I sat down for a cup of coffee this weekend with a friend and colleague. She recently went from being in business for herself to jumping back into the corporate world. Within just a couple of minutes she began to tell me about the person who is training her in this new position. She was saying how she keeps saying things like “We went to the cabin over the weekend,” “the two of us had such a great time on Friday,” etc. So I blurt out she’s playing the pronoun game with you. So my friend says “the pronoun what?” I say it’s funny you should bring this up because I wrote a blog post titled How to Identify and Respond to “The Pronoun Game.”
So I began explaining to her that she’s likely in the closet and while she wants to share details of her weekend with you she hasn’t come out to everyone at work so she’s being cautious by swapping out non-identifying pronouns. Having only known her for a short period of time she is being extra careful how she phrases things until she gets a good feel for the type of person you are. She immediately understood what I was saying and where I was coming from. Her next question was “Well, how do I help her come out?”
The friend I was speaking with is an ally to the LGBT community so she does not have first hand experience of the process of actually having to come out to someone, let alone find a way to aid a co-worker in doing so. She can clearly see her co-worker is struggling with keeping it a secret and really wants her to know that she is open-minded and non-judgmental. In a different post I shared a personal coming out at work experience I had, you can read it here, it may help you see the coming out process from a broader perspective.
My advice to her was to find a subtle way to slip into conversation her previous involvement with the LGBT community. Prior to making the switch back to corporate she was very much involved in helping LGBT couples plan for their financial futures. She’s honest, genuine and was good at what she did. So if she can parlay that into her current work environment she should be good. The real challenge is in doing it in a way that doesn’t offend or upset her co-worker.
Two different scenarios
It is two entirely different scenarios if someone else were in this boat and they were not active or involved in the LGBT community but their only experience was seeing lesbians on TV. If that person were to start a conversation in an effort to make their co-worker feel more comfortable – my bet would be on it backfiring. Can you imagine being in the closet at your job and someone saying to you in casual conversation, “Oh, did you see that lesbian character on CSI last night, she was great, right?” I would imagine that would easily take anyone by surprise.
The truth is when you are playing the pronoun game at work it becomes pretty obvious to those around you over time. In the case of my friend she wasn’t able to pinpoint what was up until I said it but she knew something was off. So you could make it easier for yourself by simply coming out. At the same time you shouldn’t feel forced or pressured into doing so and you need to do it on your time not someone else’s. By merely coming out and admitting that you are LGBT in the workplace doesn’t guarantee it will be easier for you, you could be inviting other challenges depending on your work place, environment, etc.
The alternative scenario is just allowing your co-worker to be herself and when you find the time is right, slip into conversation your previous involvement in the LGBT community. For example, if there is a large LGBT related event coming up perhaps mention in conversation – “I’m planning on going to the Pride Center Awards Dinner this weekend it looks like it’ll be fun. What are you up to?” You are now showing that you are an open minded person but you are not putting your co-worker on the spot where they feel forced to come out. They may or may not out themselves once you’ve demonstrated you are a safe person but you’ve at least put in their mind that you are someone open minded in their work environment. So when they are ready they’ll know they can talk with you. Your candidness may also get them thinking about coming out and allow them to do so sooner than they may have before. There are many variables in these situations and each one will play out differently.
Just respect your co-workers space and right to privacy. Don’t meddle and don’t do or say things that may be put them in an awkward position. Make it known that you are an open-minded person, an advocate for the LGBT community if that’s the case, and let the conversation flow as natural as it is going to from there.
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