Written by Zamara Perri
Black feminine women are often assumed to be straight and that can make coming out at work especially difficult. Photo via Madame Noire
I started a new job last week and for the first time in my working life I did something I never did before. I came out. It turned out not to be a big deal.
For the first time ever, I didn’t feel the need to: pretend I’m single, convert pronouns from “she” to “he” to “they” or pretend that I have absolutely no social life outside the office. For the first time ever, I felt comfortable just slipping my real personal life into regular conversations. After 15 years as a black queer working professional, I felt absolutely comfortable just being myself.
How did I get here? From as far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed kissing girls. I remember playing house with other little girls. I remember having crushes throughout high school. I even remember having opportunities to be with women in college, but I was too scared to act. And besides, my best friend at the time made fun of a girl who liked me. I was too scared to admit that I liked her back.
I remember my first real job in a newsroom and how the women talked openly about their husbands and children. I didn’t want to be the odd one out. And at that point I was still dating men. I remember dating this one particular boy and how much pressure I felt from the church, my family and friends to just settle down and marry him. I’m so glad that even though I didn’t have the courage to come out then, that I had the courage to leave him behind.
I then took a step that pushed me even deeper into the closet. I started working for a conservative religious organization, which was legally exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws. This meant that if I didn’t follow their strict code of conduct, which included not being gay, I could be fired.
As gay marriage was starting to sweep the nation, homosexuality became a more frequent topic of conversation in my office. I had colleagues, friends and family who, thinking that I was straight, openly told me how they really felt about gay people and homosexual relationships because, you know, the Bible said it was a sin.
I felt targeted, judged, harassed and regularly shamed.
I spent 10 years being terrified of losing my very good job, losing my friends and family and losing the professional prestige I had earned from pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
I remember buying a home and settling down with the woman I thought was the love of my life. No one at work knew about this important development in my life. I couldn’t bring her to company gatherings. I couldn’t mention some of the challenges we were having. I remember the day we broke up, I called my boss crying and asking her for a day off. My boss fancied herself my friend so of course she wanted to know why I was so heartbroken, but she had already made it clear how she felt about homosexual relationships. Even though her views on gay marriage were evolving, I knew I could never tell her why I was in such pain.
Last year in 2014, I was being groomed to take on a more senior leadership role in the organization. I couldn’t take it anymore. I gave my boss one month’s notice and quit. As someone who grew up in poverty and really had no one else to lean on, this was a terrifying move. I rented out my condo. Moved into a cheap, crappy apartment, started freelancing, applied for other jobs and used the library’s WiFi.
Nine months later, I got an offer to work at an HBCU. Although it was a state university, which means they could not legally discriminate against me based on my sexual orientation, I still did not feel comfortable coming out there. There was prayer and other religious mentions during large gatherings. I felt like I hadn’t gotten far enough away from the conservative religious workplace I left behind. I did come out to one co-worker, but that was only after we spent months getting to know each other and going to the gym together.
My new, corporate gig has explicit, written protections against discriminating against someone due to their sexual orientation. When I started work at this place, I made up my mind that I would no longer hide who I am.
I’m a big believer in keeping my personal life separate from the professional. However, pretty much everyone on my team is married or engaged so when they mentioned their families, I felt no qualms mentioning my partner. And in response, my colleagues showed interest in me as a whole person. No one seemed surprised or acted strange when I mentioned my partner. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. I felt like a whole human and like I can now relax and focus on doing what I was hired to do.
I know not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have these protections. Even though gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, there are literally 28 states where gay people can lose their jobs because of who they love. And that is not okay.
There are also hundreds of thousands of organizations that are losing the benefit of having a brilliant, vibrant, diverse, happy, engaged work force because of bigoted and short-sighted leaders who have not made it clear that discrimination of any kind is never okay. That’s too damn bad because no one should have to choose between taking care of their families and living a lie.
Read more about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act here.