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'I realized as our thighs rubbed together that I probably shouldn’t tell him I was gay'

Why being asked a question about his 'wife' helped one gay man realize the importance of being himself – especially at work

'I realized as our thighs rubbed together that I probably shouldn’t tell him I was gay'
I'm From Driftwood
Michael Cox

Depending where you live in the world, being out as LGBTI may not be easy. In some countries, it’s positively dangerous.

Even if countries where being gay is legal and rights are protected, we all know that coming out is not a singular, one-off process. We often will find we have to come out again and again.

Sometimes, it just feels easier to keep quiet.

That was the situation that businessman Michael Cox, from Harlan, Kentucky, found himself in on a plane flight a few years ago.

The reason?

He found himself squeezed into a seat next to another man, ‘Who was clearly a businessman, dressed in a suit, salt and pepper hair, much like me. About the same size.’

‘I realized as our thighs rubbed together that I probably shouldn’t tell him that I was gay’

He told the story in a new video from I’m From Driftwood, the unique, online archive of LGBTI voices and experiences.

‘And we were on about a six-hour flight across country, so I was going to be really close to him for about six hours. So as we’re about to make small talk, he asked me about what my wife does.

‘And I realized as our thighs rubbed together that I probably shouldn’t tell him that I was gay. So I actually made up a story about my wife being a school teacher.

‘Now, at the time, my partner was a school teacher, so I just changed the gender. But I told him this story about my wife and literally changed every pronoun for the comfort of him so that we could sit next to each other for that six hour flight.’

After finishing their small talk after about half an hour, Cox says he reflected on the conversation, and his response, for the remainder of the flight. He felt uncomfortable over the fact he had not been honest.

‘I’d really betrayed my own relationship and who I really was. So I decided at that point I wouldn’t do that again.’

‘I knew that that wouldn’t look like I was being authentic’

A few years later, he was reminded of this when he took another business flight, this time for a new firm.

‘I was working for a new employer … headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, the heart of the south. And I was traveling there on business.

‘So it was my first trip to meet my new colleagues – I had been with the company for about two months – and I was flying from San Francisco, California, basically the cradle of the LGBTQ community in the universe, to Bentonville, Arkansas.

‘It wasn’t until I had thought about it as I was on the flight to Bentonville and realized I had a pride pin on my badge that I knew I was going to have to either hide who I really was and take that pin off, or keep that pin in and come out to everyone I met during that visit.

‘My bag was down below the seat in front of me, so I pulled the bag out and I took the pin off. Then I thought about the consequences of doing that in case I ran into anyone who knew I was a member of the ERG [Employee Resource Group] or they maybe would even see the hole in my badge where that pin would’ve been, I knew that that wouldn’t look like I was being authentic.

‘So I put the pin back in. Well, then I started thinking about all the people I was going to meet and what their biases may be against people who are LGBTQ, so I took the pin back out. So then I realized that I may run into people I know from California, so I put the pin back in.

‘So literally for the four hours of the flight to Texas, and then two hours from Texas to Bentonville, Arkansas, I was putting the pin in, taking it back out, until I finally decided right before landing in Bentonville that I needed to have that pin in and be my true and authentic self.

‘My first meeting was with someone who I knew was fairly conservative. I’d read his bio, I’d seen his background, I knew his politics. And so I was really concerned about that first meeting.

‘Literally walking into the building, I was still debating whether to take the pin off or leave it in. I decided to leave it in. He actually turned out to be one of my best relationships.’

Cox says that although the they never discussed his sexuality, or the Pride employee group, ‘he was very supportive of me and my career, and helping me work and network within Bentonville, and remains a friend even until this day.’

Cox took pride in wearing his pin and presenting his authentic self. He felt able to be himself at work.

Half of employees remain closeted at work

A 2014 study by HRC found that around 53% of LGBT respondents in the US are closeted at work.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is helping to change that. More and more of us want to feel able to display a photo of our partner on our desk, as many straight colleagues do. However, change is slow – and many fear that being out at work may impact on their career.

Cox says that the choice of when to come out is a personal one, but suggests if you feel it impossible to be out in your particular workplace, you might want to consider a new job elsewhere.

‘For me personally, I think the act of coming out is something that everyone has to decide when it’s right for them. I think that’s why we see in the workplace a lot of times executives who don’t come out is because for whatever reason they’re not comfortable in being out and being their authentic selves.

‘But I think the decisions behind that are so personal. I think our responsibility is as corporate leaders is to make sure we create environments where whoever you are, at whatever level of the organization, you can be out and proud.

‘If you can’t be your true and authentic self, maybe that’s not the right employer.’

H/T: I’m From Driftwood 

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