would probably mention his or her boyfriend/girlfriend but a single person wouldn’t necessarily bring up who they’re attracted to or the dates they go on.

  2. I live in Utah. I work for a company that includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policies. However, Utah is a right-to-work state. This means I could get fired at any time, for any reason and they don’t have to tell me why. It could be because I’m gay and I wouldn’t know, I also would have no legal recourse because of the right-to-work laws. Thankfully, the locally owned company work for is fairly liberal and very gay friendly, so I am comfortable being out at work. I think so many people are closeted at work because they have no legal protection.

  3. i live in texas which does not include sexual orientation in its work discrimination laws. and also, i worked with the school district and oh lord are people touchy with gays and schools here. its annoying but i feel better knowing nobody at work knows.

  4. I would’ve never come out at my last job which was like a road work type job with a bunch of… well… morons. I would’ve been ridiculed to no end. Now I work at a pharmacy with more intelligent people and I don’t have a problem telling people if they ask.

  5. I’m out at work now but I wasn’t always. In college I worked at a department store and chose not to come out to my co-workers because most of them were older women & I wasn’t sure if they would be okay with it. I hated constantly dodging their questions about boyfriends but I just didn’t want to deal with it. My first job out of college I worked in an office with mostly men; there I just kind of kept to myself. I don’t think I would’ve lied if the topic had come up, but it never did.

    Now though I can’t imagine not being out at work. Luckily I work in NYC & my workplace is very gay-friendly. There are several other out gay employees in my office (including a VP who is a lesbian) and it’s a complete non-issue. I just can’t imagine hiding or lying about my family.

  6. I feel like coming out at work is one of the hardest things to do if you are already out. It feels like being thrown back into the closet while you feel out the situation at your new job and decide whether or not you should.

    When I started my most recent job, I had a girlfriend and found it super uncomfortable the first few days when people kept asking if I had a boyfriend, if I was single, ect. Eventually the person I worked closet with was like…”Do you have a girlfriend”? and I was so relieved that she was understanding, and today I am out to almost everyone and don’t hide it.

    However, I am going to be switching jobs soon and it seems like such a struggle to go from being completely out to being thrown back into using gender-neutral pronouns and squirming when people ask about a boyfriend. Luckily I work in a more liberal field (design, arts) but it’s still the worst feeling ever not being out at work.

    • I hate that since I don’t “look” gay to most people it is like you have to continually come out to new people and at new jobs so I didn’t come out of the closet once, I’ve had to do it several times which makes it that much harder!

    • I 100% agree. It’s so awkward. I feel lucky that no one I work with cares, which is handy since I don’t care if my gayness makes them uncomfortable. And even though Colorado is an “at-will” state, my company is really gay friendly, so I don’t have any qualms about it.

      The thing that is most awkward to me is when customers ask if I’m married. I work at an apartment community, so people tend to think that I’m like a roommate who lives in the office, even if they’re just out looking (I’m like a teacher who only exists in the proper environment). This apparently means that they can ask me anything, no manners necessary. So I end up coming out to people quite often, which is very uncomfortable. I’m like, okay, Total Stranger, you really want to know all about my personal life? Great.

      Fun bit of useless trivia: Colorado also has sexual orientation included as a protected class in its Fair Housing Laws, which makes me kind of giddy. In a really geeky, I-work-in-property-management kind of way.

    • This. I was trying to explain to a younger friend how there is really no such thing as Being Out. It’s more like you’re in a perpetual state of Coming Out, and you have the same awkward issues to navigate with each new person you meet.

      • especially if you don’t like instantly read as gay and aren’t in a gay-obvious environment? i literally have to out myself once a week, i feel like i should just get a tattoo on my forehead? though i think it’s probably actually a lot easier for me since i read as straight and have that whole femme invisiblity thing going on, but it still sucks really hard sometimes.

  7. I’m not out at work. Every week I get asked my one of my students: “Miss, do you have a boyfriend/baby?” “Miss, are you married?” I just say no.
    I’m not quite sure how to tell middle school students that I like girls when I don’t have a girlfriend at the moment. I’m not sure it’s any of their business to be honest.
    As far as the adults go, I’m not out to them either, but I think it’s more because I’m a very private person and prefer to keep my personal and work life separate. It’d be the same if I were straight.

    • Oh man, when I was working with younger kids that was a constant issue. I stopped wearing this ring my grandma gave me because it provoked so many “Miz Bookbound, are you married?” questions. Usually though the kids were just trying to avoid doing their work. :)

    • are you me? i teach 6th grade and basically laugh my ass off/cry at my desk every time my students question my relationship status. it’s a small farming town and i think they would faint if i was like balls out, “no i don’t have a boyfriend, i have a GIRLfriend!!” not that i do, but hypothetically speaking…

      then again i did receive boys’ lacrosse shorts as an end of the year present so…

      • I think as soon as I start dating someone I will respond with that when the boyfriend question comes up- I can’t wait to see their reactions!

  8. Even if most of your co-workers are open and accepting, all it takes is that one conservative a-hole / old person / recent immigrant from a woman-hating country who’s ish you don’t want to deal with to make being out at work not worth it.

  9. Hope! http://www.theglasshammer.com/

    “To celebrate Pride Month, The Glass Hammer is featuring profiles of several senior lesbian professionals – in the hopes of inspiring and empowering more LGBT women to bring their full selves to work, and to encourage more firms to build open, inclusive cultures.”

    With articles such as:

    “Harnessing the Power of LGBT Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)”

    “Voice of Experience: Jennifer Barbetta, Managing Director, Chief Operating Officer, Alternative Investments & Manager Selection, Goldman Sachs”

    “Why We Need More Gay Role Models in Financial Services”

  10. I’m a college educated lady and I’m not out at work (or in most of my life.) I’m not not willing to be open but find it’s easier to just not talk about it at all. My office is pretty small (~15 people) 80% of my coworkers are ex-sorority girls roughly my age and my bosses are all conservative men. Not exactly the people I want to be coming out to. Truth be told, I’m not quite sure how open I would be about talking about my dating life even if I were dating a guy. I just don’t like them being all up in my shit. WE ARE ALL UP IN EACH OTHER’S SHIT. It’s unreal. I would never lie about it though if they were to ask outright.

  11. i’m out at my current job by de facto, because I generally read as gay to others; I don’t really have to make that choice. Fortunately it hasn’t been an issue–it’s a university setting and it’s Massachusetts.

    What’s kinda weird is that I work in a male-dominated lab where I’m not one of the “boys’ club”, but I don’t really fit in with the handful of women, who are straight, married and fairly feminine. I’m just the little butchy office assistant with the piercing and the short hair who shows one of the guys how to safely close a box cutter. Ain’t no thing.

  12. I’m kinda semi-out at work. I know that a couple people know, because we’ll talk about the latest happenings in Prop 8 and other gay politics/law related news. But at least one of my co-workers is really freaking stupid and has no idea and keeps asking me if I’m ever going to get married.

  13. I’m not out at work. I think it’s mainly because I have to see these people everyday and don’t want to deal with anything awkward. It’s not like your friends or family who you choose to be around. Also, I don’t think people want to risk their careers, whereas it’s much easier to risk personal relationships.

  14. I’ve been out at every job I’ve worked at since 1995.

    Q: “Are you married?” A: “I have a partner. We’ll likely marry whenever it’s legal.” Just like that.

    Coming out is a thing gay people will have to do for their whole lives. May as well get good at it.

    It makes it easier if you just pretend that everyone already knows you’re gay, and speak that way when people make small talk. It takes the pressure off you and puts it on them to figure it out.

    • I like that idea. How would you respond to that question if you were single? “Oh, I’m not allowed to get married” I think that’d be funny they’d be like, what? and have to figure it out.

      • If I were single, I’d just say I haven’t met the right woman yet.

        One coworker asked me if I had a boyfriend and I said I was engaged. He asked me where my ring was and I said “Oh, I’m the one that bought the ring and proposed.” He replied, “That’s messed up! Women don’t have to buy men rings.” And I said, “I didn’t buy a man a ring. I bought my girlfriend a ring.”

        I’ve found a lot of opportunities to flip heterosexual privilege on it’s ear. Make them realize that it’s their problem that they assume everyone is straight and expect heterosexual answers.

        But if they start asking sexual questions once they figure out I’m gay, it’s important to draw a line. I used to just answer the sex questions, but now I think it’s creepy and borderline sexual harassment to be asking questions about a coworker’s sex life. Like, someone asking about my “first lesbian experience” is asking about when I lost my virginity. Straight people don’t have to put up with those kinds of questions at work, and neither should gay people.

  15. In a professional context the term “out” is less relevant than in a personal context. I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell my coworkers the ins and outs of my personal life, not because I’m gay but because they don’t need to know that I am anything short of a professional person; and I think airing my personal relationship status can cross the line into juvenile drama.

    That said, I try to be honest about my life when it comes up in context….but I’ve found that default social assumptions really blast that all to hell:

    A female coworker makes a winking comment about big penises. I make a point of giving her a blank stare, but she does it again later that week.

    A male coworker insinuates that every friendship I have with a male friend is romantic. I get pissed that he has reduced me to a needy hetmo looking for love, and choose to avoid him rather than putting forth the emotional energy to confide about myself to a person now on my Bad List.

    A coworker asks about my love life, and subconsciously corrects my pronouns.

    The list goes on and on..

    I came out to my boss after he insulted my hair. Yep. It didn’t seem an appropriate fact to drop at the interviews, or on my first day at work, so when did it come out? During an awkward conversation involving rain in my big hair, six months later.

    Another of my coworkers told me she had seen me making out with my then-girlfriend at lunch.

    Short of sending out a company-wide email, people find out in good time….and I’d argue at about the pace that I’d confide any details about my love life, gay or straight.

    The bigger issue, I think, are the heteronormative assumptions that people make. That is what has us in the alleged closet. No act of fear or secrecy. Simple assumptions that people so blindly abide by that they don’t realize they are pushing us into the closet.

    When I was younger, I didn’t believe anyone should have to “come out.” I’ve learned why lately. And, frankly? I think it’s dumb.

  16. If you’re in serious relationships, shit comes up where i.e. you might have to take a day off of work because your girlfriend/partner/lover/wife is sick and you have to take her to the doctor.

    When the person you live with is, for all intents and purposes, your family you want to put as your emergency contact and on your insurance, it doesn’t pay to pussyfoot around the subject.

    It doesn’t get more awkward than having to explain that you’re gay to your boss in the midst of a family emergency.

  17. i’ve been in “professional” situations for the past four years and only my recent job have i let people know that i’m queer — it wasn’t as bad as i thought it would be and everyone is fine with it, but it’s sort of weird sometimes and i don’t always know if it was “worth it” you know? it’s great not having to lie/deliberately obfuscate like i did at other jobs but there’s definitely a lot of crap that i feel and i work in a really liberal environment in nyc so i can’t imagine elsewhere.

    i was out to my bosses but not all my coworkers when i started this job, and i hadn’t really gone around intorducing myself to everyone as The New Homosexual In The Office (why would i unless it came up?) but then my gay male boss sort of outed me at the christmas party? which was sort of weird and shitty but whatever nbd in the end? one of my coworkers was like “oh sorry i don’t drink” and we were all “why” and she was all “oh, i’m a mormon” and my boss screamed “you’re a mormon!??! well MEG’S A LESBIAN!” so you know. that happened.

    i was also told by a superior that i need to “buy a real purse” instead of using a totebag because “just because you’re a lesbian doesn’t mean you need to dress like one” which is all kinds of not okay at all and i really feel like my totebags wouldn’t be a damn problem if the person uttering that statement thought i was straight? especialyl since i am as femme-y and fashion-y as pretty much anyone can be. like, really? i feel like i should’ve said something to HR about that or like possibly sued the pants off the person who said it? but you know. don’t want to be the one making a fuss all the time :/

    it was also weird was the first time i brought my girlfriend around to a company event — we’re a small company and people know each other’s sig-oths pretty well — but i’ve gotten to this point where instead of feeling uncomfortable i sort of just shift that over to other people — like if they don’t know how to act around me or feel weird about it, that’s their fucking problem and their damage, and not mine.

    weird this comment got really long sorry guys

  18. I work in Provo, Utah. (You know where BYU is? Yeah. That town.) I came out to my boss a couple of months ago, because the “That’s so gay” comments started to get really irritating.

    His response, “But you don’t dress like one.” facepalm. He apologized for his comments though. MBA grad from BYU.

    Surprisingly, I haven’t had a bad interaction with any at work over it. I don’t think everyone knows-we have three offices in the area. But I talk pretty openly about it.

    I’d imagine that more than a few of my coworkers won’t say anything to my face…

    It’s also pretty awkward when you get asked out. By a man.


  19. Firstly I’m not completly out to my family to start with, and my great aunt got me th interview for my current job, so I would b concerned my gaydom would b annouced not on my terms. Anyway, if or when I come out, I think that I would still be cautious about coming out at work. In The current team I work with, a few of them know but would b considered close friends& th rest if it comes up again I probably will tell tell, it’s exhausting deflecting questions & using gender neutral pro nouns, not to mention checkin chicks out!! O and trying to hold back those “o my” moments when someone delicious walks past, impossible! Lol

    I work for a national company in Northern Ireland with lots of potential to work my way up, I know there are rights etc that we have in relation to employment in Europe/UK, but in th back my mind if religious zealot, middle aged man or woman is interviewing me for a promotion they could easily find some other reason for not giving me the job. The company tends to b of th ethos “it’s who u know not what u know” when it comes to hiring, which thanKfully got me In th door but as a business practice could b fatal for my future career. And I don’t know how to contact HR to question company policy in relation to homosexual employees WITHOUT outting myself, fml!

  20. Pingback: Is Being Gay a Choice? Should It Be Protected at Work? | Workology

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