‘Working’ towards a queer-friendly space
Smriti, a cis-lesbian, shares insights on factors to consider before coming out at the workplace, and building a safe office environment for the LGBTQIA+ community
CHENNAI: For someone who’s come out to friends and family, and been visibly queer in the social circle for two years, coming out at the workplace remained a challenge for me until the pandemic struck and work from home became a norm. It’s been only a year and a half since I joined a global company as a programmer and I was scared to make the big move.
After contemplating for over a year, on June 1, 2021, I composed a lengthy official email to 60 colleagues. What better time to come out than Pride month, right? I expressed my identity as a queer person and shed light on the relevance of Pride month because I wanted to establish some context, so that everybody gets the basics right.
Taking baby steps
The mail got forwarded and the word spread to over 100 people. Following this, a couple of friends reached out to me privately and expressed their acceptance. Yes, out of the lot, just two people. But, it’s okay, I understand that most people might not even know how to respond. A higher official acknowledged the importance of having a gender-inclusive and diverse environment and offered me support.
I was asked to write on various subjects around the LGBTQIA+ community for the company’s newsletter. I even changed my work icon to a Pride flag. Even when I attend work-related video conferences, fellow employees can see a Pride flag as my background. While coming out at work has been favourable to me so far, I’m always anxious about the possibilities that I might encounter once things get back to normal.
How do I face my colleagues in person? What if they make derogatory jokes? What if my job is at stake? What if I lose my friends? What if there’s no one to have my back? Questions like these persistently linger in my mind, given that I’m the only queer person who’s come out in this big organisation. As a junior employee, I can’t do much without any backing from the management.
For a larger cause
But, I can encourage more people to accept their identity and take the big step of coming out. Here are some things to think about if you are considering coming out at work. Check for Employee Resource Groups at your workplace. See if you can find other LGBTQIA+ people or allies you can count on. Gauge the overall climate and unless it’s a safe environment, it’s better to not be hasty as the repercussions can adversely affect your mental health and productivity.
Once you’ve assessed your workplace atmosphere, identify someone who is LGBTQIA+ or LGBTQIA+-supportive, and talk to them first. People will often take their cues from you on how to talk and feel about LGBTQIA+ issues. Being open can make you more productive, and can even benefit your career because your peers will see you in a new, perhaps even courageous, light.
Use appropriate language to sensitise people and make it a conducive place for those in the closet. It might sound like a cakewalk, but I understand, it isn’t. I’m one of the few in my queer circle to come out at my workplace and everybody wished well for me when I told them this. But, deep inside, I knew that each and everyone wanted to do the same. I’m privileged enough to work in a global company with decent exposure but that’s not the case with everyone. Your job setting and nature of work is crucial.
A continuous process
Even in my company, I’ve never heard anyone utter the queer word. The yearly rainbowwashing that takes place in corporations was not there either. At an organisational level, the first step is to acknowledge that the queer community exists. Having a Diversity & Inclusion policy does not guarantee inclusion. Ensuring its effective implementation without any deviation should be the goal. From hiring to promotions, an anti-discrimination and harassment policy should be active.
Before applying for any job, queer candidates must check for the company’s inclusion statement or agenda. Having upfront and open discussions nurtures a healthy environment. Effective Employee Resource Groups help organisations understand and keep track of the implementation and success of their policies. I’ve been a financially independent person, so the whole process of coming out might have been smoother but that’s not the case for people who come from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Inclusion in the workplace is a collaborative, supportive, and respectful environment that increases the participation and contribution of all employees. I believe inclusion removes all barriers, discrimination, and intolerance. When applied properly in the workplace, it is natural for everyone to feel included and supported. A workplace is like a second home, given how much time people spend there. Let’s make it a safe and conducive place for the growth for our queer folks. Things you can do to promote inclusivity for the community are endless, so give it some serious thought and get started.
Bringing home the big picture of parity through the lives of people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum
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(As told to Vaishali Vijaykumar)