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Coming out at work works, gays find

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She is a successful stockbroker in a Midwestern city, recently turned 40, and a lesbian.

Sure, she said, she would be willing to talk about being gay in corporate America, but she hasn't come out at her prominent brokerage and would prefer not to have her name used.

Then she paused, and laughed. "Actually, I guess I'm in the process of coming out," she said. "A notice from Commando Queers came through our fax machine a couple of days ago."

Even before that fax passed through the hands of secretaries and clerks, she figures, her co-workers knew. But they didn't ask and she didn't talk about it.

If the stockbroker really wanted to stay in the closet, she would have made sure Commando Queers, an informal networking group, didn't have her fax number. Like many gay men and lesbians, she would have gone to great lengths to hide such revelatory details.

But now, in ways subtle and not so subtle, a growing number of lesbians and gay men are living their lives more openly at work and letting the chips fall where they may. Sometimes, as in the case of the stockbroker, the acknowledgment of their sexual orientation merely means not keeping it a tight secret any longer.

Sometimes it means speaking for the first time to fellow employees about a partner, companion or lover. And sometimes it means a ready acknowledgment of a gay sexual orientation and an active involvement in one of a growing number of newer gay employee organizations at companies like Microsoft, which have joined the roster of more established groups at companies like AT&T, Xerox, Apple Computer and Pacific Gas and Electric.

The increasing openness comes as awareness of gay concerns has been heightened in a number of public forums recently.

Among them: President Clinton's promise to end the ban on homosexuals in the military and the ensuing controversy; the spat in Congress over the appointment of Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian, to a post at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the gay civil rights march on Washington in April, a weekend encampment of several hundred thousand gay people.

While there is no way to collect numbers, many people at companies around the country say that the acknowledgment to oneself and others of one's sexual orientation seems to be on the rise.

"It feels like more people are coming out," said Kathleen Dermody, co-chairwoman of League, the gay and lesbian association at AT&T, which has 20 chapters and about 650 members.

Gay people seem increasingly unwilling to pay what experts say is the high price of keeping their sexual orientation secret at work.

"How much time have you got?" said April Martin, a New York clinical psychologist who works extensively with the lesbian and gay community, when asked what problems staying in the closet at work causes. "To start with," she said, "hiding is lying, whether by commission or omission. For most people, lying violates a personal ethical standard. People who hide are denying a basic part of the self." The toll is paid in guilt, shame and often, when it goes on long enough, depression and substance abuse.

Ms. Martin can also describe the flip side of coming out: Homophobia. Discrimination. People really do lose their jobs or their chance for advancement because they are gay.

"You have to weigh the costs of coming out against the costs of staying hidden," she said. "It is easier to deny the costs of staying hidden, and maybe have another drink to wash the feeling away."

The new openness has raised the corporate anxiety level at some companies. "They will say, "We value our gay and lesbian employees and we want you to have an association,' but they'll hope nobody notices," said Jay Lucas, a principal in Kaplan & Lucas and Associates, Philadelphia-based diversity consultants.

But down in the trenches at many companies, unfamiliar life styles are being demystified at lunch, over coffee and in meetings. Mere familiarity begins to change perceptions.

Until recently, "most Americans couldn't say the words "gay' and "lesbian' without thinking something weird was coming out of their mouths," said Bob Powers, a diversity consultant in San Francisco.

For some, being out at the workplace has become a given. Ms. Dermody, 31, a programer at AT&T, looked for a job there three years ago after graduating from Ramapo College in New Jersey, where she had been a leader of a gay students' group.

She went to AT&T, which has included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy since 1975, not only because she regarded the job as a first-rate opportunity but also because she felt she could be out.

"I don't want to hide who I am," she said. "It takes too much energy. I work 10 hours a day. This job is stressful enough. If I had to hide who I am . . . " Her voice trailed off into the unthinkable.

Arturo Nava, 26, the other chairman of the AT&T association and an engineer at an AT&T plant in North Andover, Mass., was at the company for two years before, to his relief, he heard about the group. He had joined AT&T after graduating from MIT. "I had come out in college," he said. "It really didn't seem like an issue."

He felt isolated at his new job. "I found the environment fairly conservative and felt alone having to hide that aspect of my identity."

Ms. Dermody and Nava do not think their careers have been impeded by their openness. If anything, they said, their positions in the association have helped them stand out at the communications giant.

Other employees have come out much more cautiously. In 24 years at Wells Fargo, the San Francisco-based banking company, Douglas Holloway did not reveal anything about his personal life that would have made him stand out, including the fact that for much of that time his family comprised himself, his male lover and the children from his marriage, which had ended in divorce.

Holloway, who is about to retire, is skeptical of younger gay men and lesbians who "violate" the norms of corporate culture by doing things like bringing their companions to company functions.

"I don't see how they expect to advance," he said. "There are still "rules,' expected methods of behavior. If you want to advance, you want to fall within the parameters of the company."

Yet Holloway assumed he was breaking his cover five years ago when he began working with the Shanti Project in San Francisco, which provides services to people with AIDS. No one at Wells Fargo ever said anything to him.