Being Out at work

Jesse Liberty, MVP and President of Liberty Associates, Inc. discusses the often complex and life-changing decision to come out in the working environment.

About two years ago I decided that it was important not only to be out [1], but to be out at work, and to be out loud [2]. In my case, perhaps, it was imperative to be even louder than most, because as a happily married bisexual, the ‘natural’ assumption is that I’m straight unless I take affirmative action to assert my sexual identity.

The references, [x], can be viewed in full at the end of the article

At the time I made the decision to mix my politics with my business, I had lunch with a friend who is the owner of a successful placement agency for technology professionals. She told me in no-uncertain-terms that I was committing ‘professional suicide’. This article will explain why I made the decision to move forward aggressively and how it worked out, and, most importantly, why I think others should make that decision as well, if they can.

Let me say at the outset that at the time I came out to my clients (and on my web site) it was probably easier for me than for many others, as I was a well-established author and consultant-programmer. While I was taking a significant risk (consulting is a fickle lover and the Internet bubble had burst by the time I began to mix business and politics) the cliff I leapt off was small compared to the one confronting a queer [3] programmer or author who is early in her career.

There are many good reasons to be out, and out-loud at work. The rest of this article will discuss the following four reasons that I view as the most compelling in my personal order of priority:

  1. Modeling for others, especially for younger queer workers and clients
  2. Political advocacy
  3. Undermining the demand for Covering
  4. Personal honesty


Queer teens who hide their sexuality are four times as likely as straight teens to attempt suicide [4]. That difference disappears for queer teens who are out. The key fact is that queer teens who know out adults are far more likely to come out themselves. Modeling is critical in the process of coming out; first to oneself, then to one’s family, then to the world. Few come out who don’t know an adult who is out, safe and successful. My personal journey of coming out was greatly influenced by the Stonewall riots, the Gay Liberation movement and the politics of the 1960s [5] and 1970s. Today’s queer kids live in two worlds: one in which there are many more open (celebrity) role models, and yet one in which the societal hostility is in some ways even greater and more overt.

Happily married bisexuals have every incentive not to come out. In fact, it is hard to be out; you have to go out of your way since people assume you are straight if your spouse is of the opposite sex. Modeling bisexuality, and helping others understand that bisexuality continues even after making a life-partner decision, is critical in helping young bisexuals accept that their identity is not transitional nor indecisive, but as legitimate as gay or straight. Modeling should also help young bisexuals to defend their identity.

Bisexuals are discounted, even despised, by many in both the straight and the gay community, and once married, bisexuals tend to disappear. It is imperative for married bisexual adults to be out loud and that, I’m afraid, takes a bit of effort (choose your weapons: bumper stickers, buttons, web logs, articles, you name it.)

Political Advocacy

While racism and sexism are endemic and institutionalized in the United States, racial minorities and women have legal protections that are denied to Queer Americans. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court swept aside all state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and held marriage to be such a fundamental right that it cannot be denied to incarcerated felons; but in 49 states it is denied to same-sex couples. Only Queer Americans are prohibited from serving in the US Armed Services, despite the fact that every US Government study has shown the policy to be counter productive. Our allies (including the Israelis) have integrated their armed services with no reduction in morale (as have the CIA, the NSA and the FBI).

In 36 states, it is perfectly legal to deny housing to a person because she is Queer, and in more than half of the states, there is no law or policy against harassment of, or discrimination against, Queer children in school. Queer families are torn asunder: parents are denied custody; children are taken forcibly from their parents and turned over to strangers. We have no marches on Selma, no Freedom Rides, and no Letters From Birmingham Jail, but we must make our voices heard every chance we get.

Undermining the Demand for Covering

The central thesis of Kenji Yoshino’s wonderful book Covering is that marginalized groups go through three stages of demands from the groups in power:

  1. Conversion
  2. Passing
  3. Covering

The demand to convert in our case can still be seen in such misguided and destructive efforts as the ‘reparative’ therapies offered by some extreme right-wing organizations.

The second stage, passing, was rampant in the United States for most of the 20th Century. Most Queer Americans felt compelled to ‘pass’ as straight in most aspects of their life, effectively hiding ‘in the closet’. [6] The height of this compulsion was reached in the 1950s, during what most Americans remember as the Red Scare but which is also documented as a great purge of homosexuals from the federal government.[7]

The final demand is to cover, that is the demand not to flaunt ones minority status. ‘You can be black, but please, no corn rows.’ ‘You can be Asian, but don’t get straight A’s and listen to that funny music.’ ‘You can be Queer, but don’t talk about your life-partner.’ That is, ‘Go ahead and be who you are, but don’t put it in my face.’ This demand is pernicious: it is the demand that you conform to the majority tone, sound, dress, hair-style, actions, behavior and social decorum when in public, and by all means, no kissing. The inevitable result is the P-town bumper-sticker: ‘I don’t mind straight people, as long as they act Queer in public.’


Personal Honesty

Finally, there is simple personal honesty. The demand to cover, to side step discussions of essential aspects of who you are, to ignore the very personal impact of legislation and court cases being discussed at the water cooler…all of this serves to undermine a vital aspect of your own personal integrity. When my readers or my customers buy my books or services, they get more than just a product or a number of hours of code; they get 20 years of experience that includes living in the real world and learning the real lessons of what it takes to deliver a product on time and on budget. Part of that is learning to touch people, to help them succeed in their efforts, and you cannot do that by being disingenuous, by being a cardboard cut-out, by being a façade.

Work is not the proper place to slug it out on every political issue that comes along, nor is it the venue to force your personal perspective on each issue. But I feel it is vital that I bring my entire personality and integrity to each encounter so as to establish the trust and human contact that is integral to what I can offer my business clients.

In short, I bring all of me: my experience, my skill, my family, my identity, my culture, my life. My clients don’t have to know every detail, but those details influence and shape the outward manifestation, and trying to separate the parts would disintegrate the whole.


There is no way to measure the cost of coming out at work. It is possible that for every job I lost to someone who was turned off by my politics, I may well have picked up a job for the very same reason. I’m not sure I can measure the impact, and I’m not sure I can let myself care too much.

I have asked a few clients, carefully, if my politics has affected their decision to hire (or not hire) Liberty Associates, Inc. It is always hard to measure the accuracy of their reports (both for them and for me) but from what I can tell it has cut both ways. The big fear is that if you are passionate about politics you may be difficult to work with. Of course, I never get to talk with those who take one look and never call, so the survey is skewed to begin with. Then again, there are those who hire me and it turns out they have Queer kids, and may or may not realize that my politics entered into their hiring decision.

There are many factors in a hiring decision, and many of them are not rational. Who knows how many jobs I get because of my books, how many I get (or lose) because of my age, or because I’m white, or because of other factors that have nothing to do with my skills. I assume adding politics to the mix diminishes rather than enhances my prospects (especially since I don’t market myself, but obtain my work through word-of-mouth) but I don’t think it is possible to know.

While I’ve worked to balance how much of my politics is thrust into my business, I have found that not having to think so much about it, and not having to worry very much about who discovers what, has been a very positive experience. I’ve been thanked by a few, somewhat frightened young men at various talks I’ve given (presumably for the buttons I’ve worn, or the triangles I’ve sneaked into various slides), and who knows, perhaps I’ve eased the path to coming out for a couple of people. I certainly believe that if we were all out at work a great deal of good would come of it.


If you are not yet out, or not out at work, but you’d like to be, the best starting place I know of is the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out project. They have pamphlets to download and links to guide you.

A quick ‘Google’ of ‘Coming Out’ also provides over 290 million hits, so finding resources should not be too difficult, although separating the wheat from the chaff can be very challenging.

Here’s a tip: don’t do anything that makes you too uncomfortable, and watch out for homophobic sites posing as ‘helpful’ advisors.

Coming out at work is not easy; but it should not be a nightmare either, especially if it is the final part of a process rather than a single leap into the unknown. In my experience, coming out at work is one of the final few steps in a long journey. The first step is coming out to yourself. Next is coming out to someone you truly trust (though, be prepared — his or her reaction might be anything from wonderful to tragic).

Take your time, there are no prizes for being first off the blocks. Consider getting support from others who are on the same road. The key is to walk the path, not to rush to the end. There is no end.

[1] See my personal coming out story (link deprecated)

[2] Coming Out Loud by Jesse Liberty

[3] I use the term Queer deliberately as an inclusive term to embrace, on equal footing: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersexual, pomosexual, etc. That is, those of us who are marginalized and legally discriminated against on the basis of sexual preference or identity. (I personally find the term LGBT unwieldy, hard to pronounce, and insufficiently inclusive.)

[4] CEDC/Massachusetts Department of Education Youth Risk Behavior Survey 1999

[5] ‘If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there.’ — Timothy Leary

[6] See Michelangelo Signorile’s seminal work Queer In America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) for a wonderful discussion of the destructive effect of the Closet on Queer Americans in the late 20th century.

[7] The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David Johnson. (University of Chicago Press, 2006).