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coming out and the shades between

Perspectives on whether and how you decide to come out

There is undoubtedly greater pressure to come out now than there used to be. Being LGBTQ is more widely accepted than it used to be, and there's growing pressure to be "authentic" and to "own your individuality" both on- and off-line, at work and not at work. What can this mean for LGBTQ individuals? Presumably: come out, or be inauthentic. And what is inauthentic? Any combination of uncool, dishonest, or "less real". Who wants to be that?

However, whether or not to come out, and who to come out to, is a deeply personal question. Just as we choose to disclose some aspects of our self-identity and lives, there are some areas around which we choose to maintain a higher level of privacy and discretion. This holds true for both heterosexual and LGBTQ individuals.

When starting work at a new organisation or commencing an MBA course, LGBTQ individuals may ask themselves whether they intend to come out or not. Research indicates that rather than it being about coming out or not, it is often a question of who you come out to, when, and in what circumstances.

In "The Corporate Closet: Career Challenges of Gay and Lesbian Individuals", Kevin Alderson considers how gay men and lesbian women manage their often stigmatised identities. We would propose that some of the issues Alderson raises apply to other LGBTQ individuals too, who may be similarly subjected to varying degrees of overt and covert hostility and discrimination, and who may also form part of an invisible minority group. It is also worth being reminded that discrimination against LGBTQ individuals remains a real and justified concern: Ratner (1993) finds that 20% of gay men have been physically assaulted, while Mays and Cochran (2001) find that the vast majority have experienced verbal harassment. Alderson points out that "discrimination against gays in work environments is pervasive (Croteau et al.) with figures between 25% and 66% noted in the literature (Croteau et al.)." These are not insignificant numbers.

Alderson proposes two key factors that may influence gay men and lesbian women's decision to come out at work:

1. Stage of identity formation
Stage of identity formation is about how accepting gay men or lesbian women are about their own sexual identity, and their acceptance of gay and lesbian culture and the heterosexual community.

2. Perceived level of heterosexism in their work environment
Heterosexism is discrimination on the basis that heterosexuality is the "normal" sexual orientation, and refers to an ideology that excludes reference to gay men or lesbian women, effectively making them invisible.

Those who suffer from homophobia as children or adults tend to find it harder to move to a place of acceptance. This can be due to a fear of more discrimination, internalised homophobia, and denial, among other reasons. "Identity formation" is often developed when an individual comes into contact with the non-heterosexual world, and begins to meet other gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning people, and to understand LGBTQ history and culture.

Many LGBTQ individuals have their own "verification process" when it comes to new environments. This can mean that their behaviour is dictated by the situation they are in. For example, if the individual observes instances of subtle discrimination in a certain environment, they may choose to present themselves with caution.

Whether you have made a decision about coming out in your professional life or not, you still have to make a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, about how to present yourself. In her article entitled "From Hiding Out to Coming Out: Empowering Lesbian and Gay Educators", Pat Griffin describes four categories of commonly-used identity management strategies:

  1. Passing
  2. Covering
  3. Implicitly out
  4. Explicitly out


This is the strategy of leading others to believe that you are heterosexual. It may be more or less actively pursued. Passive passing strategies might involve not correcting those who assume that you're straight because you have children, or simply allowing others to project the heterosexual norm onto you. More active passing strategies might involve bringing someone of the opposite sex to work social functions, or expressing a romantic interest in someone of the opposite sex.

Griffin points out that those who used passing felt disingenuous, and in some senses, cowardly, for not being true to themselves or doing more to challenge stereotypes.

It's worth adding that the decision to pass more "actively" may depend on your ability to present as heterosexual physically, including, but not limited to, how you dress, how you "carry yourself", and your voice.


Here, the focus is on not being perceived to be gay or lesbian, rather than on leading others to believe you are heterosexual. Those who "cover" do so through omission rather than invention. For example, they may omit gendered pronouns when talking about their partner, and censor how they dress and behave.

Participants in Griffin's study described covering as feeling more honest than passing; it also allowed them to have a greater sense of integrity.

Implicitly out

Individuals who are "implicitly out" do not attempt to hide the true nature of their relationships, preferences, or romantic life, but refrain from labelling themselves. They assume that everyone pretty much knows their sexuality, but do not attempt to confirm this fact. Griffin calls this strategy the "glass closet", and explains that, with this strategy, individuals could return to passing or covering if they wanted, but that they also felt less like they were lying or denying their identity.

Explicitly out

This involves directly coming out to others, often starting with, or restricted to, only a few select individuals. This is considered the riskiest strategy, as there is little or no possibility of returning to covering or passing.

Griffin notes that most study participants used multiple strategies through the day and with different people. All of those she talked with perceived the stakes to be high: they could lose their job and/or reputation. Here, participants commented that choosing the appropriate management strategies was "an exhausting and stressful process". Indeed, everyone "talked about the tremendous energy they expended daily in managing their identities". Alderson picks up on a similar theme in his paper: “[gay men and lesbian women's] career development can be delayed, stalled, or misdirected due to the amount of energy it takes to integrate a positive gay or lesbian identity (Croteau, Anderson, Distefano, and Kampa-Kokesch 2000)”.

We can hope that work environments continue to evolve as inclusive and diverse places. However, progress will, and does, vary from industry to industry, region to region, and from social group to social group (team, organisational culture). Whether and how you decide to come out in your professional life is a very personal decision.

You may find it helpful to envision yourself using each of the identity management strategies above. Consider your specific work environment and team, and the organisational culture in which you find yourself. It is worth noting that it’s not uncommon for well-meaning heterosexual friends and colleagues to encourage an LGBTQ individual to come out before it feels right for them. Bear this in mind, and take the time you need to work out what feels right for you.

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