I came out to myself when I was 23. I was alone with a friend reading Post Secret when we came across a postcard that described unrequited love for a best friend. I realized that I had felt the same for twelve years and not allowed myself to know it. It was as if lightening had struck.
I was nervous about coming out to my friends at first. I wasn’t sure how they would react. I knew we were ‘gay friendly’, but no one in our small group identified as LGBT at the time. Thankfully, I found acceptance with them.
I started my first venture only six months after I came out to myself. It was a nonprofit organization that offered the secular community in my city the opportunity to volunteer on Disaster Relief projects. You see, the region is very conservative. It can be compared to Oklahoma, with the city being moderate and the surrounding suburbs being very conservative. One didn’t have much in the way of volunteer opportunities in the city unless s/he was at University or associated with a church.
Soon after my nonprofit began I was accepted into the local Rising Women Leaders one-year program. This was a combination round table and mastermind for women in the community in positions of growth and leadership. Though we had an agreement of confidentiality and met regularly enough to build deep trust in each other, I was afraid to say anything about being LGBT. It didn’t play a role in my business life at the time, and I feared judgement and backlash.
During this time, one of the nearby towns passed legislation making it legal for any business to fire someone should they identify as LGBT. The different communities intermingle often, with many suburban residents commuting to the city for work, and I did not feel my business would be safe if I were out.
One day, eight months into the Rising Women Leaders program, I had coffee with a woman whom I had befriended in the program and had begun feeling safe with. We started sharing more about our personal lives, which inevitably pour over into our work and growth as entrepreneurs. I felt tied to my secret — I worried that my business profile would grow in the community, and I would eventually be outed regardless of my efforts to stay closeted and with negative consequences. I needed my friend’s advice, and chose to tell her who I really am.
Her response took me by complete surprise. “I’m gay,” she replied to my confession. All this time and I had no idea! I hadn’t even allowed myself to consider the fact that there were other women in the community who had the same point of view as myself, that it wasn’t as dangerous a secret as I had considered, and that, perhaps, it could be something to be built upon.
It took several more years before I began coming out to other business colleagues and professionals. If you’ve read my story about being asked to sit in as secretary for a client, you know that the business environment in my community can be at times old fashioned regarding women in business. This made me fear that being out as LGBT would receive further off-hand remarks and loss of business.
What I have learned over my slow coming out in business is that the people I want to work with are accepting. If someone has a bad reaction, or doesn’t want to work with me because of my identity, then we weren’t a fit, anyway. I also am determined to be an example for the LGBT youth in my city who might one day find they wish to start their own business. Perhaps they will be so lucky that being out in business will be a nonissue. One can dream.