You Need Help: My Work Mentee Came Out to Me but I Didn’t Come Out to Her

Q:

I have been at my job a few years and have been assigned a new hire/recent graduate to mentor, which I’m really excited about! It was something I really enjoyed at my old job.

I am a queer 30-something who is not really sure how they identify. I’ve been out as something for nearly 20 years, survived losing jobs, being denied housing, threats of conversion therapy from family members, and countless conversations about how I’m going to hell. And I’m working on all of this with a supportive partner (and intermittently with therapists).

My new mentee has come out to me as bisexual. And I didn’t come out to her.

I have come out to some people at work as bi, a member of the lgbtqia community, “clearly not straight if you Google me,” and “yeah, I date women.” These were all people I met once/twice who no longer work there or regularly interact with me. There is a possibility she told me this because she knows! But I really want our mentorship to be work focused. I don’t want to be the center of the conversation, and I at times have a hard time relating to other lgbtqia people whose parents aren’t fundamentalist Christians because of everything above. Is the risk of that worth it to come out to her specifically? How could/should I come out to her and make sure to center her experience?

A:

Ultimately, this comes down to your own boundaries. If you don’t want to be out to your mentee, I think that’s a perfectly fine choice to make. I do, however, hope you’ll consider the other side of things.

I think especially because of some of your own personal experiences of being out in the workplace — including losing jobs, being denied housing, etc. — you could be a really good source to speak with your mentee about the realities of being out. I’m not sure where geographically you work or what your industry is, but if it’s one where it’s complicated to be out (and hell, that’s most places and industries if we’re being honest!), but it’s possible your mentee could benefit from knowing she can talk to you safely at work if need be. You don’t have to get into your own personal history if you don’t want to. In fact, you can say pretty much exactly what you wrote in your letter and be like “I’m also queer, and while I want you to feel like I can listen to workplace-related challenges pertaining to your identity, I’d like to keep our mentorship work-focused.”

It’s possible your mentee can’t really separate her identity from her work life. I know I’ve struggled with that in different situations. The mentor-mentee relationship can be really special, and I think you could run the risk of suggesting talking about sexuality is inappropriate in this context (I don’t think that’s what you’re saying for the record! I just think it could be interpreted that way).

It’s fine that you don’t relate to LGBTQIA folks who didn’t grow up in fundamentalist Christian households. I think that’s a pretty common thing for people with your background to feel. I don’t think your mentee is looking for someone to perfectly relate to or even confide in on a deep level but rather just seeking some connection and figuring out if she can talk to you openly about any discrimination, microaggressions, etc. that she might encounter in the workplace. I’m not totally sure what you mean by asking about the risk of having a hard time relating being worth it. I think it’s totally possible to give meaningful advice — including workplace advice — to folks whose experiences diverge from your own. My guess is you don’t have to perfectly understand her perspective in order to be a helpful mentor.

Again, it’s your boundaries. You always get to choose who you are and are not out to. Especially at work. I do think there’s a way to maintain some of your boundaries while still opening the door a bit to your mentee to be able to talk about workplace-specific queer issues. There’s definitely a middle ground here: You can come out but also be clear about your boundary of not wanting to discuss your own identity in depth.

You mention using a few different ways to label yourself and also that you’re not really sure how you identify, and I wonder if that might be part of the root of why you’re hesitant to come out to her. That’s totally fine! You don’t have to be sure, and you don’t have to be specific when you come out if you don’t want to. I saw you wrote queer in your letter, and that is indeed a useful umbrella term if it feels alright. You can even be more vague if you want and say something like “I’ve experienced workplace discrimination because of my sexuality” or something like that. It can be casual; it doesn’t have to be a big thing. But I think it could deepen your connection with your mentee in a really meaningful way. I know I would have benefitted greatly in the beginning of my career if I’d had mentors I knew shared at least some aspect of my queer identity.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 870 articles for us.

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