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6 Sep 2010

Out at work

Many people who are out as gay, lesbian or bisexual to their friends and families may still face a dilemma about whether to come out at work. Former schoolteacher Otto Fong, social worker and trainer Leow Yangfa and businessman Joshua Yim share their personal experiences.

Making a decision to disclose one’s sexual orientation to one’s colleagues is often not an easy one as many worry that being openly gay may harm their job security and/or promotion prospects. However being out would alleviate the stress of living a secret life or having to make up and keep track of non-existent opposite-sex partners, or changing the pronouns of your same-sex partner as many closeted gays and lesbians are known to do.

Join Otto Fong, Leow Yangfa, Tan Hui Yee, Joshua Yim; and laywer George Hwang at Out At Work on Sept 12 as they discuss sexuality at the workplace and workplace diversity policies respectively. The event is jointly organised by Free Community Church, Oogachaga and Blackilocks Events; and will be held at FCC, 56, Lorong 23 Geylang Level 3, Century Technology Building (Singapore).

Fridae spoke to Otto, Yangfa and Joshua, and had them share their thoughts on coming out and pointers for consideration for those who are planning to come out at work.

Otto Fong

Otto Fong came out publicly via his blog when he was a teacher in Raffles Institution. After intense public scrutiny subsided, he was allowed to remain in his job. Otto is now a fulltime comic artist. His Science comics Sir Fong's Adventures In Science has just been mentioned by the Singapore Straits Times as a Children's Bestseller.

How I came out

Three years ago, when still a teacher in Raffles Institution, I came out to my colleagues via my blog. It attracted national attention. My school did not terminate me and I continued teaching in RI until the end of the year, after which I decided I would like to pursue my dream of being a comic artist.

How coming out changed my worklife

Life has been amazing since I came out. Since my first impulse is no longer to cover up, I am able to have deeper relationships with friends, collaborators and family. My mind is free to focus on my career and life. Also, I knew I made a difference.

When is one ready to come out

Everyone is different, so only you yourself will know for sure when you can come out. It's like taking an exam – you know when you've done enough homework, you're still nervous before the exam, and yet you know you can at least pass!

Choosing the first person at work to come out to

The most obvious are those who already talk about their other gay friends. But I think choose those whom you want a better relationship with – at least then you're passionate about being honest with them.

1. Do your homework and know the chances of your survival – since you're gay, "Coming out" is an exam you're more likely to ace, it's like participating in a quiz show with questions about Glee or Madonna.

2. Build a strong support group – friends, your partner, your family, close colleagues

3. Come out to at least one of your family members first – if you can't do that right, forget about coming out at all. As long as you fear your family knowing, there's always a fear that someone else will tell them.

Leow Yangfa

Leow Yangfa has spent most of his adult life volunteering or working in the social services sector. After graduating with a degree in social policy in 1999, his first full-time job was in a statutory organisation, co-ordinating and developing social services run by voluntary welfare organisations in Singapore. He's since acquired qualfications in social work, and is now working in a local non-profit charity where he functions as a social worker and trainer. His coming out story was featured in Singapore Queers 21, and is out to his family, friends, colleagues and anyone else who cares to know.

How I came out

“I like my job. And I’m out at work.”

Understandably, not many people can say those words and truly mean it, but I can think of few things worse than hating your job or having to pretend to be someone you’re not, in a place where you spend more than half your waking hours.

At my first job after graduation 10 years ago, I was semi-closeted; so was my boss. In my current job, my sexual orientation is a non-issue. As a social worker, and in my role as training and volunteer co-ordinator in a non-profit social service organisation, I work in a people-centred environment where differences are respected, even celebrated. As an organisation, we pride ourselves in our diversity, even as we have a non-judgemental attitude towards our clients and each other.

My colleagues already knew I was gay by the time I gave them complimentary copies of Singapore Queers 21 in which I shared my personal coming out story. I talk openly about homosexuality with the volunteers I work with when the need arises. We have invited Bryan from Oogachaga to talk about GLBTQ issues as part of our training. When I conduct professional workshops, I would occasionally role-play a “gay client” so as to add realism to the learning.

When is one ready to come out

Still, being comfortable about yourself and who you are is an essential pre-requisite for coming out to others. And certainly, you have the final say about whether you wish to come out to your colleagues. Work is different from your private life, and you may want to keep the two separate. But for me at least, one of the reasons I still enjoy going to work is because they all know I’m gay, and it doesn’t matter.

Joshua Yim

Joshua Yim is the founder and CEO of the ACHIEVE Group of companies, which provides human capital solutions for local conglomerates and MNCs in the Asia Pacific region. In 2009, Joshua’s achievements culminated in him being honoured as one of the top entrepreneurs in the prestigious Entrepreneur Of The Year Award 2009. A prominent figure in Singapore’s HR community, Joshua is often invited as a speaker for a variety of HR and business events. He appears regularly in interviews on TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, and also contributes opinion articles to the various media.

How I came out

I sort of came out to my colleagues “along the way”. About five years ago, a fellow Free Community Church sister who also worked in my company was very open in sharing her sexual orientation with the rest of our colleagues. From that incident, I could feel that our colleagues accepted it very well. She was not ostracised or rejected by our colleagues but in fact, their co-working relationships grew even stronger. This gave me a lot of encouragement to do likewise. Before this, my colleagues were aware of my “unspoken” orientation but I had not really articulated it to them. So after my colleague came out, I had more courage to acknowledge who I am as a person in my work environment.

How coming out changed my worklife

You will not be blackmailed for certain. More importantly, there is a sense of freedom when you come out to your colleagues as you are free to be who you are and no longer have to put up a show. It’s a great sense of liberation as you will be living in accordance with your values, as a person of integrity, and need not hide from reality.

When is one ready to come out

I believe all of us are different, and in different stages of our lives. Some are much more ready while others are still struggling with their identity. So there is no best or worst time to come out. It really depends on how comfortable the person is in his or her own skin and how sure the person is of himself. It’s a matter of self-image. If the person is confident enough, anytime is the right time.

Choosing the first person at work to come out to

Find a person who has an accepting and accommodative nature. Don’t find someone who is extremely conservative, “right-wing” or pious. All of us aim to be accepted by others so start with someone who is more accepting as it will give you more confidence.

What is more important is the reason you want to come out. Are you trying to make a statement? Are you trying to be a maverick or hero? Or are you doing it because you respect yourself and want to be true to yourself? I believe the choice to come out should stem from because you really treasure the relationship with your colleague and want to share your true self with him or her. If you come from that angle, I believe that people will respect you in the long run.

Out At Work - by Free Community Church, Oogachaga and Blackilocks
Date/time: September 12 · 2:00pm - 5:00pm
Venue: Free Community Church, 56, Lorong 23 Geylang Level 3, Century Technology Building Singapore 388381

- Hear from a panel of speakers on being out at work. Panel speakers are - George Hwang, Leow Yangfa, Tan Hui Yee, Joshua Yim and Otto Fong.
- Individual Reflections - Negotiating my sexuality at the workplace
- Small Group Industry Discussions
- Presentation on what is a Diversity Policy, and how can it help us?
- Question & Answer Session

This is a secular event for both women and men. Admission is FREE + Complimentary Light Refreshments. Please REGISTER by 11 SEPTEMBER on www.oogachaga.com/outatwork For queries, please e-mail: sulin.ngiam@freecomchurch.org


Reader's Comments

1. 2010-09-07 06:40  
Well, apart from one Frenemy who knows otherwise, pretty much everyone at work assumes that I'm Straight, with random comments about which girl/woman do I think is pretty in photos, and which one would I date, etc etc. (Male, straight photographers find it MUCH easier to take, discuss and ponder pictures of girls, I can confirm.)

I never deny who or what I am - it's just that I also don't confirm it, or specifically say it. If they assume I'm Straight, that's their decision or assumption. But if anyone at work asked me flat-out if I was Gay, I'd say Yes. They haven't, so I don't volunteer that info. There is no need for them to know; it would be a pointless thing to do, and especially as we A) All hate our jobs, but have nowhere else to go, any more, and B) Pretty much all dislike each other, so there is No friendship or good feeling - or sharing of personal info - between the 13 or so people in my room/office.

Frankly, in this day and age - and also with people absolutely beaten down with fear, stress and worry over Ireland's endless Recession and Emigration and Mass Unemployment woes etc - people have much better things to do than worry about, or even consider, someone's sexuality, whether in the workplace or not. They. Don't. Care.

That said, someone who used to work with us took Every Bloody Chance to remind everyone that She Is A Lesbian, and every day we were all treated to relentlessly dullllll stories about "What Shelley And I Did Last Night". (This relates to some crap DVD or other they watched, or a drinking contest in the pub, or something similarly dull, rather than what some of You Lot may think they were doing.)

Frankly, several times I felt like shouting at her: "Yes yes, you're Here, you're Queer - now Get Over It!", as none of my Straight colleagues yapped on and on and on, on a daily basis, about their partners with the same excitable foolishness as my lesbian ex-colleague, who was doing more than enough Out In The Workplace stuff than me, her, and - oooh, everyone in the office combined could have done.

Moral: Be Out, if you feel comfortable, or if you think it's necessary to confirm that. Just don't be SO far Out that others - including cranky, short-tempered Irishmen - wanna shove you back In...! :-P
Comment #2 was deleted by its author on 2010-09-07 07:11
3. 2010-09-07 07:13  
I came out to my ex boss and colleagues all at one go during a farewell party they held for me. Sat them all down and shaft it down their throats politely...here were their responses:

- oh, we sort of guessed...
- its ok, we love you still the same...I also have gay friends..
- who cares, its just a label, you are a good performer. thats all i care and besides, I already knew...(from my ex boss)
- now i have another sista! (my spunky female assistant said)

I guess I had it easy and mind you, I was from the uniformed service...several traits sort of gave me away...but really, these days no one cares...its just a label.

More importantly, be a character of substance, be an achiever at work and love your fellow co-workers, these are credible to your coming out, if you have to.

At my current workplace? Words sort of got around since it's a related industry...my CEO said to me on my first day of work "I know you are unique and we are happy to have you..." I looked at her and gave her my million dollar smile.

The cycle starts again and my new colleagues begin to second guess...but you know what? I have done well in my last job to begin with and who cares...really, its just another label.

Comment edited on 2010-09-07 08:17:15
4. 2010-09-07 08:47  
all these guys interviewed here are really OLD, my generation isn't into labels and most people don't really care at work at all, so know reason to explain anything to anyone, never complain, never explain cause sexuality is private and can be fluid, anyway gay men should aspire to become business owners, not managers and become rich and prosperous and rule the corporations cause we are smart and savvy and sexy

I really think Fridae is becoming old and ancient and out of touch, a bunch of people stuck in the 90's, everyone who has a column here is over 35 or something and really ancient in their thinking, its time to switch to gay romeo I guess, I think I need to dye my hair grey to get laid here
5. 2010-09-07 08:48  
I think Nathan Goh's new book launch party will be fun and he is super hot and lots of good looking, smart young guys, and some buttoned down conservative business hotties will be there, I can't wait
6. 2010-09-07 08:51  
You know what ? If you can come out to your family members and they accept you , nothing else matters.

I have and never looked back. Good luck to all !! Cheers :)
7. 2010-09-07 09:37  
coming out really depend on the environment places you are in, where community hardly accept this facts at all, personal safe may be threatened. nevertheless, nowaday in my country, Malaysia ppl are almost open to it. just at times when gay individual is in unfavor, ppl just like to tease and scout gay as a sin/abnormal.
when contempts emerge, rely on how a gay person to encounter his/her situations, some dare to fight against it vehemently, this act wins half before game starts; whereas some gay be frighten and swallow in all the unhappiness, this is truly a coward.
i am totally come out already with all my family, relatives, colleagues, friends are aware. yet they are not offend me as a gay, granted if they do, i will furiously counter back to win my rights and respect. don't be bullied.
8. 2010-09-07 10:12  
I'm lucky I guess. I've been out at work since the beginning. Yea! It sure feels nice.
9. 2010-09-07 12:33  
Being Out @ Work is also dependent on which industry and which country you are in. Some people who want to come out deal with self acceptance, fear of political/religious consequences and also fear of losing career opportunities.

Just because a certain portion of people have an easier time with coming out doesn't mean everyone does. Three cheers to those who feel they are ready to come out but then those are aren't ready can use a boost too!
10. 2010-09-07 13:27  
I've been lucky too, worked and currently working for two companies where being gay is no different than being left handed. I've never officially "come out" to ppl at work, rather they just find out from conversations. NZ in general is pretty sweet about the whole gay thing. Yay for us! :) All the best to everyone else that hasn't come out yet :)
11. 2010-09-07 13:38  
I've always been out at work. Most intelligent people really don't care. But I agree that it depends on the type of industry you're working in and you're position in the company. Of course there will be the odd frustrated bigot or fundamentalist wacko, but if you're really an asset to the company, most bosses will support you. And if you're unlucky to have a boss that doesn't, maybe it's time to find another job.
12. 2010-09-07 14:31  
I'm out to everyone, at work, in the gym, in my gym classes, socially etc, expect parents (I don't deny the fact that my siblings might have know too).

13. 2010-09-07 16:18  
Oh good God!!!
One look at me and even a blind man would know i am gay...no need to say anything to those with whom i work with cause i assume they all know.....i talk about my bf frequently.... and my family all know i am gay...came out to them at 17 and never regretted it at all...
Best of luck to those who are thinking of coming out at work...
14. 2010-09-07 17:14  
i think it is easier to come out at work that at home...
i have not declared that i am gay at work...
no one asked if i am...
but my facebook is so gay...
my status and comments have indication i am gay...
since i am linked to my co-workers, they should be able to figure it out...
there are a lot of ways to come out...
writing a blog would be one...
i am out to my brothers and sisters but not to my parents...
i am thinking of sending them a note...
'mom,dad, i am not your son. i am your long lost daughter.'
Comment edited on 2010-09-07 17:30:54
15. 2010-09-07 20:46  
im non-closeted in my personal life,but whether i should come out at work really annoys me these days.its necessary for government to legislate against discrimination at workplace.
16. 2010-09-08 08:14  
vercoda, you're quite funny.

has anybody here seen the french movie le placard (the closet)?
17. 2010-09-08 10:55  
The main reason why I have not come out at work (or to my friends) because I'm always afraid that in that group, there might be someone, who thinks gays are sub-species and don't deserve the same respect, can use my sexuality as the weapon against me. It's absolutely despicable and I know someone who was in such situation. He used to work at this nail salon and got a lot of customers. He one day came out at his work by announcing his engagement. One nasty C*** started gossiping the news to his customers, who mostly are old conservative bitches. These bitches no longer wanted to work with my friend and become that C***'s customers. One nasty trash even said this to my friend: "I knew you are gay and I don't have any problem with that. But I think your marriage is disgusting and dangerous to society and I don't want you to touch my hands anymore." Such vicious, nasty, ignorant disgusting actions made my friends broke down to tears and he finally had to move.

I personally cannot wait for the day I have enough money, influence on people so I can say: "Yes, since you ask, I'm gay. You just have to love and respect me exactly the same before I come out to you. And don't you dare make a homophobic move on any gays or I'm gonna make you regret the rest of your life" (well, I'm not gonna say the second and the third sentences but I will give them some hints). That day will come. I know that.
18. 2010-09-09 19:45  
I am happy for the interviewed individuals who'd come out to their colleagues. It takes good judgment, tact, interpersonal skills and patience to come out smoothly.

First, as Meanmin mentioned, coming out may not be a wise option for those working in certain industries. However, it's not to say that those in such industries cannot develop strong, trusting friendships with their colleagues and reveal their sexuality to selected colleagues whom they trust. Some time spent in observation of one's colleagues should also give him more confidence in assessing whether the latter are tolerant towards LGBT.

The manner, setting and timing are also important considerations. You don't want to reveal your sexuality over a lunch in a noisy hawker centre, when everyone is rushing through their tasks on hand, or when everyone is laughing over a joke.

The Friendship Factor is a great book explaining, from a psychologist's perspective, how friendships can be created, reinforced, damaged or repaired. We need to build a strong friendship with those we want to confide in, and becoming a great friend takes some Friendship Factor skills.

Lastly, patience is crucial. We don't reveal everything after knowing someone for just a week.

19. 2010-09-09 20:52  
I’m Singaporean living and working in the UK since graduating from Uni. Over here there is an Equal Opportunity Act which protects the employments rights of all workers that covers Age, Ability, Race, Religion and Sex.

Having I’ve only ever worked in Singapore for 9 months as engineer and understand the pressures/demands etc. (whatever you call it) about sexual orientation at work.

However, from a completely blasé point of view; especially in this current economic situation, when we’re at work we’re there to do a job regardless of sexual orientation. (The job which undoubtedly pays for our bills!!) In most cases, the job is well done and project delivered. From experience, I’m just as good an engineer as my fellow straight colleagues and at times even better. So from a job satisfaction point of view does being out at work come into the equation?
20. 2010-09-12 09:42  
Coming out at work? Not a possibility. Not in a million years for me that is.

I mean, I'm not out to family and friends however, I am out to some who are like me, like us so to speak. LOL!

I'm comfortable the way I am, acting everyday at work like I'm in a TV series or somethin'...hehehe :P

I don't give other's the satisfaction of a confirmation or a denial. That's it :D

21. 2010-09-15 11:33  
I'm out at work, and everyone's okay. I'm not sure if being in the media has anything to do with it, but it's great when you know that who you are doesn't make a difference as long as you can do your work. :)

I've had some really positive coming out experiences, so for me there are hardly any ghosts of sexual discrimination.

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