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Coming out at work: how being my true self helped me progress

When I came out to my father, his immediate response was never to reveal my true identity at work. “It would be the kiss of death to your career.”

At the time, in 1986, I think he was right.

As a 17-year-old who lived in a remote house in a hamlet in Suffolk, I certainly felt that I was ‘the only gay in the village’. I had no evidence to the contrary apart from rumours about the slightly camp man who ran the village shop. I knew the pejorative gay insults, I knew about AIDS, I knew the music of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bronski Beat and Soft Cell. It was very hard for me to comfortably reconcile all those elements with what I was or wanted to be.

In 1990, after moving to London three years earlier, I met my life partner, the author and war journalist Oggy Boytchev. We led an open life with our friends but at work I was careful about who I told. I had good reason. At one company in my early career, I had heard gobsmackingly homophobic comments from people of influence and I wanted to be clear that how my career progressed, or didn’t progress, would be based entirely upon my own performance. I had no intention of being a victim or a martyr.

By 2003, I had become less cautious and had a limited list of colleagues who had become my confidants. Happily, one of those confidants was my immediate boss.

Then on the 7th or April 2003 everything changed. At the beginning of the second Iraq War, Oggy was working for the BBC with John Simpson when a bomb was dropped on their convoy. 43 people including close colleagues died. Whilst burning vehicles exploded in the background, Oggy called me on his satellite phone to tell me that he was still alive. I watched the footage of the carnage on the rolling news channels all weekend.

On Monday, my boss, having seen it on TV himself asked how I was. He then asked me whether I had come out. When I replied that I hadn’t, he told me that I was going through a terrible trauma and it would make it easier for myself if I shared it my colleagues. I had to recognise he was right. Since I made that decision to be open, I have never looked back.

Indeed, I think that this decision to not give a damn, and to be open generally, paved the way for our Civil Partnership in 2012. We’ve now been together almost 28 years and are still counting.

Being my true self at work has also allowed me to do my best work and progress, rather than focus on hiding my identity on a daily basis. Happily, now, I would suggest that in most instances it is right to be as open and authentic at work as possible. Open people tend be happier people. Happy people are more likely to be successful people. And successful people create success for their companies.

Whatever your situation, if you can do so safely, be open. Be happy. Never believe that being yourself will be the death of your career.

Julian Tooke is Global Insights Director and co-Chair of &Proud at Dentsu Aegis Network

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