Monday, May 11, 2015

Coming Out (or Not) To Your Co-Workers As a Bisexual Female Engineer

In light of recent news events, I thought that it was important to address the ~10% of the population who is LGBTQ and may be interested in engineering. In a field of work where it can already be difficult to be a woman, it can be daunting to have to figure out how to handle being a member of the LGBTQ community. Since I can only imagine what it is like to have an additional hurdle to jump over in the maze that is the engineering profession, I found a bad ass female engineer (who we'll call Dr. Valerie Green) to tell her story.

Coming Out (Or Not) To Your Co-Workers as a Bisexual Female

“Do you have any fun weekend plans with your boyfriend?”

My heart started beating in panic and I stared at my male coworker sheepishly, not knowing what to say. I had been at my company for a few months, fresh out of school, and I didn’t know much about my coworkers. I wanted to make a good impression and avoid offending anyone, but constantly having to hide your personal life was becoming difficult.

“Um, I actually don’t have a boyfriend,” I decided to settle on.

He scoffed in disbelief. “Ha! Yeah, right.” A moderately attractive female, surrounded by mostly males throughout college and now at work, without a boyfriend? Surely I must jest.

But I wasn’t joking. I am engaged to a woman that I love with my entire being, and I was used to referring to her as all sorts of things — my roommate, my friend, a mysterious, genderless “person” I was dating — but I didn’t want to start off with telling a lie to people that I was going to work with for many years. So I just avoided the topic like it was the head cold traveling around the office.

I thought I was clever when I started at the company and put a picture of her on my desk, holding one of our cats. If anything screams “lesbian”, I thought, it would be that. I could subtly come out and avoid any awkward conversations because people would just assume. But the man in question that assumed I had a boyfriend had seen the picture many times. My coworker sitting next to me just said he thought it was a friend. I asked one of my friends and he said he would have assumed it was my sister. A picture on my desk of a girl, of a different race than me, holding a cat — the first thought that would enter his mind would be “sister”. This was going to be harder than I thought.

When I’m behind closed doors with my fiancĂ©, I forget that she’s female (okay, I don’t exactly forget, I just forget that it’s supposed to be weird). When I step outside, and forget for a second that if I hold her hand, or give her a peck on the cheek, it’s not normal anymore — people start staring and I’m immediately reminded that I have to be conscious of all of my actions. I remember that she’s a girl instantly. It wasn’t this way when I dated men, no, if someone passed you intensely sucking face with your boyfriend they wouldn’t give you a second glance. That stuff happens all the time. Two girls walking down the street, not even making out, but just holding hands? Be prepared for a crowd, whispers, giggles, and random guys yelling “hot!”

But when I’m at work, I am very conscious about my sexuality. I am very ambitious. I want to advance my career. I spent a long time getting my PhD and I am not going to be turned down for a job offer or a promotion because someone feels uncomfortable about my sexual orientation. When we’re all shooting the breeze and talking about our significant others, or our weekend plans, I always make mine very vague. Recently I went on an international trip and one of my coworkers asked “who are you going with?” I responded “oh just friends you know…” and then pardoned myself to the bathroom to prevent the conversation from going any further. I know so much about their lives and I’ve revealed very little about mine. It’s a barrier I long to break, to become human to them — but I can’t. At least, not yet.

There is one coworker I’ve gotten to know decently well; I have spent a little bit of time outside work with him. After some time, I started to feel comfortable with him. I came to learn that he is liberal, about the same age as me, and seems to be very laid back. As scared as I was, I decided to come out to him. He was very taken aback and said he did not see it coming at all, but since then he’s been very supportive, and has told me which people in the group wouldn’t care and which might. And he confirmed that even if they did think something negative about it, no one would actually say or do anything. Even though it wasn’t the entirely positive response that one would hope for, it did make me less afraid to come out to the rest of my coworkers.

There’s also a limit to waiting too long, becoming too distant and fearful that people feel like they might not really know you, and in my experience, people may end up surprising you. I spent four and a half years in an office with a lot of international students that I knew very well professionally but not very well personally. I came out to the Americans in my office almost instantly, and all of them responded positively. Eventually, I started to get close with a Muslim man in my office. As we got closer, I felt that I was lying to him by not telling him about the fact that I was in a relationship with a girl. One day, I took him on a walk. I started to cry. In fact, I started to sob. I thought that there was a chance he wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore. After I told him, he hugged me and told me that he would always be my friend and that nothing would change. Less than a year later, a Chinese girl in the office walked up to me and told me that she knew I had a girlfriend. And that she was happy for me, and that anyone who wasn’t happy for me wasn’t really my friend. That made my eyes watery, because I had hid that fact about me from her for so long, and it ended up not mattering at all. If I could go back and do it all over, I’d have more courage. 

However, there is no reason to jeopardize your future by pissing off someone you don’t know very well yet. Let them know who you are as a person, and that you’re kind, hard-working, reliable, and not scary or gross. Whether we like it or not, first impressions count, and snap judgments are made about you from what people initially know about you. It can either be “Oh, that new girl is a lesbian” or it can be “Oh yeah, I heard Valerie is queer. No biggie." You’re the same person they’ve known and worked with for a while now, there’s just an aspect of their personality that you didn’t expect. Ease them into it. It’s hard not to stand up for what you believe in and to hide a major part of your life, but it’s also hard to bite your tongue when your boss gives you an assignment that you absolutely despise. A lot of things in life are hard. Many people who don’t fully understand the situation will give you poor advice like “just tell them you’re into chicks and if they don’t like it then fuck 'em!” No. Don’t listen to those people. Well, if you don’t value your career that much, then you can listen to those people. But weigh your options. Play it safe until you feel like your group really knows you do good work and that you’re a good person. 

I will come out to many more of my coworkers soon, when the time is right. I’m not going to force it, but I’m not going to hide it, either. 

-Dr. Valerie Green


  1. Lovely story, and one I can very much relate to. I also have worked in an engineering company and found it a little tricky sometimes to talk about my relationship around what are predominantly middle aged men. Though thanks to a co-worker's encouragement, I said "fuck it" and took my (now ex) partner to the company Christmas party and a few other functions and never once encountered any issues. I've talked to a few closer co-workers about my partner in more detail, but I've never been in-your-face about it. I just treated it like it wasn't a big deal, and it so far it hasn't been. I'm sure there are were a few people that got uneasy at work but I have yet to hear so much as a whisper about it from anyone. In fact one of them even made a joke the following year when I brought my current partner to the Christmas Party and said "you brought a different fella this time, I got confused, I thought it must just be my eyes" lol (okay if was funnier in person). In any case, though it can be tricky at times, most people are supportive and really aren't bothered by it.

    1. I'm so glad to hear you had such a positive experience coming out at work, and were able to relate to Valerie's post. I know that it can be a truly scary process.


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