Given that Section 377A still exists in our Penal Code, coming out at work poses real risks. We are told again and again that our society is still conservative. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore recently issued a statement that the recent comments by Pope Francis in a documentary voicing support for same-sex civil unions are not considered or admissible as official papal teaching. The message is clear.
There is not much data about LGBTQ+ professionals in Singapore. However, the first ‘Singapore LGBT Workforce Audit 2018’ which polled close to 500 human resource professionals and corporate leaders in Singapore showed promising signs. 57% stated that it was very important for their organization to be regarded as an Equal Opportunity Employer. 47% already have an official Equal Employment Opportunity policy in place.
What is the general sentiment within organisations towards employees or colleagues who are open about their sexual orientation?
- 60% would perceive their employee to be more authentic
- 51% would perceive the employee as having more integrity
- 44% would perceive the employee to be more trustworthy
A whopping 86% stated that their employees’ sexual orientation would not hurt their chances of a promotion or advancement. 74% said that they would not have any trouble accepting and working with an openly gay colleague.
Despite these glowing numbers, many Singaporeans on the ground are still reluctant to disclose any information regarding their sexual orientation. It is not surprising given that 68% of Australians, 46% in the US and 35% in the UK are estimated not out to everyone at work.
A research conducted by the US Center for Work Life Policy disclosed that closeted employees are found to be less likely to deliver the energy, enthusiasm and innovative spirit companies require to be competitive. According to the statistics, you are more likely to feel stalled in your career, less satisfied with your current rate of promotion and less likely to trust your employer if you are still closeted at work. You would be spending precious mental and physical energy trying to prevent any reveal of your orientation. You would also not be able to connect and build rapport as much as you would like to with others. There is a price to pay for the non-disclosure.
Nevertheless, there is no one answer to this issue. There are many factors to consider before you decide to be out at work. Here are some pointers to guide you in your decision making.
Observe and Seek Information
Does your company have any official Equal Employment Opportunity policy in place? Has there been anyone who has been out within the same setting yet is still successful and dignified? What is the attitude of your leaders towards the LGBTQ+ community, both in public and in private?
Beyond the formalities, it is always good to increase our situational awareness. I have always paid attention to the corporate culture and values in every organisation that I interact with. Since the day I started work, I would look out for instances where someone has been told to dress in a more feminine or masculine manner. I would also prick my ear to LGBTQ+ jokes and note the responses of others who were present.
Engage Consequential Thinking
This is the most common way of approaching the issue as to whether you should be out at work. What would be the risks and rewards, both in the long and short term? Does this affect others, especially your family members who are your dependents? What is the worst case scenario and can you stomach it? Will you lose your job and do you have enough savings to tide yourself through? Will you still remain dignified? Can you still feel safe? Are you liable to lose your practice license? Are there stakeholders that might potentially make coming out a huge risk?
I was not always ready to come out and once, I even had to contend with putting on a saree for a competition at work. I believe I looked hideous because I was muscular and my masculine energy was just bursting out. I was plain awkward on stage but I did not feel safe to decline or to be out then. It was a judgment call I made because I was just not ready to face a backlash.
It is best to find out the general sentiment of an organization even before we agree to join them. However, sometimes there is no way to find out prior to being employed or if they are our clients. If so, it is good to tune in to them; what are they feeling and what do their feelings mean? Are you able to respond with empathy? Perhaps you are their first encounter with an LGBTQ+ individual.
In such cases, it would be wise to focus on what we have in common and how we can relate to one another more effectively. Another question to ask is whom can you reach out to for support? Whom are you comfortable with and how do you want others to feel around you?
When I first came out, I started with my inner circle of colleagues whom I had observed to be trustworthy and non-judgmental. I remembered that for some close colleagues, they did the asking first. I was glad that the ones I am comfortable with did the asking, they gave me a chance to be myself. I would never forget the sense of relief when I did the disclosure. One at a time, they became my advocates and I was liberated. It is really much easier to be out when you have good rapport with others. When you set the stage for positive outcomes and proactively engage others, coming out is almost like a natural process.
There were also others whom I do not feel quite as ready to come out to and I prefer to stay ambiguous of my sexual preference. Towards these colleagues, I would respond with another question such as ‘what do you think?’, ‘does it matter?’ or ‘may I know how is this question relevant?’. When you are out to some but not all in your life, it is truly quite a challenge to keep things under wrap given we live in a tiny country and the prevalence of social media. This may cause some anxiety, if not a lot.
Self Mastery and Resilience
What are your own underlying belief systems about your identity? If you decide to be out at work, are you ready and resilient enough to work through any obstacles that would be in your way? What unnecessary elements can be ignored?
I’m still learning how best to manage conflicts and how to find the best solutions. My take is that these challenges are a normal part of healthy, meaningful existence. I constantly ponder about the possibilities I can create in my world and take baby steps towards them.
Instead of playing at the sidelines, I strive to be a role model to paint the way forward. I work on the energy that I am radiating out and on the way I communicate. It was a journey that I took correcting my own perception of myself. I can only advocate for myself when I am confident and have accepted myself fully. There is no way for others to accept you if you still think of yourself as a freak or abnormal. I am on a continuous learning journey and I believe that we can educate the people around us how to interact positively and professionally despite our differences. Even so, I maintain a realistic optimism. Being able to let go of the need to be defensive and developing an unbreakable self-esteem definitely helps on this journey.
Creating and Evaluating Options
Coming out is not a binary choice. There are a myriad of ways that we can come out and at various timings. What options can you create for yourself then? What do you hope to achieve by coming out? What values are important to you and are your choices aligned with the values you want to uphold? What will matter when you are on your deathbed?
I work with many conservative seniors and I often spoke about my partner. I use the term partner because it is more gender neutral and acceptable than calling her my wife. I am careful about managing this issue because I would like to uphold the value of integrity and I do not wish to make anyone feel like they have been lied to. At the same time, I do prioritise harmony and I do not wish to make anyone feel too uncomfortable. To me, trust and acceptance is a gradual and progressive process.
Having deliberated on all the above, you would need to set your priorities. Decide what is important as you evaluate the options against the constraints and journey at a pace that you feel safe and comfortable with. It is never too early or too late to come out at work and you do not have to come out at all if the conditions are not right. All you need to do is trust your inner wisdom.
Achieve Group. Singapore LGBT Workforce Audit 2018. https://achievegroup.asia/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Singapore-LGBT-Workforce-Audit-2018-by-Achieve-Group.PDF?fbclid=IwAR0cj9pejQuWek0d5Kcv8w2ZZB_kS5X9AFMaMI3qKmM2uxk9L7eukS2Wr1M
Human Rights Campaign. A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide. https://www.hrc.org/resources/a-workplace-divided-understanding-the-climate-for-lgbtq-workers-nationwide
Stonewall. LGBT in Britain: Work Report. https://www.stonewall.org.uk/lgbt-Britain-work
About the Author
Dean Ng is a Transformational Health and Award Winning WildFit® Coach. She is on a mission to facilitate personal growth and development within the LGBTQ+ community by raising awareness and transforming our approach towards health and aging. She is especially passionate about nutrition, stress management and quality relationships. She has served in the Singapore Police Force for 20 years and has amassed a wealth of experience including resilience building and trauma management. With her background in gerontology and nutrition, Dean dispenses up to date practical knowledge that empowers a global community of impactful achievers to experience their peak health, re-examine their purpose and create a legacy. She supports her clients through crisis and struggles to redesign life with new found zest, redefine aging, their relationship with food as well as with their body and others around them. Connect with her here.
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