If you identify as heterosexual and cisgendered, there’s likely a question you’ve never even contemplated: When should I come out as straight? But for many of our LGBTQ colleagues, family and friends, choosing to come out as who you are is a deliberate, and often scary, choice.
Because, as one of my closest colleagues once told me, after coming out via the company intranet to 80,000 employees globally in the interest of advancing LGBTQ inclusion, "It’s not once and done. Every time I started a new job, made a new friend or met a new manager I had to decide if and when I was going to come out to them.”
How can allies of the LGBTQ community support those who want to come out? How do we make the journey easier so that family, friends and colleagues we see almost every day feel it’s safe to do so? Even in 2018, it can still feel like a risk.
Fear of being stereotyped, of making others feel uncomfortable, or losing relationships with co-workers were cited as reasons LGBTQ colleagues shied away from being open about their gender identity and sexual orientation at work, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s report A Workplace Divided. "Limiting career options” is also often included as a reason college and university graduates who are out at school go back into the closet when starting out in corporate Canada, says Brenda Cossman, former executive director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto.
The research by HRC Foundation further states that one in 10 LGBTQ workers have left a job because the environment was not very accepting of LGBTQ people. And that lack of acceptance can be subtle. As the HRC workplace-climate survey indicates, almost 80 per cent of non-LGBTQ workers are comfortable talking about their spouse, partner or dating to co-workers, yet 36 per cent of that same group said they would feel uncomfortable hearing an LGBTQ colleague talking about dating.
If we want everyone to feel comfortable about bringing their whole selves to work, if we believe, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proudly shares, that “diversity is our strength,” then there are a few things we can do as allies to make that clear. Here are three:
- In order to speak up for inclusion, we need to speak about inclusion. As the late Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Gathering information and raising your own awareness is where it starts. Get up to speed and keep up to date by reading, scanning social media and talking to members of the LGBTQ community to find out what matters most and where we need to focus attention. Find out more about the broad spectrum of those who identify as members of the community. As well as the special challenges faced by those who are transgender, and those at the intersectionality of people of colour or differently-abled – and who are also LGBTQ.
- Next, set things in motion. When you ask what matters most and what needs to be done, be prepared to make plans built on what you’ve learned from those who have lived experiences. Depending on your stage of life, your role in an organization and your standing in the community, allies need to visibly demonstrate our support however we can – speaking positively about LGBTQ role models, ensuring candidate lists for organizational roles reflect a diverse slate of candidates, not tolerating disparaging remarks (ever), wearing or displaying symbols of support and, quite simply, showing up at events.
- Finally, amplify your support. Community members rely on allies to be creative about getting messages out to as wide an audience as their sphere of influence allows. And those with more senior roles in companies have a greater responsibility to make sure supportive organizational policies and practices are in place and that their messaging supports a culture of inclusivity.
In acknowledging this year’s National Coming Out Day, let’s accept the essence of what U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin referenced in 2016: That those who are openly gay are living and writing the history of our time. They are no less heroic than suffragists, abolitionists, Freedom Riders, Stonewall demonstrators and today’s environmentalists.
Let’s each commit to taking one brave action today to demonstrate we are both proud and honoured to stand as their allies.
Jennifer Tory is RBC’s chief administrative officer and the recipient of Start Proud’s 2016 Leading Executive Ally Award.