You don’t come out just once – each time you change projects or teams, or start a new job, you come out all over again. And each time can feel just as scary as the one before.

I’ve been out since I was 18. Yet when a client or someone outside of my team asks what I did over the weekend, it can still give me pause. Is it OK to say my girlfriend and I went out to dinner? In every workplace, the answer has to be yes. But the reality can be surprising.

Earlier this year, I launched our exciting Power of Allies video project. The goal was to promote inclusion by showcasing LGBTQ+ supporters. We welcomed submissions from those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and plus. Equally important, we welcomed those who don’t. Allies are an incredibly powerful source of support for the LGBTQ+ community. The response was overwhelming. Dozens of co-workers from 15 countries submitted footage.

Hiding In Plain Sight

I was also moved by those who told me they wanted to participate but felt they couldn’t. Coworkers – in progressive countries such as Italy and Germany as well as more conservative nations like India – reached out to share both their support for the video and their fear of participation. They worried what colleagues would think or feared being perceived as gay.

Sadly, fear of openly supporting the LGBTQ+ community isn’t just a company issue; it’s a societal one. LGBTQ+ discrimination is a significant workplace issue. In the U.S., 46% of LGBTQ+ individuals say they remain in the closet. In the EU, two-thirds say they’ve heard or seen negative comments or conduct toward a colleague perceived to be LGBTQ+.

To avoid discrimination, members of the LGBTQ+ community often downplay aspects of their authentic selves, according to research from Catalyst. They hide personal relationships or alter the way they dress or speak. One of five report feeling exhausted by the energy spent to conceal their sexual orientation.

The Role of Allies

It’s not always clear what allies can do, but their role is important. Here are steps we can all take to ensure everyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels more welcome and open to sharing their true selves. 

  • Be visible. Open, wholehearted support is one of the most important contributions an ally can make. Visible yet subtle solidarity can come in the form of simple gestures, like adding the rainbow flag to your email signature or the logo of a supporting organization or network. For me, knowing – and seeing – that my coworkers are accepting of others enables me to be myself. It frees me to put all my energy into doing my job and helping others.
  • Don’t be a bystander. Feeling valued in the workplace matters more to employees than pay. So it’s up to all of us to step up and recognize everyone’s contribution. Ask LGBTQ+ colleagues what support they need, and act on what you hear. Take a stand against jokes and insensitive comments. Once at an office holiday party, a corporate partner asked me an incredibly intimate question having to do with sexual behavior. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to say. After a few embarrassingly long seconds, I simply walked away. Several directors standing nearby heard the conversation – and said nothing. One person speaking up would have made a world of difference. Be there when it matters.
  • Read up! LGBTQ+ history is fascinating. Learn why Stonewall matters so much. Be moved by a trans coworker’s coming out story. Stay up on language. That last one is important: Like any community, LGBTQ+ has its own terminology and phrases that evolve over time. (Remember when queer was a slur?) Get educated about language that’s preferred and acceptable and avoid assumptions so you can better listen to and support colleagues.

June is LGBTQ+ Pride month. Every year, events are held around the world to celebrate our community. This year, COVID-19 restrictions have postponed or canceled gatherings, but Pride marches on. Our celebrations have gone virtual, with organizations around the world hosting Global Pride on June 27. At Cognizant, we’re throwing a Pride-themed virtual bake-off.

I’m proud of who I am. I’m reminded of that every time I come out to someone new. Let’s make our workplace welcoming for all who are still building the courage to find their own voice.

Shelley Tiltman

Shelley Tiltman

Shelley Tiltman is a Senior Manager for Employee Experience and Inclusion at Cognizant, based in London. She can be reached at Shelley.Tiltman@cognizant.com... Read more

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