Closet workers in Utah
Equality Utah is circulating a petition to ask for statewide protection against bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity. To sign the survey, go to equalityutah.org/action/.
Although Salt Lake City has developed a more bohemian reputation than the rest of the state, coming out at work still seems completely unapproachable for some residents. Despite the admonition from Harvey Milk, Sarah Jackson (name has been changed), a 35-year-old Salt Lake City resident, said she would lose her job and her livelihood if she were to tell her coworkers that she is a lesbian, and so would her girlfriend of nearly five years.
“We work together at an accounting firm,” Jackson said. “We met at work, developed a friendship and that eventually morphed into a romantic relationship.”
Jackson and her girlfriend, Jane Adams (name has been changed), still work for the same firm and in the same department, which can be a challenge for couples who are open about their relationships. Adding the secrecy to the mix makes it that much more difficult, especially when they are resolving issues.
“Everyone just thinks we are best friends,” Adams said. “We’re not very publicly affectionate in the first place, so it hasn’t been that big of an issue.”
The couple wonders if their big secret might someday be discovered. After attending every work function together, never with a male companion, and even having photos on their desks of one another, eventually people might start to wonder, Adams said.
“I don’t think it’s something two guys could ever get away with,” Adams laughed while explaining. “I think everyone just assumes that we are best friends and sort of inseparable. And it is so far from our boss’ mind that I don’t think he’d ever even consider it.”
The firm is a small company and is owned by two business partners who are members of the Mormon Church.
“I just know that we would run into problems if we come out,” Jackson said. “They might not say we were being fired for being gay, but they would find other ways to let us go.”
“When layoffs or budget cuts came around, we would be on the top of the chopping block,” Adams added.
The couple is not alone in having to live the double life. According to a recent study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 48 percent of Americans that identify as gay are not open with their employers. Earlier this year, Equality Utah released a study that found 44 percent of gay Utahns and 67 percent of transgender Utahns have faced some level of discrimination in the workplace.
The Work-Life study indicated that leading a double life can lead to higher work-related stress. And leading to further complications, the study found that 52 percent of heterosexual men and 37 percent of heterosexual women prefer that gay coworkers keep their sexuality hidden.
Being able to be out at work is extremely important for both the employee and employer, Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said.
“People go to work to do one thing: their jobs. What an unnecessary waste of time and energy to try and keep your pronouns straight, or to frame your response about the weekend barbecue in a way that won’t allude to your sexual orientation or gender identity,” Balken said in an email. “Studies have shown that businesses in which employees don’t feel supported or secure are less productive, have higher turnover, and are overall less successful.”
While no study has been done to completely and accurately portray exactly how many people are in the closet at work in Utah, Balken said she would expect it to be similar to percentages found in the study. This study highlights some of the reasons a statewide statute is necessary and helpful to protect against discrimination in the workplace because many fear retribution when coming out, Balken said. Utah is one of 29 states without a law protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, although some individual municipalities have passed some ordinances.
John Smith (name has been changed), said he hopes that his work environment will someday change and he’ll be able to be open about his private life with his coworkers and employer.
“It really hurts,” Smith said. “I want to be able to tell my coworkers what I did over the weekend. Instead I just have to be very vague.”
Smith, who has been at his current job for about five years, said he likes what he does and he doesn’t want to leave his employer, but leading the double life really affects him and his ability to interact with his coworkers.
“If the company was not run by very strong leaders in the Church, I would not have a problem coming out,” Smith said.
Adams, Jackson and Smith all agree that their environment at work and relationships with coworkers are all affected by their closeted lives.
“I know a lot of members of the community are going to be critical of how we choose to live and who we choose to tell about our relationship,” Jackson said. “But they don’t know what it’s like to be in our situation. I love what I do and who I work with. I just don’t feel comfortable telling my employer.”