June 23, 2014 — I knew I was gay before I wanted to be kissed, or even hugged, by another girl. I came out to my mom in the sixth grade, crying on my bed, asking her desperately, “What is wrong with me?”
I lucked out big-time. My amazing mom comforted me and said, “Well sweetie, it could just be a phase. And if it’s not, then it’s not.” I knew it wasn’t just a phase, and it was the last time we ever formally spoke about it—from then on I just was who I was. I fondly remember calling my mom a decade later, when I was in college, and nervously revealing that I was dating a boy. My mom was shocked: “Oh honey,” she said, “Does he know you’re gay?! You need to tell him. This must be just a phase.” That time she was right; my heterosexual dabbling was just a phase. Phew!
Given that I came out to my own family at such a young age, I never really thought it would be a challenge to be gay in the workplace. Because LGBT people are not visible minorities, we can sometimes mask our sexual orientation from the public. When I first entered the workforce, I was determined to master this act. I never spoke about my girlfriend or my interest in LGBT advocacy. While I never expected to encounter overt homophobia at work, I still took comfort in not being an obvious “other.”
It took about a year before I realized I needed to be true to myself in my public presentation as well as in my private life. I wanted to cut my long hair. I was coming into a professional style of my own, and I preferred how I looked in more androgynous clothing. But every time I began inching towards my new sartorial identity, I was reminded how I, as a woman, was expected to look and dress. I was given sincere advice that felt mandatory, such as, “Don’t show up at work appointments without a manicure.”
Deep down I knew I wasn’t comfortable dressing within the confines of how the majority of women dressed for work; it just wasn’t me. Because I couldn’t bring my whole self to work, I wasn’t able to be my best self as an employee.
True diversity and inclusion doesn’t just mean not stereotyping women employees because they’re in skirts and high heels; it means guaranteeing everyone the right to self-expression. As long as you meet your company’s standards for professional attire, you should be able to wear your nails, hair, and makeup (or lack thereof) however you want. We should be able to be professionals at work without having to be “ladies” or “gentlemen.”
For me back then, when I was brand-new to the workforce and eager to project the right professional image, I was terrified of being myself.
The good news is, I eventually cut off my hair, refreshed my wardrobe, and hopped on a plane to a new job and a new life in New York City. To be honest, it’s been a funny trade-off. Now that I actually “look like a lesbian,” I occasionally experience more outright hostility from strangers than I did before. But at work, I am finally 100% authentically myself, and I couldn’t be happier. Bringing your whole self to work is an unbelievably freeing experience. I am more confident, creative, positive, and productive than I’ve ever been—and there’s no turning back!
How about you? How do you champion individual freedom in your workplace?