Out at the office: Loud and proud?

Women at the water cooler
Image caption Should sexuality be water-cooler conversation?

One of the biggest names in US TV journalism, Anderson Cooper, has confirmed that he is gay. But should regular professionals come out to those they work with?

Long before Anderson Cooper confirmed it , evidence of his sexuality was apparent for anyone who cared to look. He was photographed on holiday with the owner of a popular New York City gay bar. In 2007, a man in a Cooper mask was featured on the cover of Out Magazine, which named Cooper as the second-most powerful gay man in America.

Indeed, in an era when the US president endorses gay marriage and the most popular TV chat show hostess in the US, Ellen Degeneres, is a lesbian, there seems to be little reason to make an official declaration of sexuality in a public forum.

So why does it matter that Cooper is now "officially" out?

"In a perfect world he should be able to go about his business and it not be an issue," says Canadian broadcaster Rick Mercer, host of CBC's The Rick Mercer Report.

"But there's no doubt about it: him acknowledging that he is a gay person who is successful and happy and loved means an awful lot."

Mercer made waves last year when he released a YouTube video calling on gay adults to come out as a way to fight back against bullying and provide a positive example for gay children.

"If you have a life that's a public life, whether you choose it or not, or a position of responsibility, it makes a difference to be out at that level, whether you're Anderson Cooper or the chief of police," he says.

But in 2012 how easy is it for that chief of police - or even the assistant manager of a FootLocker or a call-centre worker - to come out?

'Permissible discrimination'

In a survey of gay employees conducted in 2011, the Center for Talent and Innovation found that about half of respondents were closeted at work.

"The sad reality is that it's still perfectly legal in the US to be fired for your sexual orientation in 29 states; [the] same is true in 34 states for gender identity," says Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

"The laws give licence to discriminate and there are real risks for people's careers and their livelihoods."

In the UK, where employment discrimination based on sexual identity has been illegal since 2003, laws have not managed to eliminate homophobic behaviour in the workplace.

"Our survey found that 800,000 people in the workplace witnessed physical homophobic violence, and 6% of the UK workforce have witnessed homophobic bullying. It may be a comment like 'I hope you go to hell and your children too'," says Colleen Humphrey, director of workplace for Stonewall, a gay-rights organisation in the UK.

"People who work in fields with safety equipment tell me that the safety equipment has been tampered with."

There are other hazards in the professional world: a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently resigned once his sexuality was made public, drawing vicious online taunts, and a lawyer in Virginia was denied a judicial position because legislatures worried he could not be impartial on issues like gay marriage.

But those were political casualties. Both Humphrey and Cole-Schwartz say that the corporate culture is shifting rapidly.

"Huge majorities of Fortune 500 companies forbid discrimination outside of what the laws require. On one hand you have permissible discrimination from a legal standpoint, but increasingly that kind of discrimination is not tolerated," says Cole-Schwartz.

Some corporate fields are shifting faster than others.

"Anecdotally, the fields you think of that are not perhaps as accommodating for other diverse groups are similar for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community," says Karen Sumberg, executive vice president of the Center for Talent Innovation, singling out "heavy industry, engineering".

"Finance is ahead of the game on this topic, but law is not," she says.

Double lives

In explaining his silence on the issue, Cooper said he was at least partly more interested in reporting the news than reporting on his private life. Many LGBT employees feel the same. "A lot of people are private people," says Mercer. "I understand the reluctance to discuss sexuality at work."

But the pressure many people may feel to keep their private life extremely private can be detrimental both to employee and company.

"Instead of concentrating on having to switch pronouns, tell lies, and conceal details of their lives, they can concentrate on their professional lives," says Sumberg. "For companies, there's more trust and better talent retention."

While the HRC and Stonewall emphasise the importance of companies creating safe environments for a diversity of employees, gay workers in some firms can face a Catch-22.

"Support for LGBT issues has such a strong correlation to whether not people know LGBT Americans," says Cole-Schwartz. "I think that the more someone can be out, the more he or she is going to be able to influence the perceptions of the people around them."

In some cases, though, that means being put in the position of office trailblazer, a role not everyone finds themselves comfortable with.

That dilemma may be a temporary one, with the current "Generation Y" workforce described as being more prominently out at work than their predecessors, according to Karen Sumberg.

As people come out at younger and younger ages, experts say they are more likely to enter the workforce out of the closet and less likely to go back in for professional appearances - which will create a more inclusive work environment for employees of all ages.

"Over a 20-year span it's been an incredible change," says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. "It's one of the most fast-lifting stigma that I can think of."

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