SECTION 1 – How Out Do You Want To Be?
Coming out is a personal decision. It is up to you to determine how important it is to be out and under what circumstances. For many people, their sexual orientation is such an integral part of their identity that to remain closeted in the workplace would seem false. Others, however, might prefer to maintain separation between their personal and professional lives, only sharing information about their orientation in their personal lives. Hiding one’s identity could lead to feelings of lowered self-esteem and frustration at leading a dual life; being out could lead to discrimination, harassment, or even the loss of one’s job. There is no “right” answer.
What has been your level of involvement within LGBT activities and the community? Are most of your friends, peers and support networks LGBT-connected? If you have a partner, is he or she out in most situations? The strength of your identification and level of past commitment to the LGBT community may be a deciding factor in whether or not to come out in the workplace and how visible to be. Your attitudes about this are likely to change throughout your lifetime. Each time you change jobs, in fact, you will likely re-evaluate your feelings about being out.
Many people believe that the only way to gain widespread acceptance is to be out and visible, whereas others prefer to express their political beliefs in a less direct, more personal manner. The bottom line is that for now you must decide what is best for you.
The industry to which you are applying for jobs might be more or less accepting of LGBT employees than others, although you should not generalize prior to researching a specific organization. Prior to the interview, you should try to research an organization’s official policies and resources. Use the web sites on the Career Services LGBT Resources Page to look up organizations’ LGBT employee groups, non-discrimination policies, and domestic partnership benefits. Contact the employee group and talk to current staff about the organizational climate, which goes beyond the formal policies. What is it really like to work there?
If your job search takes you to unfamiliar geographic regions, try to find out if the future work site is located in a state, county, city or community that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (which sets a general tone of acceptance, or at least tolerance). There might be regional or municipal workplace groups for LGBT individuals, even if there may not be one for a particular organization; these types of associations are invaluable for networking. In the absence of employee groups, contact bookstores, gay-owned businesses, and the like, to learn more about the region you are targeting. Take advantage of the LGBT networks that are widely accessible through Gay Yellow Pages, online, and so forth. Don’t forget to also contact the LGBT Center at Penn to identify alumni who are willing to provide advice and information to current students.
Should LGBT-related activities be included on the resume? Consider your audience and determine ahead of time how out you want to be. If you are applying for a “gay” job (e.g., lobbyist for the NGLTF), then the LGBT experiences can be an obvious advantage. But what about other types of jobs? The skills you developed as a result of participation in LGBT organizations are likely to be of interest to many employers, although the organizations in which you participated may be viewed with less enthusiasm by some. To help evaluate the policies and climates of various organizations and industries, conduct a bit of research prior to writing your resume.
As with any potentially controversial group affiliation, such as political or religious activities, you will want to weigh the pros and cons of including such information. One strategy is to simply omit any reference to LGBT organizations or activities. Some recruiters, even gay ones, have said that such information can be extraneous, especially if social activities are summarized rather than skills and achievements. If you do choose to include LGBT-related information on your resume, be certain to put the emphasis on accomplishments that are relevant to employers. Highlight leadership, budgeting, event planning, public speaking and organizational skills. While highlighting skills, you might “downplay” the nature of the organization in which you developed those skills. One option is to use an acronym, “LGBA” rather than Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Alliance, but be prepared during an interview to explain what LGBA stands for. Another approach is to list the organization as an “Anti-Discrimination Organization,” and then document your accomplishments from this experience.
Another strategy is the use of a “functional” resume, one that groups accomplishments in student organizations together according to functions/skills rather than by organization name. An example of this would be to list things you do well such as money management, fundraising, and bookkeeping under a heading of “Business Skills.” This provides a way to highlight leadership, planning, teamwork, and other skills, while de-emphasizing where you developed them. Regardless of which strategy you utilize on the resume, you will still need to be prepared for questions during an interview.
As with writing a resume, you should think ahead of time about how out you are ultimately willing to be during the interview process. Preparing for interviews is critical. If you have not yet researched the firm, you should do so before walking into the interview. Once you have information about an organization’s policies and climate, you have additional information to help make the decision about whether or not to come out during the interview. Because an interview is a process of evaluating you, and because you rarely know the attitudes of an interviewer ahead of time, you do run the risk of encountering someone whom might evaluate you negatively (consciously or unconsciously), regardless of company policies.
Depending on the strategies you have used to present LGBT-related activities on your resume, you might have already given the interviewer some indications that you are bisexual, gay, or lesbian. If that is the case, you should be prepared to talk about how your experiences have developed desirable leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills. You do not want to be caught off guard, appearing unprepared or even embarrassed about your background. An interviewer might ask, “I see you were president of LGBA for two years. Can you tell me what kind of organization it is?” If you have decided to be out, you can respond with a simple description. If you have chosen not to come out yet, you may want to refer to it as an anti- discrimination organization and then focus on the achievements as a result of your work.
If you have excluded “gay-related” experiences from your resume, then you might not even mention them during the interview; your focus could be mainly on those experiences already highlighted. Many people decide to wait to come out until after receiving a job offer, when candidates have more leverage, or until after starting a new job, where people can come out to coworkers on their own terms.
You could “test the waters” with an interviewer by asking about the organization’s diversity initiatives – does the recruiter’s reply include mention of issues pertaining to sexual orientation? To be more direct, you might ask, “Can you tell me more about diversity in the workplace and related policies, as they might deal with race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the like?” These should not be your first questions during an interview. Focus on the job and your capabilities first. Make the company want to hire you. After you have convinced them you are the right one for the job, then make inquiries about policies regarding LGBT issues.
Coming out to a potential supervisor and coworkers might seem even more intimidating than coming out during the interview process; after all, you will have to spend a majority of you time with your coworkers. Look for clues around the office do you see any same-gender pictures or information on employee bulletin boards that might hint at the office culture? Is the work group diverse in other ways? Will you be working with lots of other twenty-something employees? In general, “younger” organizations tend to be more comfortable with diversity. In addition, even though it is hard to generalize, certain industries (e.g., many software companies) and certain geographic locations (e.g., San Francisco) are known for being gay-friendly.
In general, it may be best at first to focus on the job, learning more about expectations for your performance, and establishing yourself as a professional. Many people believe that when you are coming out to anyone, in any situation, you should just use your best judgment and comfort level. You might prefer people get to know you first, with the coming out process evolving more from day to day interactions and discussions. The question, “So, what did you do this weekend?” might become easier to answer once you have already established some friendships.
Although some coworkers may choose to avoid your company in more social situations, the majority will simply accept you for the value of your work and your contributions. Again, the bottom line is that you must decide what will be most comfortable to you.