To Stay In or Come Out of the Closet During a Job Search?
By: Kyle Rausch (he/him) | Executive Director
Study Abroad Office at the University of Illinois, Chicago
Growing up in the rural southeast in the early 2000s, hiding my identity as a gay man was just something I had come to accept. The unspoken norms of the conservative region in which I grew up had instilled within me the belief that I had to keep that side of me locked away in most settings. When I got to college, although I began to meet others in the LGBTQ+ community, I still felt as if I had to present a certain way in class and other professional settings. When I decided to study abroad, my advisors in the Study Abroad Office were helpful in assisting me with my application and preparing me for program logistics, but at no point were my identities discussed, let alone questions I felt on the inside related to what life as a gay man abroad might be like. And I thought this was normal.
When I returned from my time abroad, I began working as a student worker in my alma mater’s study abroad office. I was part of a team of about 15 student recruiters. With my peers, my identities were almost a non-issue; there was no need for me to come out as gay as I just was who I was and conversations about my boyfriend seemed safe and natural to share with that group. However, when I interacted with the professional staff of the office, I always felt like I had to keep a wall up between the professional me and the personal me. Whereas others in the office frequently talked about their interests, significant others, and weekend plans, I constantly self-edited what I shared, mostly because I had not encountered another LGBTQ+ person in the workplace and because of the years of growing up in a part of the country which conditioned me to believe that that part of my life was not acceptable in the workplace. To be fair, no one ever overtly expressed negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals in the office, but I also was never asked about those aspects of my life as my straight counterparts were. This was very much the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
My student role soon turned into my first professional role in the office, and after a few years of receiving excellent training and mentorship at that institution, I decided it was time to move on from my alma mater and seek experiences elsewhere. I received an interview for a position out-of-state at an institution where I did not know anyone. I remember thinking about the opportunity to start anew in much the same way as I did my study abroad experiences. Here was an opportunity for me to decide which version of me I wanted to be. I vowed to myself that I would be authentically me from the very onset, no matter the risk of potentially costing me a job opportunity. My time in college and abroad had helped me to understand who I was and who I wanted to be and I realized that I did not want to work for an organization that did not value who I was in totality.
I happily was invited to an on-campus interview. As my then boyfriend drove me to campus for the interview, I remember the familiar anxious feeling that us LGBTQ+ individuals can feel when we know we’ll likely be asked personal questions and do not know how our answers will be received. In my case, it was almost assured that I’d have to share information about this part of my life because a big reason why I was moving to this state was due to my boyfriend obtaining a job at the same university. Sure enough, when I was asked about my reasons for applying to the job at the beginning of the interview I felt the nervous side of me that had always been trained to keep my identity as a gay man at bay, but I quickly reminded myself of my vow to be authentically me. With a calm and matter-of-fact tone, I shared that I was looking to relocate due to my boyfriend getting a job at the university, almost as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And would you know that it was received as such? Whether or not my future colleagues had any misgivings about LGBTQ+ people, that was not made evident. Instead, my choice to be genuine and true to who I was, paving the way for more conversation stemming from a place of genuine interest. I left feeling confident that the team knew exactly who I was…and as I would find out in a few weeks, with a new job. The following years at that institution were my best professional years to date, in large part because I knew I could show up to work 100% who I was and be accepted by my colleagues. I was able to participate in watercooler talk about what my boyfriend and I were doing on the weekend or about our travel plans. I was able to advocate for LGBTQ+ resources for students. I was able to form genuine bonds of friendship with colleagues across the institution and learned how many allies there actually were. I realized that because of the conservative environment I had grown up in, I had been conditioned to think my identity as a gay male was something to be hidden away in most settings instead of celebrated. Once I freed myself from this lie, I knew there was no going back and I have made it a point to be unabashedly me in all future job searches.
The fact that we are in a field that, overall, endeavors to accept people from many diverse backgrounds is not lost on me. I know that for many, being one’s authentic self during a job search still may not be advisable in certain industries. Moreover, there are still identities that are not as readily accepted or understood, even in the higher education space. I hope that as more people from underrepresented backgrounds make it further in the field their visibility will help encourage those newcomers who were like me and from a restrictive background to not settle for repression of one’s authentic self. Our ability to welcome individuals to the field as they are allows them to dedicate their energies and skills fully to the many challenges that we face, rather than expending it towards hiding who they really are.