Saturday, July 28, 2012

Get Press When You Can

When well-known CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper publicly acknowledged that he was gay, the response was, well, not so big a deal.

His employer seems to be supportive. And people who know him say it really isn't a big deal anymore, which contributed to his decision to speak publicly.

But what if you're not Anderson Cooper? Do you put your career at risk if you come out?

The fear of losing his job and being passed over for a promotion was real for Greg Lilly. He worked for a family-owned business in Charlotte, N.C., where he was an information technology infrastructure team leader.

For eight years he proved that he was a valuable employee and asset to the company.

"The people in my division knew me as their co-worker, not as the gay co-worker," he says.

He cloaked his personal life. He would change "pronouns on the phone when a personal call came in.

"I did fear the loss of career opportunities," Lilly says. "Coming out is talking about your sexuality. That is not a work subject. My work performance was important to me. I wanted that to be the focus at work, not my personal life."

Then a co-worker invited some people from work to a Christmas party. When she invited him and said bring a date, he says, "I had been dating a guy for about a year. So I said my date's name was Don. Her face lost color."

Within three hours, another worker came to his cubicle "to tell me how happy she was to find out I was gay. I'm sure by the end of the day, every one of the 2,300 employees in the building knew without me having to actually tell one other person."

Management never brought it up, and co-workers invited him to bring his significant other to events.

"After a few months, I think it became a nonissue," and Lilly never felt that assignments or promotions were lost.

But "I would have never guessed that before it happened," he says.

Today Lilly is a novelist, creative writing instructor and magazine editor in Williamsburg, Va. He says he's "too liberated by the truth to ever hide the fact that I'm gay, (but) I don't introduce myself that way."

Although Daniel Newell, a job development and marketing specialist for San Jose State University's Career Center, never has made any official announcement at work, "most people assumed I was gay," he says. And he always has spoken freely about it.

His colleagues are very welcoming although he has run into issues with the public. But he says, "I believe that my credentials, accomplishments and status at work have always earned me respect."

Anthony, who works in publishing and asked that his last name and city not be used, did not plan to tell his employer.

But "she asked about my 'wife,' and I responded by talking about my 'partner' and what he does," Anthony says.

At previous jobs, he was more anxious.

One employer was a Roman Catholic institution and "I didn't know if there would be any fallout," he says. He doesn't think it affected his relationship with co-workers but suspects "it may have adversely affected promotion opportunities."

Thirty years ago, B. Alan Bourgeois, who today owns Creative House Press in Austin, Texas, came out to his mother, who was his boss. That afternoon, she had the supervisor of human resources fire him.

Planned or not, reactions in each workplace still can vary.

As Anthony points out, young people today may think coming out is no big deal, but "the folks who control the business, political and religious institutions are still quite anti-queer."

Celebrity or not, what matters is the quality of work.

"Anderson Cooper allowed people to know him for his work first," Lilly says. And "that's what we can all do, get to know me first as a good co-worker and reliable employee. We all have that within our own workplaces."

Career consultant Andrea Kay is the author of "Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 steps to get out of your funk and on to your future." Click here for an index of At Work columns. Send questions to her at 2692 Madison Road, #133, Cincinnati, Ohio 45208; or E-mail her at