On Coming Out at Work (or not)

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the whole coming out process. It makes sense, really – I’m at the start of my third week in a new graduate job – my first post-uni, adult, office job. Definitely wasn’t expecting to be here so soon after graduating.

I haven’t had to think much about coming out in a long time, since I discovered asexuality. In my uni years, I was openly out to just about everyone except my lecturers (well, except for that one lecturer who I realised was part of the Ally training event I was part of the student panel for about halfway through introducing myself. But that obviously went well), and if someone ever gave me crap (which happened very rarely), it wasn’t very hard to just avoid them entirely. I was part of my uni’s queer and women’s collectives, I ran a couple of workshops on asexuality. Most of the time, being out was never an issue, and I never really considered not being out.

I’m feeling a bit differently about this job, which, to be honest, I’m a bit surprised by. As of yet, I’ve made no mention of being ace or being anything but straight, and I’ve stayed silent in the conversations about boyfriends and partners when they’ve come up. The people I’ve met so far – my fellow grads (there are quite a few of us) and the team I’m working with – have all being amazing. I’ve made a whole lot of new friends, and we’ve formed pretty strong connections already. And I haven’t gone out of my way to hide any of my past activism or anything – anyone who stalks me on Facebook or Googles me will inevitably see my ace awareness stuff. But somehow, I’m still feeling unsure of whether or not I want to actually be out just yet.

In a way, it’s because it feels like there’s more at stake. I’m in this program for two years, and we’re really being encouraged to maintain close connections with each other. So if for some reason things do go pear-shaped (which is probably unlikely, but always a possibility), then I can’t exactly just avoid everyone else in the program. And it’s even more acute for the team I’m working in – if I start being out there and someone takes objection, well, I still have to work with them. And being the newbie grad I am, I really don’t want anything from my personal life to be compromising my budding professional life. (Especially while I’m still in ‘let me show you that I am actually good at what I do’ phase.)

The thing about coming out as ace, as every ace probably knows already, is that you can’t just say ‘I’m ace’ and leave it at that. Chances are that many, if not most, of the people that you come out to don’t even know what to make of that statement. For all its visibility on the internet over the last years, there are still many people who don’t know that asexuality even exists, or what exactly it means. If you’re lucky, they’ve read an article on asexuality and have an understanding of the basics. If you’re unlucky, they have no clue what you’re talking about, or think something must be wrong with you (or you’re faking or have a brain tumour, if you’re really unlucky and they’ve seen that episode of House MD). So most of the time, coming out will also involve you giving a crash course in asexuality – or you have to dance around the word a bit with vague phrases like ‘not really interested in dating’ or ‘not really interested in other people that way.’

The other thing about coming out (for anyone who isn’t straight, this time), is that you never stop having to come out. Like Queenie once wrote, it’s coming out (and coming out [and coming out {and coming out}]). Because if you don’t actively talk about not being straight, you’ll keep being read as straight by default.

So why do I even want to be out? I guess I could just keep going the way I have been the last two weeks – avoiding talking about my ace life outside work, hoping that no-one will ask me if I’m single or in a relationship, or stumble across my activist work on the internet. But the thing is: being ace is who I am. It’s as much a part of me as my boss having a wife and a one year old kid are part of him. And I don’t particularly feel like dancing around that, should it come up at work. It’s pretty important to me.

There are a lot of people out there who will say that your personal life has no place at your workplace, or that talking about your sexuality at work isn’t appropriate. And that’s true to an extent, because no-one needs to know the ins and outs of your sex life over the weekend. But it’s also kind of hypocritical, because almost every time I see that expressed, it’s directed at queer folks rather than straight folks, often with a ‘it’s ok that you’re queer, but do you have to flaunt it so much?’ mentality. When you actually stop and think about it though – and this is something I’ve been hyperaware of over the last weeks – people reference their sexuality all the time. It’s little things, like female friends mentioning how they had a lovely Valentine’s day with their boyfriends or male partners over the weekend. Two days into my induction week, I had already counted six or eight different instances where I could very easily and naturally have referenced my aceness, or at the very least my not-straightness. That’s how frequently sexuality or personal relationships came up, in one way or another.

At the same time, the one thing I heard over and over again in my induction week was that networking and making connections with other people is crucial. Interestingly enough, the focus wasn’t always on the professional scale either, but also on connecting to other people on a personal level – even people like your boss and coworkers. And I actually really like that, because it recognises that in the end, everyone is just a person, and good relationships lead to happy and productive workplaces. So while I’m not exactly having to change gender pronouns for a partner or dress in a way I don’t want to (like some queer folks do), I want to eventually be able to reference my sexuality in conversation if it comes up. Not just because I don’t like being read as straight, but also because it just seems more honest and open to me, and I think those things are really important for building good relationships, even professional ones. And if you do a bit of googling there’s also a tonne of material out there saying that queer folks who are out at workplace tend to be much happier and more productive as well.

But ultimately, I’m still not entirely sure if (and how and when) I want to start being out at work, and I think there are probably a lot of other aces out there in the same boat. I have been playing with different ideas about how I could flag that hey, I’m some sort of queer, but without referencing any specific orientation. (Ultimately (and perhaps strangely), I still feel more comfortable with people potentially thinking I’m a lesbian than assuming I’m straight.) I guess whether or not that happens will depend on what vibe I’m picking up from my colleagues over the next weeks. Who knows. If anyone has any words of advice, I’m all ears.

Cross-posted from A Life Unexamined

About Jo

Jo is an ancient history honours student in Australia, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality in antiquity. In her free time she devours books, tea and Doctor Who, but is honestly not that into cake, and proudly calls herself a feminist and an activist. She identifies an an aromantic asexual a little bit more every day. Jo also blogs at A Life Unexamined on feminism and asexuality.
This entry was posted in Articles, Coming out, personal experience and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to On Coming Out at Work (or not)

  1. I’m not exactly out at work but I don’t hide anything either. My coworkers know that in the nearly 12 years I’ve worked here I’ve never had a relationship and that I don’t talk about being attracted to people. I told one of them (back in 2007, actually) that I wasn’t interested in such things and didn’t expect to be, but otherwise they don’t ask about it, and I don’t volunteer anything.

    As long as I’m free to live my life as I choose and people don’t expect me to take part in their conversations and activities, I don’t really feel a need to bring it up. Those two parts of my life are separate and I’m glad to keep it that way.

    It does help that I work remotely and connect with my work team via online chat and email, rather than being in a physical office with them.

  2. Sciatrix says:

    I’m out as some-flavor-of-queer to everyone at work and only out as ace to close friends or people who have actual experience with the queer community. I don’t talk about being ace to any of my more painfully cis and straight coworkers or the gentleman who once harangued me for not being more open to my colleagues about my relationships because he would have been very accepting.

    Recently I accepted a fairly last-minute invitation to chair a discussion about asexuality/Q&A kind of deal for a local queer org, and the gentleman running the discussion series thoughtfully friended me on Facebook, added me to the event page for the discussion as a co-organizer, and helped promote it there. I have work colleagues on my facebook and had a fairly brief panicky “how do I hide this” before I elected to just leave it up and deal with any fallout. So far, I’ve gotten zero commentary except from queer friends, which is pretty much how I like it. I have really, really low expectations in particular for straight, cis people when it comes to asexuality.

    Currently, I’m wrestling with the decision of how out I want to be on my Twitter account, which is primarily an account I’m using to network with other scientists in my field. When I’m there, I’m hyperconscious about the parts of my life I do and don’t talk about, and my work with the ace community is probably the biggest omission.

    • queenieofaces says:

      …that Facebook anecdote is pretty much why I completely dissociate all ace stuff from anything with my real name. I don’t even like LGBTQ-related pages on Facebook; even though I have my privacy settings at maximum, I don’t trust Facebook to actually keep things private.

      • Yeah, Facebook is really weird about what shows up. Even marking that you’re interested in an event can be visible to others; I was surprised recently when someone “liked” the notification that I was interested in a local event. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything that I would be concerned about some people seeing. I really dislike Facebook for this and other reasons and rarely post there.

        • Jo says:

          Heh, Facebook was actually how I ended up ‘coming out’ to my mum. Someone shared the first magazine article I was in on my wall and she then commented on it. I also find Facebook quite weird and annoying for that reason – I tend to be very careful about my privacy settings and who I will add, etc.

    • I have a Twitter account for my professional identity, though I almost never use it. It’s mostly there so that if people go looking, they find that.

      I have another Twitter account for following and tweeting the stuff I’m really interested in and since I don’t need to attach it to my real identity I like it much better than Facebook.

  3. AceAdmiral says:

    The thing that gets me the most attention is not anything I say (or don’t say), but rather how I dress. Obviously YMMV depending on what you like to wear, but if you want people to think you’re a lesbian, ties are the way to go. One of the people in the building (not a coworker) actually enjoyed sharing her observation that clearly I am a lesbian because I wear ties. (They cannot see my magnificent asexual tresses at work because my hair is covered, so I guess we can’t blame them.)

    In all seriousness, though, my journey with the tie has been a long one that started with baby steps like buying scarves and just trying them like a tie and progressed to full-on I-actually-own-a-bow-tie-now. Because one is supposed to dress “conservatively” for work, it took me a long time to get myself there (although it helped that ties were in style for women in 2010 (in Japan?)), and it definitely is a thing that signals to other people that I am not quite… straight. People have also been almost unanimously great about it, though? Several of my bosses, including the homophobic ex-boss, have been supportive and expressed how “fashionable” I am. And I get compliments all over the place, including in every conversation I had at my high school reunion and, yes, from lesbians.

    So, if a tie is something that fits into your acethetic, that is my recommendation. I wish I could give you some good shopping recs, but being on the other side of the world/an importer of all my dress shirts from Japan, I’m afraid I’m slightly useless. And if it doesn’t fit with you… I came out to several people passively by putting an ace flag magnet on my car? (This does not work nearly as well.)

    • Jo says:

      This is such an interesting story to read, AceAdmiral. I actually, well, really would like to wear ties every now and then? I may have been in a clothing store just the other day realising that women’s dress shirts don’t have a high enough collar stand to wear a tie properly. (That said, I am really nervous to actually go through with this because I do not know a thing about wearing a tie as a girl, and whether you have to wear pants, or whether you can still wear a skirt, or what length to tie it at, and whether to do it loose or normal, and and and…). So any pointers, please throw them my way!

      It’s funny because I am actually quite femme-ish with my usual clothes, work clothes especially, and I am definitely cis, and haven’t ever really played around with dressing more butch, etc. But I guess you don’t have to be non-binary or butch to wear a tie? (Though like you say, I think if I turn up in a tie my colleagues at work will *definitely* be thinking the lesbian thing – not that I mind.)

      • AceAdmiral says:

        [My extremely long and perhaps overly detailed tie advice follows]

        The collar problem is the reason I import my shirts from Japan. It’s much easier to reliably lay your hands on shirts in that style going to stores (here, at least), and you just sort of have to wander around the store until you find some. That said, you do not need to have a collar button to wear a tie; the tie itself will hold the collar closed. You can also get away with a rounded collar depending on the style of tie you’re wearing.

        I don’t know your physical dimensions, but the thinner the tie the femme-ier. If you’re a smaller person in general, then you definitely want to stick with skinny ties. (I have a small frame and a few medium width ties, and they can be overpowering if I’m not careful. I would never buy a wide tie.) Skinny ties are not “in fashion” right now, but even when they’re out, there is still usually at least a limited selection available.

        This is obvious, but you need to think of the pattern of the tie in conjunction with the shirt you’re going to wear with it, and especially if you’re more femme, the pattern selection is probably not going to be to your liking. That said, it’ll probably be easier for you to get a patterned shirt, which means you can wear a nice solid without trouble. So don’t worry if you walk into the section and are repelled by how ugly all the patterns are! 😀

        When you put the tie on, it’s best to have the collar button open and the collar flipped up. Once you’ve got it settled so it lays flat against your neck, top out, you can fold down your collar and adjust the tails on either side to your starting point. I usually do the button up before I tie it because I tie it close to my throat, but if you do it further down your chest, you can do the button after tying it.

        I am very butch, so I wear my tie in a knot at the collar. I use a half-windsor knot because I think four-in-the-hand is too… not trying hard enough. However, as with the width of the tie itself, slimmer knots are probably a better bet for you (why I don’t use a full windsor). There are loads of youtube tutorials and stuff, and I actually used a free app called “how to tie a tie” to learn the different knots. As far as the length is concerned, it will probably take you a little while to learn how much to leave, especially because it depends on how close to your throat you personally like to make the knot. I make the knot close to my throat, and I generally start with the seam on the back end just peeking out of the collar. It’s more important for a woman though, I think, to watch how much length is in the back. You probably want the tails as close to equal as can be without the back sticking out when you tighten it, because your torso is likely to be shorter than who it was designed for and it looks weird if it’s too long.

        I also secure my tie with a tie bar, which belongs between the… second and third button, if I’m remembering correctly. I went to the tie bar because I was active at work and my tie kept getting into things (you can tuck into your shirt in between the first two buttons if it’s a temporary problem), but there are also tie tacks if that’s your jam. The bar should in theory not exceed the width of the tie, but I ignore that a lot.

        And, if you don’t want a knot, there are plenty of other ways (women) can wear ties! For example, you can get a tie ring, which just holds the two together instead of you tying a knot. You can also wear the tie looser, kind of like at the place on your chest you might knot several long strings of pearls (do you know what I’m going for there?). Both of these looks give you the advantage of the tie without the severity of the knot right up at your collar. You can also wear either of these styles without the collared shirt.

        Also to femme up your look a little, you might consider some cute cufflinks instead of using the buttons on the shirt. They really make a difference, because they remind people more of jewelry.

        As for bow ties… They’re not really my cup of tea because I have a square face and then also my shirts are plain so they’re not really adding the accent I want and my torso is just an expanse of blah. That said, they can be very cute, especially if you’ve got a shirt with a small or rounded collar, and you don’t have to be able to tie them yourself.

        And of course you can wear a skirt if you want! Those are some of the cutest looks (I think). I also am in love with the vest right now, although they are totally out of style so I had to go spelunking in the men’s department** to find the only vest in the entire store. Sweater vests can also be cute in the winter, although you need the collar and the throat knot for that. You are totally right that you don’t have to be butch or non-binary to wear ties. It requires a little more coordination, and you have fewer choices sitting there for you on the rack, but they are a fun fashion accessory that instantly makes you look put together.

        I hope this answers your tie questions! If you have any more, or if you want me to put together visuals of anything, please just let me know! I’d be happy to 😀

        *If you can sew, you can also buy men’s shirts and put darts in them fairly easily. The underarms don’t sit right, though, so this is a last resort option. I’m actually learning how to sew things from scratch so I can finally have things that fit me (I am slightly too busty for my Japanese shirts, although thank you internet for all the advice on how to bind them up a little bit), but. You don’t need to be so hardcore as me.

        **Don’t worry about spelunking in the men’s department, actually? They just assume you’re there for your brother/father/husband. Especially because you’ll probably only be over there buying ties, it is not a problem at all (so long as you don’t open your mouth to tell them who its really for)

        • Jo says:

          This is officially the best comment ever. You guys are awesome! 😀 I am totally going to print this for future reference.

        • AceAdmiral says:

          Addendum: So, the disadvantage to skinny ties is that sometimes they’re *too* skinny. I have this one tie in particular that’s like this, and my normal half-windsor just… doesn’t do it. Plus this tie is too long. I remembered this morning, though, that there is a genre of ties such as the trinity knot that are big and complicated and get around this problem. Some of them even have you hide the back end in the knot, so you don’t have to worry if the tie is too long. And, actually doing it today–everyone loves it. Random strangers were complimenting me; it was kind of amazing? Plus, and here’s where it’s relevant that my tie was pink (it’s cherry blossom week, what do you want?), it actually looked kind of like a stylized flower? I dunno, it seemed more feminine in the mirror than my usual knots. So you might want to look into the trinity knot and its brethren.

      • queenieofaces says:

        (ETA: aceadmiral apparently beat me to it before I managed to get my comment posted. You should listen to her because she has much more detailed advice. It’s worth noting, though, that tie bars can be a huge pain if you’re wearing a women’s shirt, because women’s shirts and men’s shirts button in opposite directions. I have a really great tie bar that I can’t actually use as a tie bar since I’d have to flip it upside-down. So I just use it as a tie decoration.)

        *bursts through her wall of books* Hello yes I am here for discussions about wearing ties.

        Briefly: I don’t know if you have UNIQLO in your area, but I’ve had very, very good luck with their women’s dress shirts, especially their oxfords. They even have the little collar buttons! You can also wear their dress shirts without ties and they look fine, so my dressy clothes are also my school clothes. In general, oxford-type shirts are probably a better bet than, say, blouses.

        My approach to ties is…wear whatever you like??? I’ve definitely seen people pull off the tie and a skirt look (it’s a pretty common look in Japan, actually). Play around with it! See what feels comfortable! I followed some queer fashion blogs for a while to get ideas, if that’s the sort of thing you might be into.

        As for knots and length and looseness, I think that partially depends on how tall you are. I am a pretty tiny person, which means that most ties are comically long on me, which means that I’ve been trying to learn more complicated knots so that my tie won’t be hanging down way past my belt. (My girlfriend has recommended buying children’s ties, but the children’s ties I’ve managed to find have not had anywhere near as exciting patterns as the adult ties I own.)

        • Jo says:

          I actually have a UNIQLO just opening in my city! I will definitely check their shirts out. 😀 Aaahhhh you guys are the best, I am so glad to have ace friends with such good advice and fashion sense.

  4. I was thinking some more about the discussion in this post because of the more recent post on diversity policies at work; on reflection I decided my comments fit better here.

    I work from home as part of an all-remote team; this arrangement works extremely well for me, not least because I’m not able to drive and thus getting to a job site can be difficult for me if it’s not conveniently located. That’s why I’ve stuck with this job for nearly 12 years.

    Not being in an office also makes it significantly easier to get by when I don’t fit in with the “culture” at the workplace (an issue I’ve had since grad school). Asexuality is just one of several ways I don’t fit in: I don’t drink and I don’t engage with pop culture much, and that’s probably why the question of being out as asexual doesn’t seem as important to me.

    However, the main way that I differ from my co-workers, and which would be much more visible in an office, is that I’m Muslim and wear hijab in public. If I was discriminated against at work, it would likely be for that and not anything about my asexuality.

    As I’ve often found to be the case, my experiences are atypical compared to a lot of people’s and I don’t always realize that because I adjusted to it so long ago that it comes to seem normal to me.

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