"Coming out isn’t a one time event — it’s a process that repeats itself over many years in many contexts."Alex Carl, QA Engineer, Adzerk
In celebration of Pride Month — and this week’s Supreme Court ruling that protects gay and transgender workers — I’m shining the spotlight on fellow Adzerk teammate, Alex Carl.
As Adzerk’s QA Engineer, Alex is an expert troubleshooter and product tester — one who tested the waters of workplace acceptance when he came out to his colleagues.
While every LGBTQ story is unique, I hope you find Alex’s personal experiences, advice, and work-life balance as helpful as I do.
How and when did you come out — and what impact, if any, did it have on your relationships with colleagues?
I didn’t come out as queer at work until election night in 2016. Until then, I didn’t think my sexual orientation was relevant to my job or career. I wasn’t ashamed of who I was, and I wasn’t scared of repercussions, but it didn’t seem like a detail that had any bearing on how I did my job.
But the election put into perspective how regressive and destructive silence is. If you don’t speak up about who you are, you can’t advocate for yourself. No one will advocate on your behalf if you’re not already talking. And the rights a minority group have won in the past can evaporate if they (and their allies) stay silent.
So I dropped a brief statement about my bisexuality and my reasons for coming out in a Slack channel. The response from the team was positive without exception. It didn’t change the working relationship I had with anyone, which says a lot about the people and culture at Adzerk.
I experienced the best possible outcome. Many LGBTQ people, especially non-binary and trans people, cannot be out at work safely. Prior to this week’s Supreme Court ruling, private employers in North Carolina (where Adzerk is based) could legally dismiss employees based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Further, state law prohibited municipalities from banning such discrimination.
Adzerk’s company constitution not only bans discrimination but actively promotes diversity and inclusion. I’ve never felt unsafe being myself here. But my advice to anyone considering coming out at work is to check your company’s policies first.
How do you navigate discussing your home life — and same-sex significant other — with coworkers?
Coming out isn’t a one time event — it’s a process that repeats itself over many years in many contexts. Simply mentioning details about my life in casual conversation (like my significant other’s unambiguously masculine first name) is enough to be out.
I lean towards openness and equity. If a straight person would bring up their hetero spouse in a particular professional context, I’ll mention mine.
Every LGBTQ person is unique, so I can only speak for myself. Regardless of who you are, the level of detail about your personal life and identity you want to share at work (and with whom) is entirely up to you.
Have you ever experienced any awkward social encounters at work events?
Nothing super awkward, but people sometimes assume I’m straight (or gay). Our society treats hetero as the norm, and the same goes for cisgender, white, and male. I’ve surprised a few people by revealing I was in a long-term relationship with a man.
Bisexual and pansexual people are often perceived as gay when in a same-sex relationship, and straight when not, although their underlying selves never change. It’s part of a larger pattern of bisexual erasure that happens, even within LGBTQ communities.
Pronouns can be tricky too. What thoughts and advice can you share on asserting those personal preferences at work?
I use the he/him/his pronouns that match my gender expression, so I haven’t had experiences with asserting pronouns at work. Regardless if they’re cisgender, trans, or non-binary, you should always use a coworker’s preferred pronouns. It respects who they are.
Putting your own preferred pronouns in your email signature, Slack profile, etc. is a simple and effective way to let others know how they should refer to you.
How do you think the tech industry compares to other industries in terms of its openness and diversity?
"In my experience, tech tends to be more open to accepting queerness than other industries. I think that’s because tech attracts individuals who don’t think in terms of “how things have always been."Alex Carl
In software engineering alone, it hasn’t been hard to find LGBTQ people over the years — Lynn Conway, Jon “maddog” Hall, Edie Windsor, and Peter Landin are a few notable ones — not to mention Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science. White gay men (like Peter Thiel and Tim Cook) seem particularly well-represented in tech.
That said, the tech industry continues to struggle with issues of diversity and inclusion overall despite the observed benefits. Not only in terms of who works in tech doing which roles, but the biases of technology itself.
How has work culture changed since you started working in tech?
Since 2011, I’ve noticed a shift in “passive” support for LGBTQ employees (like the recognition of civil partnerships, and later same-sex marriages) to more “active” support like sponsoring Pride events, promoting gender neutral bathrooms (or bathrooms that match gender expression), and hosting panels on LGBTQ issues.
None of these changes would be possible without the support of non-LGBTQ allies. The change in public perception of LGBTQ issues over the past twenty years has been phenomenal.
Are there aspects of Adzerk company culture that stand out as particularly LGBTQ-friendly?
One the core values in our company constitution is to “embrace diversity.” This is more than the passive support of anti-discrimination policies — the team strives to empower underrepresented groups whether in our company or our communities.
For an LGBTQ example, our CEO James Avery created the group Startups Against Amendment One, which campaigned against a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the North Carolina state constitution.
Unfortunately, the amendment passed, and same-sex marriage was illegal in NC until a Supreme Court ruling — so James responded by offering benefits to Adzerk same-sex partners anyway.
What advice would you offer someone who’s nervous about bringing their whole LGBTQ self to work?
You don’t have to be out to everyone, and you certainly don’t have to announce your queerness to the entire company (although that worked for me).
If you work for a large company, you will likely find an LGBTQ group, either in person or on Slack, where you can connect with other out employees. They’ll offer their own experiences and advice.
If your company is too small or small-minded for that, you could start by coming out to the coworkers you’re closest to and taking it from there. (The recent Supreme Court ruling makes this a lot less risky.) Remember that coming out is a repeated process, not an event.
What advice would you offer straight colleagues who want to be better LGBTQ allies?
The core of being a good ally is listening. You may not understand why someone rejects their gender assigned at birth, or uses an unfamiliar pronoun, or is attracted to multiple genders, but that person does. Their experience is valid, so listen to what they’re saying.
There are many things allies can do to help the LGBTQ community:
- Learn about the barriers LGBTQ people face in being themselves
- Speak up when you encounter homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia
- Don’t assume that everyone is cisgender or straight
- Patronize businesses that promote equality
- Vote for candidates that support inclusive laws
- Support your friends, family, and coworkers who come out to you
How are you acknowledging Pride Month?
Pride 2020 is special for several reasons — the pandemic is preventing most in-person events, and the world has finally started to recognize that Black Lives Matter. The work and sacrifices of Black civil rights activists led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is how the LGBTQ community gained its recent protections from the Supreme Court. Queer people in the United States should thank Black activists for their ongoing fight against inequality.
And we shouldn’t forget that the modern LGBTQ movement began when a group of gay, bi, and trans people became fed up with police brutality against their community and rioted. Every social and legal change in the United States since then, including an annual Pride itself, stems from that unrest.
Alex Carl is a QA Engineer at Adzerk and a former product specialist and support engineer. He's passionate about building and testing software that solves real problems for users.
Many thanks to Alex for sharing his coming out story and personal perspectives.