Question: I have a colleague at work who I think is gay but he never talks about his personal life and so I don’t know how to let him know that he could tell me if he wanted to and that I would be fine with it. He always comes to all our office parties, etc alone. I don’t want to “offend him” or put him in an awkward position by asking him directly. Any advice?

Answer: There are many people like you who want to be supportive of individuals in their lives who are “gay” (and for this article let’s assume you are right about your colleagues sexual orientation) but who just aren’t sure how to do that in a way that would be supportive and helpful.

Let me first say that there are many legitimate reasons why people who are gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered - LGBT) don’t want to be open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity at work or in their personal lives. These reasons can range from discrimination at work leading to a hostile work environment, negative impact on career/promotions, loss of relationships with friends/family, and in the extreme, violence. Yes, there has been tremendous progress over the years in our society that has granted increased protections and rights to those individuals who identify as LGBT – but coming out can still be a legitimately risky thing to do.

The other thing to keep in mind is that LGBT individuals need to be personally ready to tell other people about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They may have a sense of shame, guilt, or ambivalence about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and while people in their lives (like you) may be ready to talk about it, the LGBT individual may not be. It is important to remember that these feelings are not related to sexual orientation / gender identity in itself. They are related to our societies entrenched belief system (heterosexism) that says being heterosexual is good, and homosexual is bad. And for transgendered individuals, our society’s belief system that does not support anyone who lives outside the norms of “acceptable” gender identity and expression. This colleague has probably endured years of questions like “do you have a girlfriend.” The world is set up to support heterosexuality, not homosexuality or varied gender identities and expressions.

Now before I paint a completely negative picture, let me first say that there are a significant majority of LGBT individuals who are thriving in our society. They are having children, enjoying successful careers, enjoying positive relationships with their families, getting married, and just being ordinary happy people. They are talking openly about their lives and it is no longer a big deal to them or to those they are telling.

So, let me assume that your colleague is working in a fair and equitable work environment and that he is ready to come out but is just not sure how to do it. I think this is true for many individuals, particularly if they have been working for a company/organization for a while and have been intentionally misleading their colleagues.

This is what I would suggest. First, use the word “partner” when you are referring to your significant other or for any other reference to a person in a relationship. This is usually interpreted by others to mean that you are not assuming that one’s partner is either male or female. You will be hinting to your colleague that you are not assuming whether he has a male or female partner

Second, when you have the opportunity to mention a movie or television show with a gay character or theme do so openly and simply. Ellen Degeneres has been very helpful in this regard. Say something to your colleague like, “did you see the Ellen show where she had her partner Portia on? They are a great couple.” Anything like this helps your colleague know that you would be supportive of him if he decided to tell you. You can also use the true and tested, “I have a friend who is gay who lives in Vancouver and…..” This is a big tip-off that you are wondering and would be very supportive if told.

Lastly, and this might seem painfully simple, but you could just ask him. Some might find this a bit radical, but if we believe that there is nothing wrong with being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, what would be wrong with asking? If he’s not gay, why do we expect that he would be offended? Yes, be careful here but I am assuming you have an established personal relationship already and that you are talking about many personal things all the time. You could start with an easier question like, “John I realize that I am always talking about my relationships and you don’t talk about yours?” If he is very closed or defensive, then you know not to go further.

On a separate note, if you are reading this and are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, and feel alone, isolated, depressed, or confused, or just need to talk to someone, please give us a call here at Family Services of the North Shore. All of our services are open and accessible to you and/or your family – just give us a call. We are here to help.

Julia Staub-French, M.A., R.C.C., Director of Clinical programs At Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.