Blurring Lines and Coming Out: A Single Gay Dad's Story
Once upon a time, I went for a job interview with a Jewish not-for-profit where my family and marital status didn’t come up.
Shocking, I know.
Of course, asking about an applicant’s marital status, along with a whole host of other matters, is illegal. That said, I still felt slightly hurt and concerned. What kind of workplace didn’t want to get to know potential employees beyond the four corners of their two-dimensional resumes? Did this reflect an impersonal and sterile atmosphere where workers were fungible automata? How could I leave what makes me me at home when I go into the office every day?
And herein lies the challenge. We urge people to follow their passions, live their dreams, and bring their whole selves to their jobs. We seek out transformative and fulfilling career responsibilities and missions. We want our work to be deep and meaningful. And we want to be protected against the possibility that what we share and who we are will be used against us.
We say this as if it’s easy to do after merely reading a brief essay or watching a TED talk, or like the hard work is just the internal decision-making process, not how it plays out in securing and maintaining employment. But the potential for external conflict and discomfort abounds.
In my case, being an openly gay man is a tremendous component of how I see myself and what drives me to engage in Jewish social justice. Moreover, storytelling and building honest and open relationships are everyday activities without which I couldn’t do my job. It’s impossible to leave my family and its unusual structure out of the picture I paint of myself for others, just as there’s a practical limit to how effectively I can control others’ responses to or use of what I choose to reveal.
But how much is too much? When should I come out as gay to a co-worker? What if my opening up leads to others shutting down and closing themselves off? Every time I, or any of us, reveal a little more of our invisible identities, we, in essence, come out and take risks.
Navigating these narrows is even more complex for those of us with statuses unprotected by law. In much of Pennsylvania, and in 29 states, and under federal law, it’s completely legal to fire someone for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; in spite of strong local successes, strong public support and a near-universal belief that such protections already exist, an employer’s defense “I fired Seth because he’s gay” is a rock-solid justification. For this reason, sharing certain aspects of our lives, like being gay, can heighten our vulnerability more than others and even keep us out of a given workplace entirely.
Generally, I’m more concerned about responses to coming out as a single dad than as gay. True, I’m ostensibly insulated from discrimination based on marital status, and no one can legally fire me for my adventures in solo parenting per se. But de facto family responsibilities discrimination and perceptions of my availability and commitment make this kind of coming out similarly problematic. I’ve struggled at times with how much to share about my daughter, how she and I came into each other’s lives, and the strong priority I place on fatherhood.
I’m lucky enough to have found an environment that welcomes me and what I bring to my work, in line with overall encouragement of blending the personal and the professional. Standing in this tension isn’t always simple for everyone everywhere, though. If we expect to interconnect what we do with who we are, we need to be aware of the complex dynamics of coming out in the workplace and blurring the lines between who we are personally and what we do professionally.
Seth Goren is the director of Repair the World: Philadelphia. He practiced human rights and consumer protection law before going to rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and has been a dad for a little over three years.
This blog is part of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's special series, “Double Booked: A Conversation about Working Families in the 21st Century,” dealing with the many issues that affect working families, and featuring everything from personal stories to policy analysis. Visit the Double Booked portal to read more posts, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #doublebooked.