The Meaning of Inclusion When You’re Out in the Workplace

On October 29th, students and alumni gathered at the Center for Career Education for the annual Being Out in the Workplace Alumni Panel and Networking Event.

The theme of the discussion this year was inclusion, and our panelists shared their journey and the impact being out in the workplace has had for themselves and others. Below are some excerpts from the robust panel discussion:

How has being out in the workplace created opportunities to include others?

Ask questions and know your rights: Jeremy Constancio, a lawyer for the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development, shared that he asks a lot of questions of the organization in the interview process about how they create inclusive spaces. Jeremy stated that he is aware of his rights and if he feels he is being discriminated against in the workplace, he goes right to HR. He notes that he does this from a place of privilege, and realizes not all [people] would be comfortable [doing] this.

Support each other and be brave: Christopher Riano, Assistant Counsel to the Governor of New York, acknowledged how difficult it is to be the only person out in your environment. He said you have to be brave because the biggest [strength] we have is each other.

“The biggest [strength] we have is each other.” — Christopher Riano

Christopher has drawn inspiration from the courage of queer people in earlier generations. Early in his career he purposely chose to live in locations that weren’t as accepting, asking himself ‘am I really going to be this [out] person?’ 

He said that living in New York and cultural changes over time have made things easier and expressed appreciation for the ways the other panelists have forged a path. Christopher stated that he seeks to always find other people that are having similar experiences of marginalization that he can lend support to.

Share your experiences so others don’t feel alone: According to Rebecca Mattis-Pinard, Chief Diversity Officer and Title IX Coordinator at Marymount Manhattan College,  in college, she was known as the black lesbian, the only out black woman at her school. When she made the decision to work in higher education, she knew she wanted to create different spaces for students to see themselves reflected. As a role model, she felt that it was important to be open and honest about who she is. She reminded students that, “You don’t need to adapt to the institution. The institution needs to adapt to you.”

“You don’t need to adapt to the institution; the institution needs to adapt to you.” — Rebecca Mattis-Pinard

“At least in NY state, there are legal protections,” she stated. ”If they don’t accept you, sue the hell out of them. There is freedom in being able to show up as yourself.” Rebecca works in an industry where she is comfortable doing that; she shared that she will gently call out colleagues saying “your whiteness (or straightness)  is showing up in this space.” However, Rebecca acknowledged that “it’s harder when you first graduate and feel like you have to take what you can get. But the hope is that over time, you will be able to choose.”

Sometimes it’s about waiting until you feel safe: Don McKinnon, Software Engineering Manager and Tech Lead at Medidata Solutions, said that growing up in rural Ohio he never thought he’d come out at school or in the workplace, but ended up feeling safe enough at Columbia to come out.

After school, he worked at a few places where he didn’t feel safe coming out; he expected that he would be fired if he did so. Even when he started at his current company, he didn’t come out immediately. Don gave it time and eventually was influenced to come out himself when a colleague came out to him and shared their own fear around the process. As a result of this experience,  Don helped to start Medidata Out, an affinity group with events and support for the community. He reinforced that “hearing other people’s stories and sharing your own is incredibly powerful.”

“Hearing other people’s stories and sharing your own is incredibly powerful.” — Don McKinnon

Finding community is critical: Margaret Lu, fencing world champion and Business Development at SevenRooms, shared that she went to LGBTQIA+ events and didn’t find many people who looked like her. She noted the community includes more than gay white men.

Margaret eventually ended up finding community through identity-based recreational activities and meetups groups centered around queer food. She encouraged, “your otherness can also be seen as an asset. Do your homework. If it’s not an open place…you can try to create it. Change the policies. Create the places you want to work in. You have a duty to be out, if you are comfortable with it, [because] not everyone is able to be out, and representation is important.” She also highlighted that there is a business case for inclusion – it makes for more productivity and better decision making.

“Create the places you want to work in.” — Margaret Lu

What is your view of the role of government and large organizations in helping or hindering being out in the workplace?

You have to have people in government willing to act: Christopher shared, that some of the first lawsuits around LGBTQIA+ rights were brought forward by people of color in the 70s. “It’s important for the government to lead, but you have to have people in government willing to act. It’s hard to be that one person in the room and to lead in that way. And you’re not always going to feel you can do it. And that’s OK. But there will come a time where you feel you can, and you will.” 

It takes both legal and social change: Jeremy stated that ”government is the ultimate driver of change,” but questioned, “what comes first – legal change or social change?”

Allies are important: Margaret enthused that Athlete Allies is a great organization. “They do advocacy work. So many trailblazers (both athletes and allies) are working to make things better. But there is more to be done. Sports is a microcosm of life and making sports more inclusive is helpful to the world of sports. Allies are super important. Athlete Allies was started by a straight man. Sometimes people hear messages from allies they may not hear from others.”

“Sometimes people hear messages from allies they may not hear from others.” — Margaret Lu

Looking back what, if anything, do you wish you had done differently?

The importance of gumption: Jeremy shared that he wishes he had had more unapologetic gumption. “Many of us are willing to be out because of those who came before,” he said. 

“Many of us are willing to be out because of those who came before.” — Jeremy Constancio

It’s never too early: Chris stated that he wishes he had come out even earlier, though the road was not easy for a while with family and he was homeless at age 15 after coming out.  

No regrets: Rebecca said that she wouldn’t have done anything differently. She doesn’t like living with regrets and wants to look forward and not back.

Trust your community: Don shared that he is happy with where he is now. He feels he couldn’t have come out to certain people, but he wishes he had been more open earlier with the people he did choose to tell.

Give back: Margaret concluded by saying that she wishes she had examined her feelings earlier and gotten involved with more things like giving back.

Interested in learning more? 

If this recap has only whet your appetite and you’re looking for more information on your LGBTQ career path, then check out our LGBTQ resource page.