National Coming Out Day: everyone covers

Today is National Coming Out Day and for the past four years I’ve written about being out at my job. This year is slightly different. What if I told you that everyone, not just LGBT people, find themselves periodically in the closet?

Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino have co-authored a paper titled Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion. In it they show research that indicates that it isn’t just LGBT people who are in the closet (or, as they like to call it, covering) at the office. Many other people hide key pieces about who they are in order to fit in.

I’ve had the privilege to hear Christie talk several times. One of the eye-opening examples she gives in her presentations is a white cis-male upper-level executive who hides the fact that his end-of-day meetings aren’t actually with clients but to go see his son’s baseball game — he’s worried that people will think he’s not committed to the business. Another is an African-American woman who spends hours in the morning getting her hair to lay down so that she blends in better with her mostly-white coworkers. It isn’t hard when you broaden the definition to see that all people cover sometimes.

In my own life I have LGBT friends who are still in the closet. I have friends who are suffering from depression but put on their “happy face” for the rest of the world. I have other friends who are polyamorous and unable to publicly be themselves due to societal pressures. This isn’t just theoretical, this is reality.

Covering is just as emotionally and mentally taxing as being in the closet. There’s the self-censoring and remembering “What does this person know? How honest can I be in my answer to their question about my weekend?”1

National Coming Out Day is a time to be open minded and supportive when people, be they friends, acquaintances, or coworkers, start living their authentic lives. We owe them a welcoming embrace ’cause we all know the cost of covering first-hand. For those of you covering, I hope you find a welcoming, friendly place where you can be free to be yourself and bit-by-bit you’re able to broaden that place to encompass your whole world.

1 Again, I can’t write about being out at work without referring you to this wonderful poster created by my good friend John Martin when this topic comes up. A copy is printed out and hanging in my office cube.