In 1996, shortly before I accepted a job as a mechanical engineer at aerospace company Lockheed Martin, friends who worked there advised me to go back in the closet.
They told me that I should hide because everybody at the Sunnyvale, California office was a conservative Republican. They said that I should peel the rainbow flag sticker off the back window of my truck or somebody would smash through it.
They suggested that I stop wearing men’s clothing, so that I might fit in better.
I chose to ignore their advice. I perform best when I can be myself. I knew that changing who I was and how I presented myself would only create new hurdles. I knew that showing up as I am would be so much easier than getting in there, getting comfortable, and then slowly coming out. My attitude was rather practical and all I know. I am here just as I am.
This approach has several advantages.
First, people see me as someone who doesn’t posture and who doesn’t try to play politics. I’m kind of butch looking, and I don’t really look like the corporate type. What you see is what you get.
Because people know that I am open and honest about my life, there is a sense that I can be trusted. I’m not fabricating stories or grandstanding like so many others.
Second, coming out can eliminate many of the hassles that women frequently face with their heterosexual male colleagues. When you say you’re a lesbian it can diffuse any sexual tension. This allows you to have a normal relationship with your male colleagues.
I also find that straight men feel safer around lesbians. Straight men don’t want to tell other men how they think or feel because of rivalry and the pressure of ‘acting like a man’ around other men. And they don’t want to talk to straight women because of the potential attraction and the complications that brings. All my life, straight men have loved to confide in me.
Of course there are some drawbacks to being out. I know that there are closeted employees who avoid me because they don’t want to be labeled gay by association. I don’t begrudge them. I understand that they are dealing with personal issues and that these aren’t reflective of me.
I try to be good at my job and confidant in myself. It’s the best way to show them they too can come out and succeed.
In the past, my sexual orientation has been a matter of discussion. The first time I was promoted to a management position, there was a lot of chatter along the lines of, ‘Oh, they’re hiring bull dykes now.’ Even today I’m sure there are people who talk about me behind my back and who don’t care for me.
But the fact is I’m good at my job and have been promoted six times, and I now oversee a team of 173 people. Even if someone is uncomfortable with gay people, you can win them over with your work. It’s no longer that remarkable to see an LGBT person in a leadership role. Tomorrow it will be even less remarkable.
I work in what was once a traditionally conservative company in a traditionally conservative sector, but one that has drastically changed over the years. On the whole people have proven to be very accepting.
Diversity and inclusion are now business imperatives, although employee opinion follows behind corporate policy. People are accustomed to pictures of my wife in my office, and most of my colleagues have met her on many occasions.
The world is changing quickly, and it’s now more harmful for your career to be in the closet than it is to be out. When you hide a part of yourself people become suspicious and you’re perceived negatively. Either you’re making up stories and lying, which is usually obvious, or you’re not saying anything at all and being evasive, which is equally bad for your career.
Coming out may be stressful in the moment, and each new assignment brings that stress again, but it’s far easier than spending a majority of your life pretending to be someone you’re not.