Roundtable: On Coming Out In Our Applications, Interviews, and Lives

It’s college application season, and last week some stressed out parents of a queer kid wrote in to the New York Times Civil Behavior advice column to ask a question of utmost parental concern: Should a student disclose or conceal her lesbian identity in college application essays?

Our daughter is a senior in high school and quite comfortable with her lesbian identity. We support her 100 percent, but we know the world is not always so tolerant. As she’s writing her college application essays this fall, she’s “coming out” in them — and we think that’s a bad idea. You just never know who’s reading these essays, so why risk revealing your orientation to someone who might be biased against you? We’ve strongly suggested she think over the ramifications of what she’s doing, but she doesn’t seem to have any doubt about it. Deadlines are approaching and we are at an impasse. How can we persuade her to keep some things private if they might hurt her chances of admission?

Here’s what Steven Petrow, author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and Mr. Civil Behavior for the NYT, advised:

Clearly you’ve given your daughter a strong sense of self and the confidence to be who she is, even if the world is not as tolerant as we’d all hope. Sure, one of a parent’s jobs is to worry, but after 17 or so years you can’t be there for every important decision in life. So, please reconsider what message you are sending to her when you ask her to conceal her identity.

It’s worth noting that Civil Behavior is an etiquette column written specifically for the “boomer-age audience” and published every other Tuesday in Booming, a section in the NYT specifically for and about baby boomers — the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. As Petrow points out in his response, times have changed since the “boomers” were applying for college. But could it be that they actually have a point? While it would be perfect if we could all be out and proud at every juncture of our lives, truthfully that’s not yet always the case. After reading the column the Autostraddle team started talking about this question in our daily email, and it soon became clear that we’d all had very different experiences coming out (not always by choice) in college, at our jobs, and in our daily lives.


Maddie

fe878aec2ae2ea21aa0d890981a06d6fI usually end up coming out to people within like thirty seconds of meeting them just by nature of the things that I would say to qualify as “small talk.” And as for jobs and college apps, my resume is basically a page of queer/women/queer women related things, so if I didn’t include those things, I would have no resume. This seems to have been working for me pretty well so far (because usually the things I apply for are more queer/women/queer women related things. Hi, Autostraddle). What makes me most uncomfortable is when the people hiring me or accepting me to their university want me for Diversity and Being Progressive, but only actually support me/other queer people if we do queer the way they want us to. This is a huge issue at Vassar, and other universities, that stress things like need-blind admission and feature students of color and queer people in their admissions materials. They’re still elitist institutions with institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. They are invested in Diversity because it reflects well on them, but when it comes down to making their campuses safe and inclusive, they aren’t taking the necessary steps.

Cara

9642c601da7159295722d7ce6abf13a4-bpfullI’ve been lucky enough to spend most of my life in a very liberal state. For this reason, I’ve always been a fan of the subtle signal. When I’m applying for jobs, I’ll make sure there’s something really obviously queer somewhere in my application, whether it’s an Autostraddle clip in my portfolio or an eye-catching ink splotch on my resume right next to “GSA Member.” If I make it to an interview, I’ll try to refer back to these flags so I can gauge their reaction in person. This way my potential boss knows exactly who they’re bringing in, and I know what kind of work environment to expect.

It’s kind of like dropping “my girlfriend” or “Autostraddle” into a conversation — if you’re in savvy surroundings, people will pick up what you’re putting down and send out their own signals accordingly. And if they’re bad signals you still have time to walk away.

On the other hand, when I applied for my college study abroad program — which happened to involve traveling and living in several countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized — I kept myself pretty deliberately closeted. I didn’t fear direct discrimination from the program directors, but I wanted to avoid being seen as any kind of liability (“Out and proud American student arrested in Uganda!” = bad press). In this case, the experience seemed worth it (and it was!). I can imagine certain jobs, in certain circumstances, seeming the same way.

Mey

125dfa9630e65daac62ee2c98a09a796For a lot of queer people, coming out is a pretty big part of life. Of course there’s your first time, then you come out to your family, or maybe your best friend or those closest to you. But there are also a bunch of other times when you get to decide if you want to come out. Choosing whether or not to come out can have huge effects on your life, your well being and your relationships. For trans women like me, it’s not quite the same. We do usually get a big coming out moment, but when we do come out as transgender, we don’t really get the option of who we want to come out to. When we start living as our real selves, we are coming out to everyone who knew us previously. A lot of queer women can come out to their family and friends, but choose to not come out at work. That’s not really an option for people like me. When I bump into an old schoolmate or cousin I haven’t seen in ten years, they definitely know that I’m transgender. Additionally, most trans women are also forced to come out every time we need to show a legal document or medical form. Of course, there are some exceptions. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that lets you change your documents and you’ve been able to get to that point in your life, you have more options. And if choosing to be stealth is the safest option for you, then go for it. Trans people, and especially trans women of color, need to do whatever we can to survive.

When I apply for a job, I don’t have the option to hide my queerness from a prospective employer. Even when I do “pass,” I still know that my birth certificate and even my driver’s license will out me without my consent. It feels weird for me knowing that these pieces of paper have enough power to take away some of my agency. I’m no longer in total control of my relationships with other people, the opportunities that I’ll have or even my own story. And that sucks, and that’s scary. There are lots of people who, when they notice that I’m queer, that doesn’t exactly endear me to them. I don’t like that I don’t get to come out on my own terms. Even more, I don’t like that I currently don’t have the option to not come out. There are some places where it’s really scary being a visibly queer woman and knowing that I had the option to be safer would give me some comfort, even if I still chose to not take that option.

Personally, I’d probably keep on coming out even if I had the option to go stealth. I’m proud of my identity as a queer woman and as a trans woman of color. There’s a strength and beauty there that I gladly and enthusiastically embrace. Even more than that, there’s a community unlike I’ve been able to find anywhere else. Still, sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on one of the quintessential parts of what it means to be queer. I mean, I still do get to come out as a lesbian, but when I’m doing that, the people I’m coming out to already see me as a member of the “LGBTQ community.” Me being a lesbian is just icing on the cake and sometimes I feel like this second coming out is ignored. People know that I’m trans and that’s enough for them; I’m already queer in their eyes, so this added information doesn’t necessarily matter. I’d like to be able to choose when I come out, to be in control of that part of my life. Being in charge of that part of my story would be great, even though I would probably choose to come out every single time.

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65 Comments

  1. Guy sitting on my stoop: Oh did you just move in?
    Me: Yeah! My girlfriend didn’t move in with me though.
    Guy sitting on my stoop: Uh…okay?

    Lady at the bookstore: Oh, is this a gift?
    Me: Yes. For my girlfriend. I’m gay.
    Lady at the bookstore: Uh…okay?

    My brother: Hey Vaness, these are my friends.
    Me: Hi guys. I’ve gotta go in a moment, to call my girlfriend.
    Everyone: Uh…okay?

    THIS THING!!!! They have their eyebrows kinda raised with a slightly gaping mouth.

  2. This topic always interests me so much. My line of work makes my sexual orientation irrelevant in the work place, but it still comes up.

    In my grad school program, I am out to a few of my classmates. Of them, some of them have asked about my preference on being out in the department. My response has been that I don’t care either way, as my being out shouldn’t and doesn’t effect my ability to do math.

    I also work for my dad in sales, which involves dealing with overseas manufacturers. His work associate came out to us a year ago. He had been in the business for 35 years, 20 of which my dad was in contact with him, and hadn’t been out except to a select few individuals.

    My dad later commented on how it shouldn’t matter what orientation the man is, because business is business. I had to point out to my dad that, in every single meeting we’d had, he’s brought up my mom, my brothers, and our family… but that for 35 years, his associate never got to be an active part of those conversations. In fact, he actively avoided them.

  3. Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your story, which resonated for me in a serious way.

    My mom and I have had the same conversations. After every one I wonder if I should just say “screw it, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who doesn’t accept me for me anyways!” or if I should take my mom’s advice seriously because, unfortunately, she may not be wrong. I live in a small, conservative town where I’ve been targeted many times for other aspects of my identity (“targeted” sometimes = being denied a job). Why wouldn’t I believe it’s possible that someone might not hire me because I’m gay?

    But I’m mainly glad you shared this because it made me feel as though someone finally understands my experience.

    I usually find that very few people seem to understand what it’s like to have that voice in the back of my mind telling me to be careful. Very rarely can people see that my mom may just have a point. So on top of my initial worrying I’m left feeling guilty that if I take her advice when it comes to job applications, I may single-handedly be letting the queer community down. Or that I’m not being true to myself or being as queer as I can be (or as queer as other people think I’m supposed to be). While I’m proud to be gay and am continuously finding ways to share that part of myself with others, I wish more people understood what it’s like to know that my mom worries and for me to

    So, basically…thank you, thank you, thank you

  4. Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your story, which resonated for me in a serious way.

    My mom and I have had the same conversations. After every one I wonder if I should just say “screw it, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who doesn’t accept me for me anyways!” or if I should take my mom’s advice seriously because, unfortunately, she may not be wrong. I live in a small, conservative town where I’ve been targeted many times for other aspects of my identity (“targeted” sometimes = being denied a job). Why wouldn’t I believe it’s possible that someone might not hire me because I’m gay?

    But I’m mainly glad you shared this because it made me feel as though someone finally understands my experience.

    I usually find that very few people seem to understand what it’s like to have that voice in the back of my mind telling me to be careful. Very rarely can people see that my mom may just have a point. So on top of my initial worrying I’m left feeling guilty that if I take her advice when it comes to job applications, I may single-handedly be letting the queer community down. Or that I’m not being true to myself or being as queer as I can be (or as queer as other people think I’m supposed to be). While I’m proud to be gay and am continuously finding ways to share that part of myself with others, I wish more people understood what it’s like to know that my mom worries and for me to “always worry that she worries.”

    So, basically…thank you, thank you, thank you

    • oh thank you so much for writing this!
      i love how you put it as the voice in the back of your mind, that’s absolutely what it feels like for me too. no matter how confident i feel in coming out, no matter if i’m 99.99% percent sure that it won’t end up affecting my chances, my mom’s voice totally represents that little worry that maybe it’s not worth it to risk it. be careful. play it safe.

      it really does weigh heavier than people can realize sometimes, which is awful. but i’m glad we can relate through the awfulness! so thanks so much for that.

  5. This was a really interesting read.

    I’ve never directly come out in an application or an interview, partly because I assume people will read me as queer based on my appearance (which is usually true, though my previous employer didn’t realise until some months I started working) but also partly because if you haven’t done specifically queer work you can put on your CV, queerness not an easy thing to shoehorn into an interview for a language school teaching position. I’m out at work because I live somewhere that has anti-discrimination laws, at least in theory, and I just don’t want to hide big parts of my life. So far, I haven’t encountered any major problems – there have been some people who don’t grasp the concept of same-sex relationships, but as far as I know it hasn’t had any professional consequences. I do sometimes wonder, though, whether I would still get hired by these places if they knew beyond a doubt that I was queer based on my application/interview, whether being openly queer will be an obstacle to getting promoted, whether my mother is right that I should avoid mentioning it altogether (and dress in a more feminine way!) because ‘some people’ have a problem with it. It’s too early in my career to know what effect my queerness is having.

  6. I was out to staff in my Peace Corps application from recruiter to host country. It took me a long time to feel comfortable coming out to the small village that I work in, but when I did, I saw the amazing personal transformation of so many students around me, including one young student who had the courage to stand up and come out as transgender in a gender identity and expression lesson we co-taught. That’s right, you read that correctly. A rural village student came out to an enormous room of other rural villagers.

    Being out has been an integral part of my life, be it professional, or personal. When I face the long road to medical school, I’ve asked myself these same questions: do I come out? Don’t I? Well, I’ll tell you after having to go in the closet for almost two years abroad and seeing the amazing things that happens when “You Do You,” well, safe to say, I’ll never go there again, be it application, introduction, or lifestyle.

    Great article. Great food for thought. Thoughtful contributions from commenters. Thanks for a good, lazy Saturday read in my PC village ya’ll. You’re pretty wonderful, and pretty inspiring.

  7. Coming out…

    – about being mega giga tera gay: no i would never do that on interviews and first impressions, because unprofessional and because i don’t want to be prejudged as a theory-this theory-that ‘progressive’ (which comes with the image of a queer woman) – because industrial workplaces are either extremely unpleasant 100% arsehole dudebro culture (which i can’t bear and the little time i could stay i’d rather be coldly professional, safe and not targetted for anything, thank you) or ‘live and let live’ (which i adore – and think they are entirely justified in not wanting an avatar of Judith Butler proselythising ex cathedra).

    But in the end everyone knows it in 2 weeks anyway.

    – about my bloodline, Second Creation, Curse of the Underworld, my being dependent on a chemical naturally occuring only in human and higher mammal blood in order to avoid pain and rapid visible decomposition: i kind of come out eventually, they don’t believe, think i’m drunk and talking rubbish.

    – about the biomech sysframe and modularity: –“–

  8. This is really really really great you guys!

    My life is career focused at the moment, and this means I only spend about 1% of my time thinking about being gay. This issue is where my two poorly aligned worlds meet.

    My industry in the city where I live is actually pretty gay friendly, but so far I have chosen not to be out at work. There are so many thoughts and feelings here that I have avoided confronting and this article really lays a lot of those out on the table. I think the discussion on parents investment of time and money rings true with me. But now that I am making money and career decisions for myself this has translated into worry about derailing my own investments of time and energy by being out in the workplace. I worry that having that being out will distract from my hard work.

    So thank you Autostraddle! This is definitely relevant to my interests!

  9. This article (and all the comments) was a fun read for me. Being out at work is a craft I’m still perfecting. I live in Ohio, where employers could fire me for being gay, but I work in a creative field, which results in a more open-minded team. Only queer people know I’m gay when we first meet, so my work is cut out for me when I start a new job. When I say “my girlfriend”, people still usually assume I mean that in a girls night out type of way, so I usually end up having to come out multiple times to get the point across.

    While Columbus, Ohio has a large gay community, there’s still a lot of education that has to take place. I feel a responsibility to establish a positive relationship with coworkers before coming out. While many of them may be in support of gay rights, I’m probably the first lesbian they’ve talked to on a daily basis. I don’t want to overwhelm them with my gayness (it was all a bit overwhelming for me at first, too!). I want to be evaluated on my work, not the fact that I go home to make love to a woman.

  10. Thanks for this roundtable! My wife and I had our biggest disagreement about how out I should be for work. I’m self-employed, working from home watching kids in a smallish, rather conservative, rural community. As Ansley Phillips said, “I want to be evaluated on my work.” Also it seems like an issues of professionalism, to some extent, and being private. I don’t hide that I live with another woman, but I also don’t explicitly out myself. Or maybe it’s some internalized notion that “gays shouldn’t work with kids.” I don’t know. I’ve debated getting a job out of the home just to make it less of an issue. But for the most part I love my job, so it’s tricky.

    After getting upset at me for not outing myself in a certain situation, my wife took a step back and to acknowledge that I do love her, oh so very much, and it was in no way a reflection on her. After thinking it over she said she did not want to force me to out myself.

    Still we walk around this small town holding hands and the kids hear us say “I love you.” (Love is a good thing and I teach love and kindness.) I have wondered since my wife moved in with me, I have had a more difficult time filling openings. Part of it may be my own hesitation to “recruit” as much, and I have wondered if part of it has to do with people knowing that I’m a lesbian. So many thoughts on this issue!

  11. “My mother is of course trying to balance the feeling that she’s okay with me being gay while she’s scared that people in positions to discriminate against me won’t be.”

    This. Even though I suspect it’s no longer an issue, I’m still very scared of outing myself back at home to people that my mom knows because her initial rule to me coming out was that she was not comfortable with people (who have known me since I was a baby) knowing that I’m gay. It’s even affected my ability to come out to people that my mom doesn’t know, but are in the same community just because it’s that reflexive response to slip into a heterosexist ideal.

  12. I am very out. For the most part, I was very out to absolutely everyone from the moment I started dating a girl (19 years old/first semester sophomore year of college). My job knew, my church knew (guessed, actually, but whatever), my friends and family knew, etc. The only time that I specifically kept it quiet was when I moved into a sublease situation with sorority girls who were Christians. They figured it out before I told them and have actually been the absolute best coming out experience I’ve ever had.
    Besides my family, my church, the kids I went to high school with, and a couple of my friends, I’ve had it pretty easy coming out wise. For one, my city has really strict anti-discrimination laws. My main issue now involves my super outness bothering little closeted Christian baby gays. They’re the main reason I keep semi-involved in a church, so that I can be a positive gay presence for them, but they avoid me like the plague because they think that if they interact with me people will figure out I’m gay. It’s kind of funny but also horribly sad, because I was just like that pre-coming out. Oh, and my aunts/uncles not really letting me around my baby cousins, because they’re afraid I’ll infect them with gayness or something.

  13. This is multiple levels of fantastic. I love getting perspective!

    I’ve always been pretty out and proud, since the moment I had my first girlfriend 8 years ago. Literally called all my friends and told them in person, which was mostly received with “yay you’re so happy!!” And life kept going.

    Then I decided teaching abroad was a thing for me. It’s perfect actually, aside from the gay thing. In my current situation, all my foreign (meaning not native to the country in which I work) co-workers know I’m out and proud. I’ll call them out if some small minded comment is made regarding anything in the realm of their unknown. They respect when it happens and are usually fairly open minded (which is part of the draw I have to teaching abroad, it’s an amazing group of people for the most part).

    The flip side is that I’ve been advised not to let the “native” teachers/coworkers find out about my sexuality. Which for me is fine (to an extent because I really am proud of me) I teach second grade so the topic doesn’t come up with my students. Though I have short hair which in this culture on a woman is like waving a giant rainbow flag, but that’s a whole other story.

    Along with a few interesting discrimination situations I personally have had, there are people in my life who deal with the complete non-acceptance in this country. They help me truly know I should not disclose my sexuality to natives until knowing and trust them well. There are families sending their kids to psychology programs to “cure the gay” (yes you read that right), and some teachers have asked to start a GSA but have been denied because the parents (who basically run things) would not tolerate it.

    It makes me sad, but at the same time I’m so out in all other areas of my life it’s okay for now. Actually writing that just makes me sad because it’s not okay. But my hope is that if I continue to have great relationships with my native teacher friends, I can tell them before I leave this school in a couple years. Then they’ll be one step closer to knowing that sexual orientation does not make someone undesirable for friendship. Whether a person is a good person is what they really need to know.

    And I’ll be more conscious with the queer-friendliness of my next international experience. (If you have ideas, please share!!)

    • I wouldn’t say that Guatemala is less gay-friendly than the US, but I digress. Parents in the US send their kids to cure-the-gay programs quite a bit, for one.
      I always side-eye white people doing things in brown places, but whatever. If that’s what you’re going for, Argentina is gay-friendlier than the US. I have family in and around Buenos Aires and Resistencia and it’s great.

  14. It makes me really mad that so many of you have to deal with discriminatory hiring practices.

    I keep advocating with everyone who will listen at my job that the organization needs to hire more people of color and queers and actually support them/us at work with an awesome environment and make them MANAGERS. (Let’s not even discuss how hostile the field is to ppl with disabilities and ppl who grew up poor and a whole host of ppl who like do not even go into the field or apply so I cannot even ask my boss to interview them because they are not there.) It hasn’t happened, but I think ppl are thinking about HOW hiring decisions get made.

    IME, it’s a sweet feeling when you walk into a job interview and (score!) the person interviewing you is obv gay.

    For context, I wrote my college application essay on skinny dipping in the South of France.

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