I’m 19 and slowly coming out to close friends and working my way towards telling my family, but there is a gay guy at my work who is always trying to out me to my other colleagues.

We all go for drinks on a Friday and he always corners me and tries to tell me it’s wrong to be closeted and that I should be open, even though I’ve never told him I’m gay. He says he’s not interested in me sexually but I need to ‘get out there’. He makes jokes about me in front of everyone and says he’s concerned about me and wants me to enjoy being gay but I wish he’d leave me alone.

Do I have to come out at work? What’s the best way to do it? My colleagues are mostly cool but I don’t think I should until my family know and I don’t want it to affect my job. 

Danny, by email

The Guyliner replies: 

The straightforward answer here would be to tell you to go straight to HR, bring up a grievance and have them deal with this guy who is, by all accounts, harassing you. Problem solved, there we go, good luck with it, I’m sure it will be fine.

However. That’s not how the real world works, is it? If I tell you to do that, I feel pretty sure you’ll be overwhelmed at the thought of it, worried this will compromise your privacy even further, make your working life even more stressful or, if you work for a small company with little or no formal HR procedures, think it doesn’t apply to you and shrug that writing to me was a waste of time, and try to carry on as long as you can.

HR stepping in to solve this should be the answer to your issue with the colleague, but it’s not how the world works, not even in 2017. It also doesn’t help with your other questions – you’re not even sure you want your colleagues to know you’re gay in the first place, which would be a certainty were this to get official. Do you have to come out? Should you? So let’s start with the practical stuff first, shall we?

I don’t see you getting the resolution you deserve from management, so you must deal with it yourself.

The situation with your colleague is unfortunate – it’s like negotiating with a terrorist, bargaining for your own privacy. He may even think he isn’t doing you a favour by trying to lure you out of the closet. Depending on his age, he is no doubt remembering the weight of oppression and misery and, if I am being charitable, may well want you to avoid all that.

Thing is, he is probably forgetting just how hard that is, and how, when you are not out, the act of being so can feel terrifying and impossible. So how do you get him to back off and quit it with the inappropriate heart-to-hearts and ill-timed jokes? We live in a culture today where the first instinct is to create a huge fuss, and get official immediately, but bitter experience tells me this would only see you being labelled the hyper-sensitive, uppity gay who can’t take a joke. So you must stay calm and measured. I don’t see you getting the resolution you deserve from management, so you must deal with it yourself.

Sometimes when you find yourself locked in a cage with tigers, you have to talk, not fight your way out. It’s a disturbing, and rather irritating, side-effect of being gay that our coming-out journey is often hijacked by someone else, and that we have to modify it to spare someone’s else’s feelings or to avoid creating a scene.

So while you may feel like smashing this guy’s face in, what you actually have to do is talk your way out of this hostage situation. Thank the guy for his concern, explain to him that you’re not sure what path you’re going to take yet, if any. Tell him that you want to find out at your own pace and that he’d be doing you a massive favour if he just left you to it for a while. Remind him how hard it must’ve been for him back in the day, acknowledge that while the world has moved on, the struggle is no less excruciating. Keep it friendly, but firm.

The sad fact here is you catch flies with honey, not vinegar. Tell him you’re still finding your way, that you need space. Ask him to imagine how he would feel if someone had forced him out before he was ready. Explain how the jokes hurt you, that a true friend wouldn’t do that. This is the truth. With a bit of luck, he will quickly come to the realisation that his behaviour is unkind, inappropriate and serving only his own interests and not yours.

Coming out is seen as the goal for anyone still assessing their sexuality

I don’t know the setup at your workplace, but it might be worth seeking out a colleague you trust and confiding in them about what’s happening. They can keep an eye out for anything untoward and maybe back you up a bit when your would-be outer starts to put the pressure on. Whether he means well or not is irrelevant: he’s still out of order, and your dealing with his politely and reverently is only for your benefit, not his – you are not validating his behaviour, just managing it.

Which leads us on to coming out to colleagues. Should you? Could you? There is, I must confess, an irresistible high that comes from the power of being yourself everywhere, at all times, especially when you’re young. That said, many people like to keep their work and private lives totally separate, so you’re not exactly “living a lie” if you choose not to share it.

It depends on the relationship you have with colleagues now, and the one you want to have in the future. Is being in the closet holding you back in some way? Is it stopping you forming friendships with potential allies? You say you are coming out slowly and your family aren’t clued in yet – what you tend to find is once you tell someone, it becomes more compelling to tell everyone else. You may find coming out at work eases the path to revealing all to your family – it could be a testing ground.

Obviously there are potential complications in the guise of homophobic colleagues or outdated attitudes to what is appropriate (as one of your colleagues is already so valiantly demonstrating), so you must consider your own safety and security first. There are laws to protect you from harassment and organisations like Stonewall or unions who can help you with that kind of info if you get stuck, but we are living in an era of swift, positive change, and I would hope things wouldn’t get that far for you.

Show your encouragement by supporting, not controlling.

Coming out is seen as the goal for anyone still assessing their sexuality, but the truth is you should only do it when you’re ready, and if it feels right for you. It’s an experience that differs wildly from one person to the next, and there is no set timeline or prediction for how things will turn out. Whatever happens, you’re still you – nothing is going to change that.

On a side note, there is a lesson here for all of us when it comes to dealing with others’ sexuality. And it is: back off. You can’t rush anyone’s experience – and why would you want to? Each journey is individual, and moving at its own pace is what keeps it unique.

Sure, you’re enjoying being out and proud, but from the other side of the fence it can be hard to appreciate the difference it can make, that the sacrifices you make along the way can be worth it. It’s no big deal to you now, as you are, but to those yet to come out, it is still everything – don’t devalue it by hurrying them along. Show your encouragement by supporting, not controlling.

Only one key fits the closet door – kicking it down can only causing lasting damage. Stay back, stay out of it.

 

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