Real questions, real-life responses
Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, is joined by founder and board member of the LGBT Elder Initiative, Heshie Zinman for the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.
I want to come out as an openly gay man at work but I am worried about a negative reaction.
For the last 20 years, I have been the development director for a high-profile, conservative, faith-based nonprofit. I speak at conferences, meet with grant makers and arrange donor gratitude events. I love my job and I am dedicated to the immigration support services my nonprofit provides.
My issue is that I am one of those many early baby boomers who waited until my children were grown up and after my wife passed away, to share my “secret” with my family — I am a gay man. I always have been and always will be. I lived a double life for many years and I cannot spend the remainder of my life living a lie.
I’ve spent the last year letting those closest to me know and I am worn out from the disbelief, shaming and fury of two of my children in revealing my true sexual identity. Now, I wonder if it is OK to come out to some select friends at work. I am aware that there are certain people at my job who delight in denigrating homosexuals (I hear it on a regular basis) and if they know my true status, will turn on me.
Nonetheless, I feel determined to spend the last years of my life as who I am — proudly and with courage. And I’ve recently met a great man and I’d like to invite him to social work events. He doesn’t deserve to be a hidden, shameful secret.
I cannot lose my job, as I was left with many medical bills from my wife’s prolonged illness. I feel hemmed in, stressed out and scared. Can you provide any guidance on how I should approach this personal issue at work?
I don't think I have the “judge and jury” chip in my brain because an employee’s LGBT identity never figures into my assessment of their job performance or in my desire to make friends. Firing or harassing someone because of who they choose to be intimate with (assuming both are consenting adults) is, in my mind, bordering on the insane. It is also none of my business. You do have legal rights to protect you from termination or workplace bias, but I suspect you know this.
You sound like a very talented, skilled and smart person. Unfortunately, even in 2020, these legal rights may not protect you from a hateful backlash. You clearly describe the emotional upheaval and the barrage of abuse to which you’ve been subjected, driven by people who choose to ignore your rights and who you are.
I don’t blame you for being nervous about coming out to your co-workers. You’ve been through many changes of late: the death of your wife, financial concerns, a lack of acceptance from your children and the beginning of a new relationship—all very big deals.
I hope you have a counselor or a caring group that provides you with support. You need and deserve it. Finally, I am not a member of the LGBT community and I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what you are going through. Therefore, I invited an expert on the subject to respond. All my best to you.
Heshie says ...
My name is Heshie Zinman and I am a 66-year-old gay man and I have some thoughts that may be helpful to your situation.
First, I applaud you for coming out to your family. I know how hard that had to be and it is unfortunate that it has not been well received by your children. Hopefully they will come to accept you in time.
Here in the US, the LGBT movement has made great progress since the Stonewall riots of 1969. Although it is true that same sex partners can legally marry, LGBT people still lack the federal protections afforded them by our constitution because of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). We are still subject to discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations. While there is no federal protection against discrimination based on orientation and identity, many state constitutions do have provisions that protect against discrimination.
With regard to your job, you should review your company’s workplace policies regarding discrimination. Are there protections in place that extend to sexual orientation and gender identity? You should also check out laws regarding workplace discrimination in your state, specifically those that protect against workplace discrimination of sexual minorities. But remember, even when there are workplace polices that guard against discrimination, religious organizations often can claim exemptions from them.
My experience has been that if you come out to one person, you come out to all. It is a torment to have to live in the “closet.” But there is a cost associated with coming out and in your case that cost could be dismissal and loss of income. Be judicious in whom you disclose to and remember that coming out is not a singular event; it is an ongoing process. You will find yourself in situations throughout your life where you may want to disclose or not.
Lastly, it sounds like you are a seasoned development professional with many accomplishments. Many progressive social justice, social action, education and human services nonprofits need qualified development professionals. Do some research, find out who they are and where your passions lie, and then consider moving on from your current situation/employer.
Now, your take!
Leslie F. says ... I agree with Heshie, particularly the recommendation that you look to move to another organization. Our staff includes a wide variety of people who are LGBT, including me. You would be welcomed here for your skills, talents, and expertise. The exhaustion from hiding and leading a double life can only take away from you personally. I can't imagine how you could then further the goals of your organization. You can bring your faith with you to a new organization — there is room for that as well.
Also, I recommend that you identify a trusted friend or mentor who can help you navigate what might be a tricky situation. It can be enormously helpful to have one person who is just on your side, no matter what.