I was fresh out of college in the early 90’s when my parents confronted me: “We’re concerned you were at a gay rights protest. Are you a lesbian?”
I wasn’t ready to come out, but there I was. Exposed. Their youngest, their tenth child, a lesbian. “This is not what God wants for you.”
In that moment it was as if I was outside myself watching this 22-year-old stand up for herself. I was shocked and impressed, yet also felt alone. So very alone.
Later my sister said she always thought I might be gay. “Really? You knew? Why didn’t you say something?” Of course she couldn’t tell me, but she could have left a few “breadcrumbs” to help my journey. To let me know it was okay, that she didn’t judge me, signaling she would support and still love me if I was gay.
Today is National Coming Out Day. I have good friends whose children are coming out. I’m understanding this experience through the eyes of the parent instead of the queer kid.
A lot has changed in 30 years, but a lot hasn’t. LGBTQ employees still face hostility at work and almost half of them in the U.S. are closeted in the workplace out of fear of being perceived as "unprofessional." I hope my friends' kids don't have to experience this as they enter the workforce, but I know they probably will.
So, for all of you that aren’t a part of our very special rainbow, LGBTQIA+, this is your moment. Ask yourself, are you leaving breadcrumbs? There is someone in your world who desperately needs them. There are many stages and levels but here are some ideas for you:
Make your support visible
Add your pronouns to your email signature at work. You are not doing this for you; it’s a breadcrumb of acknowledgment and support. You are letting someone who might have different pronouns see that you know they exist, that you and your place of work are a “safe place.”
Be careful to ask unassuming, non-gender specific questions.
Stop “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Start “Are you interested in anyone?”
Stop “What does your husband do?”
Start “What does your partner or spouse do?”
English teachers have drilled specificity into us because sexual orientation or gender identity weren't really a consideration in the past. It seems innocent enough but a specific question or simple assumption puts us in a very bad position. On the spot we must decide if we can trust you or if it’s safer to lie. And if you get it wrong, that’s okay. Sincerely apologize and keep trying. We know it’s hard to break old habits.
Offer a cultural olive branch
If you really think someone you love might be trying to come out, pay attention to LGBTQ culture and subtly reference something, like suggesting a Demi Levato concert or say how impressed you were by Carl Nassib’s courage. This is you extending an olive branch for someone to grab a hold of if they need it.
If you truly want to be an ally, it starts here. Read up. Get educated. Recognize that not everyone moves as seamlessly through the workplace. Start dropping breadcrumbs.