I’m a 24 year-old gay man, low-key, don’t like to draw attention to myself. I work as a contractor with the military here in D.C.
I really love my job and would like to continue doing work like I’m doing now for the long term.
However, I’m in a tough situation. I’ve been on my current project for the last eight months and the people I work with make a lot of casually homophobic remarks.
I’m not out at work and from the way the people around me talk, I’m sure they don’t think I’m gay. I am finding this very difficult to endure. Their comments are offensive.
I want to speak up but I’m worried that if I do, I could hurt or derail my career. There are non-discrimination rules in place, but I’m worried I’d get a reputation for causing trouble and then have some sort of negativity directed toward me that would somehow cause problems for my career going forward.
But it’s upsetting to listen to people say hateful comments about gay people even if they’re not said in a malicious way toward me. Everything is said in a spirit of just joking around. But it stings.
I’d like to let it roll off my back but I’m having trouble ignoring this.
While I love the work I do, I’m starting to hate going into the office. I just get really depressed having to face this, day in, day out. And I’m feeling increasingly anxious, waiting for the next nasty remark.
Little wonder you are feeling depressed and anxious. Having to endure homo-negative comments while feeling powerless to speak up is rough. This is the experience of the closet, which you are in at work, at least.
Being in the closet takes an awful toll on mental health. It’s difficult to feel good about yourself when you are pretending to be someone you’re not, monitoring what you say and how you act out of fear of giving away your secret.
Of course there are many good reasons, even in the United States today, to remain in the closet. I understand you could damage your reputation and your career. Many people justifiably fear losing their jobs, their friends and their family. And of course, in some parts of the world, you can lose your life if you come out.
However you might also consider the costs to your well-being of remaining closeted at work and weigh them against the potential consequences to you of speaking out. For example: How does striving to give your colleagues the impression that you’re not gay affect you at the office? In addition to making you anxious and depressed (which are themselves severe consequences), you may well be feeling isolated, given that you can’t let anyone get too close to you.
Does keeping your colleagues at a distance affect how they interact with you? Often people sense that there is something “off” about a closeted colleague. You may be seen as aloof, secretive, unfriendly or even strange. Any and all of those impressions may negatively impact your career.
What about stress? When you have a secret, fear of discovery can eat away at you and make it nearly impossible to relax. Short- and long-term effects of stress range from discomfort to illness to death.
You haven’t mentioned whether or not you’re closeted in other parts of your life. I understand your reasons for not being out at work, but I wonder if you may have negative feelings about being gay that lead you to see coming out at work in an even less favorable light. If this is the case, please consider working with a gay-positive therapist to challenge your gay-negative feelings. Disliking a vital part of yourself makes for a terrible existence.
This is your life to live. It is no one else’s place to tell you that you must confront bigotry when doing may have some major negative consequences to you, even if that bigotry is itself hurting you.
That said, change happens when people take a stand on issues that they care deeply about, despite the price they may pay. When we can find the strength to do so, the increased self-esteem and satisfaction that come from working to make a positive difference to our world may outweigh the sacrifices and pain we endure for putting ourselves on the line.
If you do find it in yourself to take the risk of speaking up, you might find that by coming out you help to change the attitudes of the people around you. Although there are no guarantees, when people come to really know people who are different, they are more likely to accept difference.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@michaelradkowsky.com.