If we could all be more open it could benefit not just ourselves, but all those around us, says Stephen Frost
Coming out is the process or event of someone revealing something personal about themselves. It’s most frequently attributed to people ‘coming out’ as gay in a largely straight (heterosexual) world. It could also apply to people revealing something of their mental health or a hidden disability such as cancer or HIV status. The whole notion of ‘coming out’ rests on the assumption of a dominant ‘norm’ (such as straight, white, Western) and people declaring difference to that norm.
Whilst coming out can seem minority-focused and counter-cultural, it actually has the potential to strengthen majority culture. This is primarily because the majority group has to adapt a little bit to include the minority. That process of adaptation is a necessary prerequisite for survival.
Ask most minorities and you will find that we have been adapting our whole life. It’s how you survive. Gays play it straight. Women display stereotypically male attributes to climb the corporate ladder. Jews and Muslims celebrate Christmas, at least by obligation in the supermarket. But many people in majority groups have never really needed to adapt.
However, adaptation is increasingly required. Two decades of research demonstrates that diversity can increase productivity, increase resilience and mitigate risk. Diversity is correlated with higher performance. Coming out is an act of transparency. It builds trust, increases diversity and challenges conformity.
The movement for equal treatment of LGBT+ folks in the workplace has come a long way in a short span of time. Indeed, it was only 49 years ago that the Stonewall riots took place in New York, an episode of incredible violence against gay and trans people at the hands of police. Now, while being LGBT+ may not be universally accepted it is generally so in many countries. In the UK, Canada, the USA, and other places it is now illegal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation, and same-sex couples can now enjoy the same legal rights of marriage that opposite-sex couples have.
People will only be themselves when they feel safe to disclose. While progress at a policy level has been significant, there are still cultural and unconscious biases against LGBT+ people in all sorts of situations, including at work. LGBT+ employees are often paid less, siloed into particular jobs and departments, and experience a high rate of microaggressions. All of this is in addition to the fact that many people still don’t accept LGBT+ equality.
It makes sense, then, that many LGBT+ people don’t want to come out at work. There is a definite and rational fear of discrimination – whether intentional or not. And given the current political climate across the globe, with the rise of populist conservatism (e.g. Brazil, USA, Germany) and the religious right (e.g. Poland, Hungary, Uganda, Philippines), it has become even more risky for people to come out at work.
We know that people perform their best when they are included and can bring their whole selves to work. When we have a diverse group around the table making decisions or trying to solve problems, it helps to have a variety of perspectives. However, if a person feels that the very aspect of themselves that is different, that gives them a different perspective or approach to the problem, isn’t something they can express then you are not leveraging that diversity to its fullest potential.
However, ‘coming out’ doesn’t only apply to LGBT+ people. Kenji Yoshino has demonstrated through his work that ‘covering’ is a concept most of us partake in. Straight white men ‘cover’ in order to fit in. Of course, it’s easier for majorities who have less adaptation to do but still it’s inauthentic. I recall a boss who hated golf but learnt to play because that was where all the key decisions were made.
We are all in the closet about some things. This can mean lower trust, less transparency and unnecessary unhappiness. If we could all be more open it could benefit not just ourselves, but all those around us. Whoever you are, if you are able to lead more inclusively, you might just signal to someone else that it’s OK to be out.
Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included, a consultancy dedicated to helping people understand diversity and inclusion.