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A Pride Fireside Chat: Coming out at work and how to support LGBTQ+ colleagues 

A Pride Fireside Chat: Coming Out at Work and How to Support LGBTQ+ Colleagues

Jun 30, 2022 11 min readOpen
Photo of Katie Gilmur
Katie Gilmur

DEI Manager @ Buffer

Pride month is celebrated annually in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots, and the work towards equality for the LGBTQ community. In June of 1969, patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City responded against police harassment and persecution, resulting in the historic uprising. These riots marked the beginning of LGBTQ movements globally, and is part of why we have Pride celebrations around the world.
This year, in support of Pride Month, we are pleased to share a Fireside Chat with four LGBTQ Bufferoos. Here’s more about each of them and the labels they use to describe themselves:

Dave Chapman, Senior Customer Advocate, “I would simply say gay, I'm a gay man. If anyone asks any further, then my pronouns are he/him/his, and I'm a cisgender gay man.”

Julia Cummings, Senior Customer Advocate, “I would say queer or bisexual. I think queer might be more all encompassing for me.”

Diego Sanchez, Senior Product Manager, “I'd go with just gay.”

And myself, Katie Gilmur, DEI Manager, “I most identify with the label pansexual, or ‘lesbian leaning pansexual’, but I also use the labels queer and lesbian.”

A note on labels: Idealistically, I envision a world where we don't need labels, however, I recognize how immensely helpful they can be. I view sexuality as a spectrum, and sometimes people move within that spectrum. Labels can help people find community and give a sense of belonging and identity. They also can inadvertently create boxes that define someone and how someone should be, which can feel limiting. Sometimes these labels cause other people to make assumptions about how we should show up in the world, and they might cause us to hold ourselves to certain expectations or stereotypes, which could limit our own self discovery. It’s also important to remember that people might adjust their labels throughout their life, and language evolves to where different labels might resonate at different levels at different times.

This fireside chat was an opportunity for us all to celebrate Pride month, feel more connected to our teammates, and learn more about the lived experiences and perspectives of a few members of the LGBTQ community. Our intention in this chat was to share real, vulnerable perspectives that include the full spectrum of emotions and experiences. You’ll see that we each have many differences and similarities within our LGBTQ experiences, providing a beautiful opportunity to witness and learn from one another.

This is an edited transcript from a live video chat.

What was coming out like for you? If you're out in all areas of your life, was it different for you in your personal life versus work?

Dave: Coming out in my personal life felt like delivering bad news to my family. It was really awful to go through. At work, I’d gradually felt more and more comfortable telling people about my sexuality as I grew more confident in myself and as society improved. Some anxiety still pops up from time to time, regarding personal safety, however it's not due to fear of what someone might think of me. I feel secure that my value isn't based on other people’s opinions of me, my sexual orientation, or my relationships.  

It’s important to remember the coming out process happens constantly, especially depending on your environment and how you express yourself in the world.

Julia: I never had a big coming out, but I’m very open to having conversations with people as they find out. I feel like I still have a lot I am discovering about myself, so sometimes I feel awkward talking about my sexual orientation because I don't feel I have all the answers. I’ve considered myself as part of LGBTQ community for the last 2 years, but my path was paved over the past 13 years because of my dads journey. When my dad started a relationship with a man, people questioned his sexual orientation. I always felt that it didn’t necessarily matter - he was with a man now and happy.

It’s true that you come out every day. I don't always directly come out to people, and I feel a bit nervous telling people I am seeing a couple, although I’m open to talking more about it if asked. I feel the impact of bi-erasure as well. I don't have many bisexual friends, and it's very hard to know who is bisexual. I recognize, people probably perceive me as straight since I have mostly dated men and been in long term partnerships with men in the past.

Diego: Coming out for me was pretty rough. I basically made a decision and I said, When I come out, I'll come out, and it's just like, there's no turning back, and I'm just going to do it. If I have to move out, I'll move out. If I have to do whatever, I’ll do it. I was very set in coming out and assuming whatever was ahead of me. I didn't know what to expect.

I was very inspired by what are called ‘militant gays’. I had read a lot about the very courageous folks that led to the revolution that led to us being here today. I read a lot about the AIDS crisis and about the Stonewall riots and absolutely all these amazing folks that fought for our rights. I think they had an almost militant attitude - that's how I felt at the time. I figured like if I'm coming out, I'm going to firmly be myself, which would also support people that come out after me. I wanted to give them an example of someone who's tough, who doesn't act a different way because of society, who doesn't hide anything. That was hard because after I came out to my family, I had other family members calling me, telling me to reconsider it, and to not come out so publicly. Telling me to tone it down. I was like, no, sorry, I'm not doing that.

Shortly after coming out to my family, I started working at a big company and my parents suggested I refrain from coming out at work, thinking it would be better for my career. I was decidedly against that idea, and was set on coming out in all aspects of my life no matter the consequences. I worked at a big call center where there were about 1200 employees, but there was no gay representation. I wanted to be an example for everyone else that it's okay to be gay at work. I mustered the courage to do what I hadn’t been able to do in high school, and came out at work.

My boss was very supportive and I was in a position where I was not willing to accept any homophobia at all, so people were actually very nice. I think people perceived that firm energy and responded to it well - everyone was very respectful. They invited my partner and I to parties and other activities. I never experienced any homophobia in what I would expect to be very homophobic environment.

Once I came out, it was like a switch, and I never looked back. I decided I’m not changing for anyone, and I wasn’t going to let my perception of myself be affected by what they think.

Katie: I first want to mention the privilege that I had on my coming out journey. I didn't feel that my life was at risk in a major way, which is something I want to acknowledge because not everyone is lucky enough to have that experience.

I didn't come out until I had a serious partner. I didn’t come out by telling people I was queer, but instead just introduced people to my partner. Because of this, my coming out journey was more gradual, rather than a big moment. I do remember my mom asking if I was experimenting and just in a phase, which was really invalidating and frustrating at the time because I was deeply in love. However, she quickly got up to speed with everything and she's super supportive now.

Coming out at work was different for me. I used to be incredibly private about my personal life at work, which is a bit amusing to reflect back on because I’m really authentic at work now! I didn’t come out at my first job out of college because it wasn't a safe space. My best friend worked with me at the time, and we were really close (and still are!). My manager would sometimes harass me, making jokes about my friend and I dating or being gay because we would spend a lot of time together. It didn't make me feel safe to actually come out and say who I was actually dating at the time, so I never did while at that job.

All those little comments and microaggressions send loud messages regarding the level of safety that exists within an organization, especially when they come from people in power. I can directly correlate my comfort levels being out at work with how accepting the company is as a whole. Buffer is hands down the most LGBTQ inclusive organization I’ve been with, and I definitely feel the positive impact that has.

I do want to acknowledge that coming out can be a daily practice. The pansexual label tends to resonate most because I am attracted to people based on energy and soul connection, however most of my serious relationships have all been with women. Since I was in a 10 year lesbian relationship, I have been perceived as lesbian for most of my adult life. But we can’t assume another’s sexual orientation based on the romantic relationships they are in, leading to issues such as bisexual erasure. While I now feel very grounded in my identity and those mini coming out moments don’t phase me anymore, it is important to remember that LGBTQ people - especially those who identify under the bisexual+ umbrella - often have to justify their sexual orientation on a regular basis.

I still do think about my perceived sexual orientation when traveling to regions that have legal risks for the LGBTQ community, or being in a place where I feel there could be a physical safety issue. It might cause me to check myself a bit more, be more aware of my surroundings, and be extra protective of my partner. We have to remember that no matter how out and proud someone is, there can still be very real risks they have to mitigate on a regular basis.

What is something that you wish your coworkers knew about supporting the LGBTQ community at work, or something that would have felt or could currently feel supportive to you in relation to your experience as someone who is LGBTQ?

Dave: The fact that we've created an environment intentionally at Buffer that is inclusive for people who are LGBTQ is such a big first step, and I think that should be the case, even if nobody has come out. It is so important to know that you can come out and that you are accepted for that part of your identity, even if it's not necessarily directly related to your work. Your sexual orientation can, for a lot of people, feel like a very private, inherent part of who you are. However, for me, it certainly is something that is expressed in my lifestyle and my social life and also the person who might pop up in the background of a Zoom call and that kind of stuff. To know that just on that basic, simple level, it is fine, feels huge to me. It means so much when people have these types of inclusive conversations with me.

For example, my husband's name is Tod, and people at work will ask ‘how is Tod doing’. Anyone that has met him or knows him will brings him up in conversation. I cherish that so much that he is part of general small talk, and it might seem small, but it leaves a big impact.

I also want to mention that some people are questioning or in the early part of their journey, and you might not know it when talking to them on a Zoom call, or whatnot. It isn’t just those who are out who need support, and everyone can benefit from a supportive, inclusive environment at work.

Julia: I think that we're all part of the human experience has so many facets to it. It's not just LGBTQ, it's your family, it's your friends. It's like things that are so hidden sometimes of like, are you going to have kids? What is that going to look like for them? Where do you live? What's your religion? And I think whether you identify as part of the LGBTQ community or you're questioning or you just want to support your friends and family, it's like we all have so many parts of our lives that go into it.

What I wish other people knew is the openness and the questions that you ask mean a lot for the people that you're talking to. Don’t assume you know someone's journey or what it looks like. Be mindful of the small things, such as leaving assumptions about gender open ended. For example, if you hear someone mention they are going on a date, don’t immediately make assumptions about the context. Being aware of little things like that can make a big difference for your coworkers or community. We all have so many parts of our journey, and it's been awesome hearing the different elements that we all have gone through. And there's so much more that we can’t cover here as well!

Diego: I think Buffer is a great organization in terms of being able to bring our whole selves to work. I feel very lucky, privileged and grateful to be able to be myself at work. I think in the past, something that was draining was having to act like when I was in the closet, just having to have one public persona, but my true self was hidden. I think that was bad for my mental health, it hurts and it's hard.

I just wanted to say that we should continue to work towards creating an inclusive environment where people can really bring themselves to work. I think in order to continue getting better, we should look up, not down, and always be leaders in the industry. That means continuing to educate ourselves, especially when it comes to unconscious biases. Ensuring company benefits are inclusive, and being mindful of inclusive conversations.

But we can’t stop there. We must think about how we can continue to make the world better and more inclusive. I think we can do that by educating ourselves, having a genuine curiosity for understanding how other people’s lives might be different from your own. Don't assume that the way you look at life is necessarily the way someone else looks at life.

Katie: I've never felt more comfortable being out, being transparent and authentic than I have at Buffer, and that's a really beautiful thing.

If your company hasn’t created a safe place for LGBTQ teammates to bring their whole selves to work, start there. Then, you can take it further and dig into unconscious bias and how that plays into the success of LGBTQ employees, to ensure they're not having to work harder to achieve the same success as others.

I also want to mention that it is important to be aware of how intersectionality and our multiple identities can have compounding effects. Intersectionality shows us that social identities work on multiple levels, resulting in unique experiences, opportunities, and barriers for each person. Personally, I'm a disabled queer woman, and those identities can impact me both collectively and individually, in different ways at different times. You can’t always assume someone’s identities just by looking at them, especially over Zoom, so it’s important to create a safe space for authenticity, while becoming aware of the places where we hold power, and where we lack power, which can help us address bias more easily.

Wheel of Power/Privilege - Buffer, LGBTQ Fireside Chat

Thank you for being open to hearing more about our experiences in the LGBTQ community. If you are someone who is queer or questioning, and would like support, please feel free to reach out to any one of us via Twitter. - Dave, Julia, Diego, and Katie

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