I feel like I’m living a lie because I’m not out at work. I’m afraid that if I come out, it will negatively impact my career.
I work for a company with a conservative corporate culture that is also somewhat “frat house.” I don’t have any openly gay colleagues and I don’t even know if there are any other people who are closeted. I sometimes hear colleagues make disparaging remarks about gay people disguised as humor.
Why do I stay? I actually love my work and jobs in my specialization aren’t easy to find. They also tend to be with companies with corporate cultures similar to my current workplace.
If people suspected, I’m worried that I’d be ostracized or miss out on a promotion, so I play the game of saying I’m straight and even sometimes talk about women I’m supposedly dating. I don’t feel good about this.
I’m embarrassed to talk to my friends about how difficult this is because I’m sure they’ll judge me, so I actually feel distant from everyone I’m close to.
Also, I feel like I have to monitor myself all the time, worrying about who might see me when I’m out with my gay friends and always watching what I say at work.
I almost don’t like who I am, but I don’t think I have a choice if I want to be successful in the career I love.
Is there a way to be closeted at work and still live the rest of my life as a happy, proud, well-adjusted gay man?
You can try, but that sounds like a tall order. I understand that being openly gay at the office might damage your career, but living your work life shrouded in a lie is damaging your mental health and self-esteem.
Can you really feel proud of who you are while you’re keeping silent when people tell anti-gay jokes? Can you be a fully integrated human being when you are vigilant about portraying yourself to your colleagues as someone you’re not? What limitations are you putting on your ability to date, partner or have a family if you need to hide your personal life at work? And is it really tenable to keep these two worlds apart indefinitely?
On a practical level, are there any protections in place for you as a gay employee, either through your company or a state/local government? If so, you would have some recourse if you decided to stop living a secret life, though things could still get ugly.
Of course, the most powerful weapon to challenge and reduce homonegativity is to come out. That doesn’t mean you have to make a move you don’t want to make or endanger the career you want. But you should decide if the price you say you’re paying for that career is really worth it.
Could it be that your fears are overblown? Yes, it’s an awful fact that for LGBT people, living honestly can still result in hostility, job loss, threats, violence and even death. But given that you work at a professional level with educated colleagues in a metropolitan area, your co-workers may be more educable and open to tolerance than you think and perhaps you would not get the negative reaction you expect.
Might you have other reasons for being closeted at work?
What are your own long-standing feelings about being gay? How long have you been out to yourself and to friends? Are you out to your family? Do you have any religious beliefs that make it difficult for you to fully accept yourself? Is it possible that you are uncomfortable coming out at work due to your own negative view of yourself as a gay man?
Another possibility: You may be paralyzed by anxiety about making a big move with many unknown consequences. Some questions to help you test this hypothesis: How have you coped with change in the past? How comfortable are you with confrontation? How do you handle others’ disapproval? If you have had difficulties in these areas, you’re facing a great opportunity to get better at taking important steps despite being really anxious, and despite not knowing in advance how things will turn out.
No matter what, your current life sounds pretty dismal and also lonely. I suggest you find a LGBT-affirmative therapist to help you sort out the reasons you are staying in an unhappy situation and assist you in figuring out how you might change your life in ways that may be scary, but may also be liberating.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D, licensed psychologist, specializes in LGBT individual therapy and couples counseling in Washington. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.