Coming out and being out at work is often a choice, and the decision is different for everyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). For some safety professionals in the LGBTQ community, it may not feel safe. For others, sharing this aspect of their identity may feel like an important way to lead by example, encouraging others to be themselves on the job. And some safety professionals simply may not see the need.
These and all other decisions related to coming out at work are valid and to be respected. All organizations need to take steps to create environments where LGBTQ safety professionals can thrive and advance in their careers.
In recognition and celebration of Pride Month — which takes place every June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, an event that brought new visibility to the LGBTQ movement — we spoke with three safety leaders who have chosen to share their LGBTQ identities in professional settings. While their experiences are uniquely their own and do not represent those of all LGBTQ safety professionals, they offer insight into questions and emotions related to the coming out process and how safety professionals who don’t identify as LGBTQ can be strong allies.
- Bryce Griffler (he/him), M.Eng., CSP, is global manager for the safety management program at Amazon Web Services. Griffler identifies as a gay man.
- Morgan Bliss (they/them), Ed.D., CSP, CIH, is an assistant professor and the graduate coordinator for Central Washington University’s safety and health management program. Bliss identifies as a bisexual non-binary individual.
- Bill Geddings (he/him), SMS, CESCP, OHST, CHST, is a senior safety engineer at Zoox. Geddings identifies as a pansexual man.
ASSP: When and how did you come out as an LGBTQ safety professional?
Griffler: I was closeted the first four or five years in the workplace. I would come in, do my job and go home. There was no real strong sense of camaraderie, but I thought that was OK because it was just work. But in 2011, my company’s CEO created a diversity and inclusion advisory council and she was looking for individuals from underrepresented groups to join. I had never done anything with diversity and inclusion before, but I was so disengaged in the workplace at the time, I felt like I had nothing to lose by coming out and applying. This really speaks to just how disengaged people can be if they’re closeted.
Bliss: Despite being in the industry since 2006, I only came out in late 2019 to close colleagues and friends. In late 2020, I decided to be open about my pronoun change from she/her to they/them. By then I had earned my doctorate, and once the prefix “Dr.” could be added to my name and title, I felt more comfortable changing my pronouns. I thought it would be an easier adjustment for others. I put my pronoun change on LinkedIn, in part because I had never met another out non-binary or trans person, and because I figured this was a great way to announce myself.
Geddings: I’ve been in safety 23 years, and I came out nine or 10 years ago at work. Initially I was working in public safety, then later in the construction industry. I was embedded in a hyper-masculine culture, and coming out wasn’t something I even considered. It wasn’t until I went to work for a major corporation with several employee resource groups that I considered coming out.
When I discovered my employer had a pride employee resource group and the previous director of environmental health and safety had been the executive sponsor for the resource group, I had my first “aha” moment. I realized I might be able to safely come out without negative consequences to my career. I sat down with my manager and told her I wanted to attend some of the resource group’s meetings, and she was very supportive. From there, I got pretty involved with diversity, equity and inclusion for LGTBQ professionals at the corporate level.
ASSP: Can you describe what it was like being a closeted LGBTQ professional versus being open about it?
Griffler: Honestly, I don’t think of coming out as a single event. I really feel like I come out almost every single day. Every time I meet a new executive, a new customer or a new stakeholder, I have to make a split-second decision about whether I’m going to come out. I don’t say, "Hi, my name is Bryce, and I'm gay." But if I’m meeting someone for the first time and they try to establish a sense of camaraderie by mentioning my wedding ring and asking me what my wife does, I have to decide whether it’s worth it to clarify that I have a partner — not a wife — and make a guess whether the person will judge me or the company based on that information.
That being said, I found that it was far more exhausting to hide parts of who I am on a daily basis than to sometimes justify making a split-second decision about whether I would come out to a customer. You don’t realize how exhausting covering up your true self is until you’re on the other side of it. You don’t realize how much energy you’re putting into the pronoun game — deliberately ambiguating your partner and their pronoun with the hope that nobody asks any more questions.
Geddings: I was constantly leaving out certain details so people wouldn’t find out. Rather than telling coworkers I went to a movie with my partner, I would say I went to a movie. I was always talking in general terms and analyzing my word choice. I wasn't really telling direct lies, but I was telling lies of omission. When you’re not your true, authentic self, you’re not as productive. You’re not performing at 100% of your full capacity.
ASSP: How have colleagues responded to you being out in the workplace?
Griffler: I received a lot of resistance from my coworkers. People I worked closely with would explain to me that it was inappropriate to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives during work hours. I also had a coworker share with me that it made her so uncomfortable to walk by my cubicle that she took the long way around the office to avoid it. It's not like my cubicle was covered in glitter. I have a photo of my partner sitting on the desk and that's about it. It really started to hit home when I started receiving anonymous mail in the workplace from an individual who was also uncomfortable with me being openly gay. After the fourth or fifth letter, human resources finally decided it was time to address it.
Bliss: When I changed my pronouns on LinkedIn, there was a little bit of positive impact from other LGBTQ people that I met. But mostly, I got a mix of negative messages on social media and experienced online harassment in the form of weird direct messages from people that I'm connected with or connected to through connections and don't know personally. They filled my direct messages with all sorts of interesting commentary and things they could do to cure me of my “problem.” People I see in person are generally cool about it because they knew me before. I’m still the same person. You just change the word you use to describe me. But it’s the complete strangers who offer unsolicited advice.
Geddings: I never had any negative experiences until I wrote an article about coming out for a previous employer’s intranet site. Another employee kept posting unkind and threatening responses to the article, even though the communications team kept removing the comments. Things escalated when I was supposed to present about LGBTQ diversity and inclusion at a series of company events for National Coming Out Day. There was concern on behalf of my employer at the time that if the employee showed up, something bad might happen. They actually inserted plainclothes security guards in the audience. The employee did show up, but fortunately nothing happened. It was the first time — outside of going to work as a law enforcement officer — that I felt like I needed to wear a bulletproof vest to work.
Griffler: It’s very interesting to be in a place where we have an ethical obligation to help people regardless of their background. We have taken an oath, a commitment to act with strong morals and ethics to help people. And those same people we’re helping may turn around and still want and expect our help, but then use some unkind words in the same breath.
ASSP: What do you think LGTBQ safety professionals should consider when weighing whether to come out at work?
Bliss: The benefit of coming out at work depends on your personal support network. It depends on your personal resources and it depends on your personal circumstances. I wasn’t in a spot in my career until recently where I felt that coming out would be acceptable and I wouldn’t be punished for it.
Griffler: Every person is unique. Understand what your organization’s protections are. Does your organization take a strong stance against harassment? Do they have blatant anti-discrimination rules? It’s good to know where you stand if you choose to begin opening up about who you are as a person.
Geddings: It was easier for me to come out at work than in my personal life. I knew that if I came out and it didn’t go well, I could get another job. If I came out to my family members and they disowned me, I couldn’t go out and get a new family. It certainly helped that I had the support of my direct manager. I also knew enough about labor law that if I wasn’t protected, it would at least make an interesting court case.
ASSP: How does having a more inclusive workplace create a safer workplace?
Bliss: The inclusive workplace gets at the concept of psychological safety, which is about trust, respect, candor and transparency. In the book “The Fearless Organization,” Dr. Amy Edmondson discusses how psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking, which encompasses people feeling like they can be their true selves without repercussions. When we protect marginalized groups, it benefits everyone.
Geddings: The reason people stay in the safety profession is because they want to take care of and protect people. How can you protect someone physically and scar them emotionally by not being inclusive and say you’re keeping them safe? Just treat people equally. Maintaining the safety and health of people includes taking care of their emotional well-being.
ASSP: How can non-LGBTQ safety professionals be supportive of their LGBTQ peers?
Griffler: Honestly, the best way to support me is to please speak up in my absence. When you are talking with someone who uses non-inclusive language or says something outright inappropriate, please take action. If it's appropriate, please speak up. If it's a group setting, you might elect to address it later, in private. Remember, they may not know what they don't know! If you don't know how to address it, seek support from management, HR or a member of your LGTBQ network who has been identified as someone who is willing to field these requests. Not all LGBTQ people wish to be consulted on how to handle non-inclusive behavior or language. Knowing that I have allies working for inclusion, even when I'm not around, means the world to me.
Bliss: Yes, speak up when it’s safe to do so. You don’t have to be a social justice warrior on behalf of LGTBQ people. It’s just being the person who stands up and says, “I don’t want to listen to that,” if people around you are saying something inappropriate.
Geddings: Follow the golden rule: Treat everyone like you want to be treated. If we just start with that, that’s a great place to start. There are invisible minorities out there. Don’t hurt people with words. Not everyone in the LGBTQ community is going to be identifiable by appearance. If you exclude or marginalize others, how is that going to make them feel?
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