Weighing The Risks Of Coming Out At Work
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Last month, Ken Mehlman, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, announced he's gay. Coming out can be especially challenging for those in the public eye, and even more so when politics are at play. But it's also a complicated decision for most gay workers.
While it can be liberating to be honest with colleagues, coming out at work can have bad consequences for some careers. Tell us your coming-out story. We'd like to hear from lawyers, teachers, performers - anyone who's gone through the experience of coming out in the workplace.
Our number here in Washington is 900 - 800-989-8255. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour, most schools are back in session. We want to hear your back-to-school rituals. Do you buy new shoes, pick out a favorite notebook, or take one last weekend trip? You can email all your back-to-school rituals now. The address again, email@example.com.
Joining us now is Patricia Rose. She directs career services at the University of Pennsylvania, which provides career counseling for LGBT students on coming out in the workplace. And she joins us from her office in Philadelphia. Welcome.
Ms. PATRICIA ROSE (Career Services Director, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you.
LUDDEN: So let's be clear. First, you don't advocate that people come out at work. You say that that is an individual choice. Is that right?
Ms. ROSE: Yes, indeed. We work with gay students and young alumni who are wondering about this question before they accept a job, and we hear from alums who are in the workplace, and it's a very personal decision. We are not telling anyone you must do this, or you must do it at a certain time.
LUDDEN: But you do have strategies. So when these students graduate and they're heading out for the interview process, you say first of all, they can research a specific company to see about their policies, and you suggest that they look to see whether the company is in a place where there are anti-discrimination laws in effect. But the fact is that under federal law, gays and lesbians are not a protected class. Is that right?
Ms. ROSE: That's correct. There are certainly local laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace. Those are helpful. We tell job seekers to look at the nondiscrimination policies.
A very large number - I think 69 percent - of the Fortune 100 companies include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policy. Many large organizations also have LGBT employee groups. And this is a good sign that this organization would be welcoming.
Finally, partner benefits are another clear indication that this organization would be a pretty good place to work.
LUDDEN: But can people still be fired for coming out?
Ms. ROSE: Well, probably a lawyer would be the best person to answer that question. I think just for coming out, that's true today in the U.S. military.
Ms. ROSE: I think it is much less common in other fields and other employers.
LUDDEN: Okay. So the young grad is looking to go out on job interviews. You have some tips for the job interview. Can you tell me about that?
Ms. ROSE: Well, it starts with the resume. You have to decide what you want to say on your resume. And before you write the resume, I think it's important to see what kind of job are we talking about here.
There are jobs that actually are for LGBT people - jobs that are advocacy jobs, for instance, lobbying jobs, jobs in gay organizations - where having membership and leadership roles in gay organizations would be helpful and almost necessary to get those jobs.
If you're looking for a job in an organization and you're not sure, then you might want to decide, do you wish to come out as part of the interview process? And again, that's something that's very personal.
There are some students who say, well, I wouldn't want to work anywhere where I would have to be closeted, and so I want to put it on my resume. That's fine. That's their decision to do that.
Others say, I'm not sure that I want to put it on my resume and have a person screening in human resources, perhaps eliminate my resume prior to even getting a chance to introduce myself to the organization.
LUDDEN: You say on your website that a lot of people decide not to bring this up during the interview. They may wait 'til they get the job, when they might feel more leverage.
Ms. ROSE: That's right.
LUDDEN: But you also say that someone should be prepared to answer questions in an interview, depending on what's on the resume.
Ms. ROSE: Well, if all their activities - if all your extracurricular activities are in LGBT organizations, it's hard to erase that from your background, because that's a way you can demonstrate that you have shown leadership, organized meetings, managed a budget, things like that.
LUDDEN: Here's a tricky question, but I bet you've gotten it before. Is it okay to lie in an interview?
Ms. ROSE: No, it is never okay to lie in an interview. That, I can say categorically. It is not okay to lie.
LUDDEN: What about by omission?
Ms. ROSE: By omission, that's fine.
LUDDEN: Right. So then when someone finally has decided to come out, you also offer suggestions for how to go about that in the workplace. What do you suggest?
Ms. ROSE: Well, I think that it's something that people can do more gradually. You can do that with your immediate co-workers first. You can, for instance, make a decision not to change pronouns or lie about boyfriends or girlfriends - and if you feel comfortable with others in the workplace, to start sharing information.
LUDDEN: You suggest looking at photographs people keep on their desks.
Ms. ROSE: Oh, right, just to see who's friendly. Yeah. I mean, you can certainly see even before you accept a job, if you're interviewing onsite, just be an anthropologist. Look at the organization. Are these people who you think you would like to work with, who are the sorts of what are the things they have?
Do they have banners or signs in their personal workspace that might give some indication of their politics - not that being gay-friendly is only for Democrats or Republicans; it's not - certainly, looking at photos on the desktop.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's take a call now. Beth(ph) is in Sacramento, California. Hi there, Beth.
BETH (Caller): Hi.
LUDDEN: What's your story?
BETH: This was a few years ago, and I was working for a parking management company, and the boss that I had - and I was already married and had a sexual marriage; I'm bisexual.
LUDDEN: Maybe don't move your phone around so much there, Beth. We're kind of hearing some noise.
BETH: Okay, I'm going to pull over. Don't worry, I have you on hands-free.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BETH: I have you on hands-free.
LUDDEN: Thank you, good. So you're bisexual, and you were at a parking management company.
BETH: Yes, my boss just, you know, never thought twice about speaking derogatory comments about black people, about Chinese people, about gay people. And I finally said to her, you know, I really don't appreciate your comments against gay people.
And she came right out and asked me: Are you gay? I said, well, I'm bisexual -because I wasn't going to lie, but I didn't think it was any of her business. And I work in the state of California. You're not supposed to ask that kind of thing, and you're not legally allowed to do anything because I answered honestly.
But she never let up on her comments, and she just seriously - I went to the general manager, who would do nothing about it because she was ineffectual. And I eventually - I had a paper trail because my boss was that stupid; she actually said things in emails.
And I was able to prove hostile work environment and collect unemployment insurance after quitting.
LUDDEN: Wow. All right, well, thanks for sharing your story. Patricia Rose, do you have, also, advice for people who find themselves in that situation once they're in a job?
Ms. ROSE: Well, I think this person did a good job of going to the supervisor's supervisor to raise the issue. Most workplaces and again, I deal with a lot of larger organizations want the workplace to be accepting and hospitable to all workers.
And the reason is pure economics. People want the most qualified potential employees, and they want good employees to stay. They don't want them to leave because they feel harassed. And that's why most organizations have policies, and have mechanisms in place, to enforce them.
LUDDEN: All right. We've got a couple emails here. Norman(ph) has emailed to say that a long time ago, he decided upon the perfect time to come out: during the interview process.
He says: I'm a graphic designer, and a big part of my resume is my portfolio. So I made sure to include my work for GLBT organizations and causes, opening the door to express how I came to do the projects. I figured if an employer was uncomfortable discussing the work, then it wasn't the place for me.
There's another email from John(ph) in Provo, Utah, different point of view: I am so sick and tired of the talk of someone's sexuality, he writes. At work, I don't want to know your preferences. I do not care. Sexuality is a private matter. I don't go around saying hey, I'm heterosexual. I'd probably be accused of sexual harassment. Do your job, and keep your private life private.
Ms. ROSE: Well, if I could just comment on that.
Ms. ROSE: In most workplaces, you come in on a Monday morning, and people very naturally say: What did you do over the weekend? And it's very common for employees, and perhaps the gentleman who just emailed from Provo, to say, my wife and I, or my girlfriend and I did X or Y.
And it feels it's not a pleasant feeling for an LGBT person to say, I can't mention that my partner and I went to the movies, played tennis, whatever. So it's no one is saying that people need to discuss sex in the workplace.
LUDDEN: Just one, quick question. We're going to leave you you're going to leave us very shortly. But I'm curious, Patricia, if you have seen a change in the amount of students who decide to come out early in their careers, or wait.
Ms. ROSE: Yeah, I would say that there are more. Penn is a very gay-friendly university, and we have a lot of LGBT students, and I would say I am seeing more students coming out early. But some people don't.
One thing I will say, though, there has been tremendous change. We have seen, over the years, that there are a number of large organizations who actually reach out to gay and lesbian students because they want to ensure that they feel comfortable applying.
LUDDEN: All right. Patricia Rose is the director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and joined us from her office in Philadelphia. Thank you so much.
Ms. ROSE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: We're talking about coming out at work, and we'll get to more of your stories in a moment. We'd like to hear from lawyers, teachers, performers, anyone who has gone through the experience of coming out in the workplace, 800-989-8255, or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Jennifer Ludden.
We'll get to your first-day-of-school rituals in a few moments. If you have an annual tradition for back to school, send us an email now, email@example.com.
Right now, we're talking about the challenges and rewards of coming out at work, and we'd like to hear your story. We'd like to hear from anyone who's gone through the experience of coming out with colleagues.
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address again, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're joined now by Greg Miraglia. He wrote the book "Coming Out From Behind The Badge," and served as a police officer for 27 years. Also, Beverly Kopf; she co-produced and co-directed "Wish Me Away," a documentary about country singer Chely Wright, who came out earlier this year. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. GREG MIRAGLIA (Author): Hi, Jennifer.
Ms. BEVERLY KOPF (Co-owner, TVgals Media): Thank you.
LUDDEN: Greg, let me start with you. You were a police officer nearly 20 years - is that right? - before you decided to be openly gay in the workforce.
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Yeah, I actually started my career as a police cadet at the age of 15, back in 1978. And I worked in a variety of capacities, but I did spend 27 years at three different law-enforcement agencies.
LUDDEN: Can you give us - first - a sense, what was that like? Did it become second nature? Was it always hard, the entire time? What was it like to hide that?
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Well, you know, I think I discovered very quickly, in 1978, that there was no way I could be out and be successful in a career. It was still a reason that law-enforcement officers were not hired, that they were let go from jobs if they came out - not in every agency, but in most. And that was the career that I wanted.
So in some ways, it did become second nature, and I just remained hidden.
LUDDEN: When did that change, that police officers were not automatically let go?
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Well, certainly the employment protection that was added in California - I don't remember exactly which year. But when sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the list of protections, then, of course, law-enforcement agencies could not discriminate in our state.
But back in 1978, you have to remember, that was just a few years after the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.
LUDDEN: Right. Do you think it's more difficult in law enforcement than in other fields, maybe, to be gay?
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Well, I think law enforcement is still largely very conservative. My experience has been, in talking with officers and seeing it myself, that homophobia is still quite pervasive. We're probably 10 to 15 years behind the rest of society in terms of our evolution and acceptance of gay people. So yes, it is still very difficult.
LUDDEN: All right, Beverly, we want to get you in just a moment, but we have Trisha(ph) on the line from Portland, Oregon, who's a firefighter, came out in 1991. Hi there, Trisha.
TRISHA (Caller): Hi, how are you?
LUDDEN: Good. Tell us about your story.
TRISHA: Well, at the time, I was with a police officer. We'd been together for several years, and we belonged to an organization. And you know, we'd had rumors about us, about people thinking that we were gay, always asked us when we came into work: What did you do over the weekend? And you have to think about how you say it.
And after a while, I got tired of coming into the fire station and being a different person. And you know, that's a family atmosphere. So we talked about it. We weighed in the pros and cons. We had a good we each had support at the work we were at. I had a good crew with me. And I did it slowly.
I talked to my partner. Then I talked to my captains. I talked to my battalion chiefs. I went to the fire chief, John DeLoach(ph) at the time, told him what I wanted to do. My partner went to Sanders(ph) at the time, who was police chief. And they all supported us.
LUDDEN: Really, so it was a good experience?
TRISHA: Yeah, that was 1991. It was a big deal because we were tired of hiding, and you can't be yourself. It's not a matter of forcing it in someone's face. When you're in a job that has - everyone's sharing their family and their stories and their vacations, you feel left out, and it's not a good idea to lie about anything. So why can't we be ourselves? So that's why we decided to do it.
I later became promoted to engineer, also became promoted to fire captain, and retired a fire captain in 2008. So I don't think it hindered my promotional abilities, and San Diego Fire Department was, I think, ahead of their time, and they were really supportive of us.
LUDDEN: All right, well, Trisha, thank you so much.
TRISHA: You're welcome.
LUDDEN: Beverly Kopf, you have co-produced a documentary on Chely Wright, who got a lot of attention earlier this summer. She was the first country music singer to come out. But you have your own you're also a lesbian. Is that right?
Ms. KOPF: Yes, that's right.
LUDDEN: And maybe we should just share right here your experiences on the job.
Ms. KOPF: Well, it's been fascinating listening to other people talk about, you know, coming out in the workplace because it is - there's always a risk.
It's your livelihood. It's your job. And so I agree with Patricia. You know, you have to really approach it and make a decision that's right for you.
I - when I was hired to be the head writer of "The View," when we first went on the air...
LUDDEN: That's a talk show on ABC.
Ms. KOPF: The ABC talk show, Barbara Walters, and the other executive producer and I made the decision in the interview that I needed to come out because there was no way that I could do my job and help, you know, bring women into the national conversation and create a voice for the show if I was hiding who I was.
So I did that, and that worked out really well. I have to say it had its challenges, but the rewards and the kinds of issues that we were able to address, I think - was very successful.
In terms of Chely Wright, and this is a documentary that we have been we've been following her for two and a half years through this process, which has been incredibly difficult for someone in country music to come out as openly gay. It's never been done by a commercial, successful artist.
And what my partner, Bobbie Birleffi, and I discovered, is that there's a reason for that. And you know, when Patricia was talking about job skills, when you are in the public eye, when you are a celebrity - as Chely is - one of your main jobs is to get people to like you. You know, that's how you survive. It's your talent, and it's your likeability.
So when your fan base is conservative, Bible Belt, heartland, military, you -you know, the decision to come out is enormously risky and challenging.
LUDDEN: And what kinds of reactions did you document, I mean, among fans and also within the country music industry?
Ms. KOPF: Yes, yes. Some of this I can reveal, and some you're going to have to wait and see the film.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KOPF: But which is not going to be out until early next year, by the way. But what I can tell you is that, you know, we talk about don't ask, don't tell in the military, and there's a way that that exists in country music and other segments of the entertainment field as well.
You know, people would just want you to go up and do your thing. They don't want to know, you know. And they, sometimes they need to really understand what compels a person to come out, to come out of hiding.
And I what makes this to me - and to Bobbie - so extraordinary was a celebrity, someone in the public eye willing to reveal to us her process of hiding, and why she hid, and the terror that she felt in coming out.
And to answer your question, Jennifer, she may have lost a good part of her fan base as a result of this. And just one other thing about, you know, being in the public eye, you it takes a lot of courage to be willing and, you know, even though people think in the entertainment industry, oh, it's so easy now, you know, it's no big deal, it is a big deal.
And it's a political act. And you know, it's really an extraordinarily courageous thing for anyone to do.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, as we said, it's not just those in the public eye who really grapple with this. Let's bring in Jay(ph), who's in San Francisco, California. Hi there, Jay.
JAY (Caller): Hi, yeah. I wanted to talk about the fact that I'm not really out at my work job...
LUDDEN: And can you give us a sense, what is your work?
JAY: ...two of my co-workers - or rather, supervisors were lesbians, and we were out to each other. So it was kind of like this secret, little society within the company.
But we pretty much agreed that coming out within a transportation firm wasn't probably the best idea, considering the environment.
LUDDEN: Are you a delivery driver? What do you do?
JAY: Yeah, I'm a delivery driver.
LUDDEN: Okay, so not the right environment, you thought, to be receptive to this.
JAY: Right because we heard some of the guys who do service San Francisco, the city itself, and they occasionally talk about the occasional person they see, and they do a little limp wrist waggle - which is like, uh, yeah, okay, fine, you know.
And then I just kind of not really say anything about it, but it's like, it's annoying, and...
LUDDEN: And you have no plans to come out?
JAY: At some point, I probably will. Right now, I'm kind of just playing a joke on them because I've got a picture of myself in drag on the dashboard, and I tell them, yeah, it's a girl I'm seeing, which is true...
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAY: You know, it's like, yeah, it's a girl I see. I look in the mirror, there I am. But they they dont figure out that thats me in drag, so its like, its my little joke on them.
LUDDEN: Thats pretty funny. Greg Miraglia, you work in another macho field, the law enforcement.
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Right.
LUDDEN: How you know, what did it mean when you did come out? What kind of reactions did you get, and how did things change?
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Well, again this was back in 2004, so a lot of change from 1978 and I think, you know, looking back on it now, maybe I waited too long. But I had a very warm reception. I havent heard one, single negative comment. My co-workers were a little surprised. They were a little uncomfortable at first, but they they accepted me totally.
LUDDEN: Was there something some event that made you decide to do this?
Mr. MIRAGLIA: No, I actually came out to a student. It was a student in a class who I got a feel for might be gay, and was asking a lot of questions about some of the other work that I do, with hate-crimes prevention work. And the long story in a short version is, we ended up sitting down, and I just felt that that was the person I could tell, and it just sort of happened. And everything worked out very well.
It was pretty risky, you know, looking back on it now, but it went very well.
Mr. MIRAGLIA: And I think, you know, we talked earlier in the show about the importance of it being a very individual decision, and I totally agree with that. I think each individual persons circumstances are unique, but its about finding that one person who you can trust, that one person who you know will support you, and starting there. Its not about throwing a big coming-out party or making a huge announcement. And maybe it is, as someone suggested, putting a picture of your partner on your desk, or simply engaging in the conversation Monday morning with what did you do on your weekend, and not lying.
LUDDEN: Right. Jay, does any of that sound helpful? We lost Jay. All right, well, Jay, thank you for the phone call. Lets hear from Kaitlin(ph) in Happy Valley, Oregon. Hi there, Kaitlin.
KAITLIN (Caller): How are you?
KAITLIN; My situation, Im this happened about 12 years ago. Started a new job, and Im a Im a male-to-female transsexual, though these days I dont think of myself as that. But my experience was - my interview process was kind of haphazard, in a way. I had a friend that was working at one of the universities, and he was able to get me an interview. I interviewed, got the job, and I started. Walked in - almost dressed female the first day, though the only one that really knew was the one gentleman. And within that first two weeks, I came out to my immediate co-workers, meaning supervisor - no one above that - and went through personnel and made the changes.
Now, Ive really tried to put the people around me first. And I told each of them that because I came out to each of them separately, and really said if you had any questions, if you have any concerns and I really tried to play down what I was doing, you know? I really tried to fit in.
But over the roughly 11 years I worked with that organization, I rarely got any negative feedback or heard anything behind my back that a lot of people knew, because I did it so quickly.
KAITLIN: And most people within the organization really strictly knew me as Kaitlin. They never really had a chance...
KAITLIN: ...except for a handful of folks there, in that first couple of weeks. But it was hard.
LUDDEN: If youd waited, do you think it would have been even harder?
KAITLIN: I think so, though the organization in general - about a month after I started, there was a big announcement because there was a female-to-male that actually worked in my general - larger department. And there was a note that came out from the president, how we needed to be respectful and all of that. So when I saw that, I thought, well, I think Im fine.
KAITLIN: But yeah, it was difficult. I mean, there were each day Id go in to work and say, okay, I've got to talk to, you know, this one or that one.
LUDDEN: All right, Kaitlin, I need to interrupt you just to say, youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Kaitlin, thank you so much for that call. Beverly Kopf, youve talked about, you know, Chely Wright, the country music singer, coming out in this very conservative, Bible Belt atmosphere. Do you know anything about her - you know, reaction from the record label, her music contracts?
Ms. KOPF: Well, its part of her story that she took some time off and actually did not stay with the same music label when she was having her hits in country music, and went instead to an independent label, Vanguard EMI. And so shes really positioning herself now as a singer-songwriter. Her latest album is definitely in that genre of singer-songwriter.
And also, she was able to get a book deal with Random House. And so she came to New York to write her book because she felt that she couldnt really connect to that deeper story that she was telling in the Nashville atmosphere.
So she has a lot of contact still with Nashville, but its not through her, you know, through her label...
Ms. KNOPF: ...or anymore.
LUDDEN: Okay. We we have time for just one more, very quick, brief phone call from Scott, whos been waiting in Phoenix, Arizona. Scott, whats your story?
SCOTT (Caller): I am a former teacher, and its interesting that your guest brought up coming out to a student because thats something that I never would have dreamed of doing where I was teaching. I was teaching in the Midwest, in a very conservative school district. And teaching is one field that definitely it really depends on what district youre in, and what area.
There was another teacher not too far from where I taught, who actually did not come out of work, but he had a union ceremony that somebody from school found out about somehow and word got out and there - the religious conservatives in the area mounted a huge campaign to get him fired. They sent out some - one person paid for DVDs to be made and mailed to every parent in the district.
SCOTT: With, you know, typical anti-gay footage of, you know, some of the more extreme things in pride parades...
LUDDEN: So still a risky, a risky move there. We've got to leave it at that, Scott. Thank you for the call. We have been joined by Beverly Kopf, who's the co-producer and co-director of "Wish Me Away," with her partner, Bobbie Birleffi. She joined us from our studios in New York. And also, Greg Miraglia is dean of career education at Napa Valley College in California. His new book, "American Heroes: Out from Behind the Badge," is out in January. Thank you both.
Mr. MIRAGLIA: Thank you, Jennifer.
Ms. KOPF: Thank you very much, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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