Out in the workplace: What queer professionals and straight allies can do

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Imagine you're a young professional who is queer, even though others don't necessarily recognize you as such. Imagine that only a few weeks on the job, you quickly establish a good rapport with a new client. Things are going great, you think. That is, until the client abruptly launches into an extended rant against gay people right in your face.

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What would you do?

This is the stressful situation that Carissa Vados found herself in.

"It felt like a personal attack, even though it definitely wasn't at me," the pharmaceutical sales rep said.

At the time, she didn't know what to do; she opted for silence. She's since learned from the examples of other queer professionals and was interested in learning even more about being out in the workplace.

Consequently, Vados helped to organize and cohost Unlocking Diversity, a forum about being a young queer professional in today's business environment. The discussion, held at the Hive on February 21, included a panel consisting of Deloitte National Healthcare Consulting senior manager Patti Telford, lululemon athletica international operations specialist Matt Corker, and BC Hydro senior civil engineer Pedram Zabeti. The event was attended by not only queer professionals but also straight people who expressed interest in learning how to help queer employees.

The evening was cohosted by engineer Josh Workman, who had met Vados through Engineers Without Borders. Workman has been out for two years in his personal life but admitted to having struggled to come out at work in spite of Vancouver's liberal environment.

"By hearing both the successes and challenges of great people who are out and gay and who they are in the workplace, [this] will help me on my journey to bring my whole self at work," he said.

Carissa Vados and Josh Workman organized the Unlocking Diversity event.
Craig Takeuchi

The consensus among the panelists was that being closeted at work can detract from overall work performance and can be counterproductive.

"If that's like giving 80 percent of yourself to your passion, imagine what could be created if you gave 100 percent," Corker said.

Zabeti said he found he became more efficient since he came out at work (which he did by sending an email to 35 people). "I got to the point that I realized that I'm wasting energy, basically…and there are a lot of distractions in my life."

Like the others, he expressed concerns about how suppression may affect mental and physical health.

"If you notice that it's dragging too long and it's been a few years, and it's not a healthy environment, just leave that environment and move to a different work environment because our body is just one thing we get one time and it's better to treat it very well," he said.

Telford said that earlier in her career, she went through a period where she realized she was spending a lot of energy hiding things from others, even though she didn't necessarily feel stressed. She now refuses to work at any company that cannot accept openly gay employees.

Telford, who marched for Act Up in New York City in the 1980s, knows all about taking a stand. But she pointed out that in doing so, it's important to realize that things can get rough.

"If you are really [taking] a stand for diversity strategy in your work environment," she said, "then you need to know that there are going to be times when it's not going to be comfortable, when you're not going to feel like you're the most popular person at work, where you're gonna maybe not feel like you want to get up and go to work in the morning. But if you are truly [taking] a stand, you will continue to stay there and you will continue to bring to work what's possible for that environment as opposed to what you might see now as impossible."

When one audience member asked what straight employees might be able to do to help out, another audience member opined that straight allies who take a "proactive, anti-oppression stance" against discriminatory opinions or behaviour can provide welcome relief for coworkers who may feel targeted. She pointed out that it can also signal to those who may closeted that there are others who are willing to take a risk.

"If you leave them the room to walk into, as opposed to having to fight their way into with a sword or hack out some room, you kind of open up the door to walk through or not," she said.

Zabeti elaborated upon this point by explaining that if a straight coworker comes out as open-minded, it may help queer coworkers feel more comfortable with them.

"As soon as you expose yourself as a progressive person, in other ideas of society—religion, political views—it makes that person also closer to you because they always probe you how open and conducive you are to the idea [of being gay]."

Corker pointed out that directly asking a person if they're gay can be risky.

"For some people that question is actually needed; they want to hear it from you," he said. "[For] other people, it is absolutely terrifying. They don't want to be put on the spot, and it feels like they're being put on the spot. And so maybe, depending on your relationship with the person, you could take another route of just sharing your life with them…so that little by little they understand that you're an ally, someone they can trust, and if they are feeling anxious about it, you're going to be the first person that they come to."

A Calgary university instructor in the audience said she focusses on improving herself, rather than others.

"I think it's more about who we are in the world, rather than trying for somebody else," she said. "I think if you are a person that's [about] human rights, social justice focus, anti-oppression—you work on yourself, and everything else comes naturally, instead of working on 'How do I be with this person?' "

Other recommendations included the use of gender-neutral vocabulary, such as asking a coworker if they'd like to bring along a "partner" instead of "boyfriend" or "wife" to a work-related event, for example.

Some panelists pointed out that queer professionals can also educate others in equally gradual and low-key ways.

Zabeti, who came out after immigrating to Canada from Iran, particularly values easing into things.

"Don't underestimate your role as an individual person and [in] the step-by-step in the normal kitchen conversation, lunchroom, you are effective," he said. "You talk to one person just enough one person be impacted by your conversation, that person will [affect others in a]…wave effect."

Corker says he takes note of how people react when others realize he is gay and shifts his conversation to an educational mode as necessary. "That's my opportunity to lead, in the little pieces. It's not grand gestures. It's the language I use. It's the people I'm okay being myself around."

While Vados and Workman do not have any specific future events planned at this time, they were encouraged by the strong turnout by both gay and straight attendees. Anyone interested in contacting them can do so through Vados or Workman's Twitter accounts.

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!Kona
Thanks for being present and for writing about this important topic! It would have been super awesome to have been asked my name so that you could attribute my words to me. If they do a followup conversation, I hope that you will be present to provide input to that as well.
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