Coming Out Day: From Chick-Fil-A to the Corporate World

“I need to talk to you.” Six words said at work that sent my pulse rushing, my heart beating against my chest. This was it: I was going to be fired for being gay.

Today is National Coming Out Day, a day when many in the LGBTQ+ community celebrate their journeys of self-discovery and, in time, acceptance. Often, those roads are filled with bumps – both good and bad. This year, it takes on greater importance as the United States Supreme Court hears oral arguments on whether workplace discrimination of LGBTQ workers will be considered unlawful.

The first time I felt unsafe at work was in 2011, when I was working at Chick-fil-A in my home state of South Carolina. The stories about the company’s anti-LGBTQ donations had started to gain national attention, and I had just come out to a colleague for the first time.

I was just starting my shift when my supervisor pulled me aside for the aforementioned “talk.” It turns out the general manager was looking for me to discuss some rumors that were going around.

Immediately, I knew what had happened. My trust had been broken.

I followed my supervisor to the trash room (because where else do you talk privately in a quick-service restaurant without other staff or guests hearing?). She let me know someone had been telling people that I was gay. Fortunately, this supervisor and I were close and she wanted me to know that information was being shared around staff who weren’t so friendly. Fortunately, she was telling me as a friend – not a boss.

A sense of relief rushed over me. I wasn’t being fired — but the implicit warning in our talk was clear: be careful who you tell.  Be wary of leaving the closet. After all, the company is well-known for its stance on LGBTQ issues, and we were living in the South. I ultimately quit, just before Mike Huckabee’s anti-LGBT protest went on to be named “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” the next year.

That moment of panic and the feeling of my trust being broken — of my story being told by someone else — has stuck with me as I moved from fast-food into the professional world. The thing about coming out that no one tells you is that it never stops. But it does get easier.

Harvey Milk said it best in 1978:

“Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them,  but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.”

Today, I’m fortunate to  work at a company that has never made me feel like I have to hide any part of myself. Sadly, I know all too well that many people can’t say the same.

As we celebrate National Coming Out Day, there are a few ways organizations can create inclusive workplaces that make coming out and being our authentic selves a little bit easier:

  • Let employees mention their personal relationships on their own: I’ve heard horror stories from friends and family of employers accidently outing new employees before they’ve even started at the company. It should always be up to the employee to share information about their sexuality at work. Whether talking to other employees or bonding with clients, take the employee’s lead.
  • Listen: Every employee has a different story. Take advantage of the power in diversity and let those stories influence new ideas and ways of thinking to solve business challenges.
  • Embrace preferred pronouns: Leaders can set the stage by noting their preferred pronouns in email signatures and professional social media bios.
  • Provide options for affinity groups: For large organizations, creating affinity groups where employees can bond over shared experiences and backgrounds might have a huge impact on corporate culture, while allowing employees to find a safe space to be themselves and bond with other coworkers. For smaller organizations, regional industry groups and affinity groups offer an alternative solution.
  • Implicit bias training: The only way to fight bias in the workplace is to actively recognize when implicit bias might cloud judgement. Human Resources teams should train all employees in implicit biases through regular training and refresher reminders.
  • Don’t wait until you have out LGBTQ employees to create the right culture: Building a truly inclusive workplace goes beyond any one demographic. It’s about creating a safe and welcoming place for all to get work done and harness individual potential. Take steps to establish a culture that embraces diversity of all types. This sets the foundation for employees to feel comfortable and avoids actions being taken that look like playing catch-up, or responding in a way that makes an employee feel singled out.
  • Trans guidelines for transitioning: Create guidelines and policies for how the company will help employees who embark on a transition to ensure the process is smooth and seamless, providing them the support they may need.

Above all else, allow employees to bring their whole selves to work. Better work happens when employees don’t carry the burden of a closet. And open-door policies go for closets too.