For the past 35 years, National Coming Out Day has often been a catalyst, reminding employers of the value of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the workplace. But for its founders, coming out was a political act.

On October 11, 1987, more than 200,000 LGBTQ+ people and allies marched past the White House to protest the Reagan administration’s failure to acknowledge the HIV/AIDS crisis, which was then at its peak. One year later, psychologist Richard Eichberg and activist Jean O’Leary established the annual observance, which they felt would continue the fight against mass erasure on the part of the U.S. government by making visible the communities affected by a virus that has today claimed over 40 million lives (Eichberg himself died from complications of AIDS in 1995).

But as National Coming Out Day marks its 35th year, many members of the LGBTQ+ community still do not have the opportunity to participate in that ongoing political project. A 2020 report found that 40% of U.S. LGBTQ+ employees are closeted at work — 26% of them wished they could be out — and 75% have reported experiencing negative day-to-day workplace interactions related to their LGBTQ+ identity in the past year.

For employers who embrace diversity and inclusion, that should mean not only recognizing LGBTQ+ workers who have the ability to come out, but also focusing on creating safer spaces for those who don’t. Even in 2022, coming out is still an important goal for the LGBTQ+ movement because, as trailblazing politician Harvey Milk once argued, the very physical presence of queer and transgender people helps debunk harmful myths and misconceptions about their identities. However, despite those tangible benefits to the group, the personal costs of coming out can be prohibitively high. The work of National Coming Out Day aims to ensure that everyone who is LGBTQ+ has access to resources that allow them to be themselves in all areas of their lives, including their jobs.  

Image shows two fashionably dressed people, one with blue hair and glasses and the other with locs, standing next to each other outside of work and looking at an iPad together.

Although studies have generally illustrated the positive effects of coming out on the overall health of LGBTQ+ people, that is not true in all cases. While a 2011 study in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal found that queer and transgender individuals who are out in their communities had lower levels of stress hormones than participants who were closeted, researchers noted possible limits to the impact of coming out. “Coming out might only be beneficial for health when there are tolerant social policies that facilitate the disclosure process,” lead author Robert-Paul Juster said in a statement. The study did not explore those implications, but Juster’s disclaimer indicates that there may be situations in which coming out could prove disadvantageous or even dangerous, whether due to a lack of legal protections or prevailing cultural norms.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling that federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ+ individuals, they remain extremely vulnerable to mistreatment in the workplace — particularly transgender people. A 2021 McKinsey study found that half of transgender people are uncomfortable with being out to co-workers, largely due to fears of retaliation. In a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 27% of respondents had been denied employment, terminated from their position or refused a promotion within the past year because of their identity. Even more troubling, 15% said that they had been verbally assaulted or physically attacked at work for being transgender.

Transgender people aren’t the only members of the wider LGBTQ+ population to face overwhelming scrutiny for their very visiblity. Despite accounting for the largest segment of the community, bisexuals are the least likely to be out: A 2019 Stanford University study found that just 19% of respondents who identified themselves as bisexual were out to “all or most of the important people in their lives,” as opposed to the 75% of gays and lesbians who said the same. A majority of bisexuals in the survey (54%) said that almost no one knew about their sexual orientation. The closet is most restrictive for bisexual men: A survey from the Pew Research Center dating back to 2013 found that just 12% of bisexual men were out, fearing rejection by colleagues or romantic partners.

Two people lounging in a living room. One person is sitting on a couch with headphones on while the other person sits at a desk on a computer.

What often keeps LGBTQ+ people in the closet is stigma, and that stigma can have direct consequences professionally. Due to high rates of employment discrimination, trans adults are twice as likely to be unemployed and four times as likely to live under the poverty line as the average American, according to a 2011 report from the National LGBTQ Task Force. A 2018 literature review from University of Richmond Law indicated that bisexuals report lower levels of job satisfaction or feeling engaged at their workplaces — often struggling to remain in their positions as a result — and that 52% of bisexual people reported facing discrimination in the workplace.

If employers wish to address these crises, they might consider beginning with how their workplaces address National Coming Out Day. Instead of expecting LGBTQ+ people to change office cultures just by being there, their supervisors and co-workers might take it upon themselves to engage in that transformative effort by educating themselves and creating better workspaces. National Coming Out Day is an opportunity for businesses to reflect and survey their own internal policies and ask themselves whether they create an environment where LGBTQ+ workers feel truly welcomed and embraced. Among other things, companies should consider offering inclusive family leave benefits, an insurance plan that offers coverage for gender-affirming medical care, and non-discrimination guidelines that explicitly ban anti-LGBTQ+ bias.

To fully support LGBTQ+ employees on National Coming Out Day, Indeed’s chief marketing officer, Jessica Jensen, said that companies need to ask whether they have “superficial commitment or a deep cultural commitment” to LGBTQ+ equality. Jensen is the executive director of Indeed’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group, iPride, which offers networking and mentorship that creates community in the workplace. She says that real workplace inclusion goes far deeper: from hiring practices to advancement opportunities. “If you look around and you don’t see people like you, you don’t feel that you can fully express yourself,” she says. “I always say that Pride is not a celebration in the summer, it is a full-year activity: making sure that we are investing consistently and deeply in the LGBTQ+ community all the time.”

Three colleages are sitting in an office and looking at a laptop.

Every LGBTQ+ person should have the right to be their truest self in the spaces they occupy, whether that’s at a family dinner or on a company Zoom call. National Coming Out Day recognizes that the work of getting to that point isn’t over, and, at least globally, it likely won’t be for many generations. It’s still illegal to be LGBTQ+ in nearly 70 countries, and a 2021 report from the Williams Institute found that acceptance of queer and transgender people in the United States actually lags behind most other Western nations. Helping the LGBTQ+ community create that better world means coming out with them, as allies and true partners in the continued fight for progress. “It means really being proactive: hearing from employees about what they need and want to thrive and making the policy decisions to support that,” Jensen says. “Visibility matters.”