Education, Health, and Safety

I hid my sexuality at work after experiencing biphobia from colleagues

Now I finally feel at peace with who I am (Picture: Liz Willow)

A few years ago, I mentioned to a gay colleague that I was bisexual.

‘But have you ever dated a woman?’ he asked. When I admitted, somewhat shamefaced, that I had not, he shrugged and said ‘Well, you’re not really bi then, are you?’

I went silent and my heart dropped – I wished I had never shared my sexuality at all.

Those words did so much damage to my confidence that I waited years to explicitly mention my sexuality at work again.

Thankfully, I’m comfortable with my sexuality today and am in a job where I feel safe enough to be myself. But not everyone can say the same.

A 2020 Stonewall report indicated that two in five bi people hide their sexual orientation at work for fear of discrimination. Until relatively recently, I was part of that statistic.

I first came out as bisexual to most of my family and friends in my mid to late 20s, but I’ve hid my sexuality for most of my professional life.

When attempting to come out in the past, I’ve been met with flat-out disbelief, ‘jokes’ about bisexuals being ‘greedy’ and even that classic line, ‘it’s just a phase’.

Even in LGBT+ circles, I would overhear gay and lesbian colleagues talking about relationships and LGBT+ events, and desperately want to join in, but I didn’t know how.

I still have the vivid memory of an ex senior colleague asking me about threesomes after I mentioned that I was bisexual. Instead of a valid part of my identity in a professional context, my sexuality was suddenly reduced to a way to objectify me.

These experiences led to me deciding that being open wasn’t worth it. Not if I wanted to feel safe and accepted at work, at least superficially.

But hiding my sexuality felt like a weight in my chest – heavy and exhausting.

Each time someone assumed I was straight (and I didn’t correct them) I would feel my sense of self dwindle.

I’ve experienced anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Hiding my sexuality at work worsened my feelings of isolation, separating me further from my colleagues and friends. When kind managers or colleagues tried to offer me support, they weren’t able to understand what I was going through, because an important piece of the puzzle was missing.

My lack of confidence in expressing my sexuality bled into all areas of my life. I wasn’t able to be myself fully in my relationships, homelife or work. This only worsened my mental health – increasing my exhaustion and lack of self-belief.

Everything changed when I started my current job in 2019.

It wasn’t until I was fully myself at work that I realised the complete effect that hiding my sexuality was having on my mental health

A few months after starting my new role, I noticed an article profiling an openly bisexual staff on our intranet for international Bi Visibility Day. The staff member talked about their day job, why they chose to come out as bi at work and the barriers that bi people face.

As I read it, I thought to myself, ‘If they can come out as bi at work, so can I.’ I was still apprehensive, but it gave me confidence I hadn’t felt before.

After a year in the role, I finally came out to my line manager. My heart was beating out of my chest when I told him that I was bisexual and that my new partner was a woman during my end of year review. Old fears of not being believed or having my orientation laughed off came rushing back to the surface.

Thankfully, he was incredibly supportive. He listened to me, believed me, and asked how he could support me.

Later, he even helped me share my orientation with my wider team, casually, via our team group chat. My team were immediately supportive. In catch-ups, they would regularly ask how my partner was, and one of my colleagues ended up knitting her a scarf.

It wasn’t until I was fully myself at work that I realised the complete effect that hiding my sexuality was having on my mental health. Knowing that my workplace truly embraced my whole self dramatically increased my confidence.

Instead of an underlying sense of unease – worrying whether a manager would accept me if they knew the truth – I felt able to take more initiative at work and take on new projects. I eventually successfully applied for a more challenging role in an internal team, and then a promotion.

Not everyone feels the need to come out at work, but for me it was an important step towards self-acceptance. 

While my depression and anxiety are still there, I feel more at peace with who I am, and my ability to manage my symptoms at work has improved.

Soon I became involved in our LGBT+ Network, first as an Area Representative and then a national Bi Lead. I started to help organise events and re-started our Bi Inclusion Group with the aim of providing a space where staff who are attracted to more than one gender can share our experiences and help make our workplace more inclusive.

I was lucky enough to receive a Stonewall Changemaker of the Year Award earlier this year.

When I talk with my Bi Inclusion Group, I’m often blown away at how what I thought was a personal experience and individual to me is part of the wider bi experience.

Many bi people worry that their sexuality is not valid, they don’t always feel welcome at LGBT+ events or feel invisible if they are in a long-term relationship that looks heterosexual from the outside.

Bisexuality is often considered ‘half-gay’ and people expect us to experience a watered-down version of homophobia. This erasure and the constant need to hide who you are, even within your own community, is exhausting.

Research from Stonewall shows that bi staff may be less likely to report discrimination and may not seek out support when they need it. Bi people also self-report worse mental health outcomes than our lesbian or gay counterparts – with contributing factors being discrimination, harassment, and rejection from family and friends. 

Just because a workplace has openly gay and lesbian staff in positions of senior management, it doesn’t automatically mean that bi staff feel any safer to be themselves.

Being an LGBT+ inclusive employer is a commitment to uplift every member of our community. With 43% of young people between the ages of 18-24 now identifying somewhere between ‘totally straight’ and ‘totally gay’, bi people now make up a large part of the workforce and it’s time for employers to step up.

If you want to make your work more inclusive, some easy first steps are to include bi speakers at LGBT+ events, explicitly mention bi people and biphobia in LGBT+ policies – or even celebrating Bi Visibility Day on 23 September.

The mental health aspect of workplace inclusion is too-often overlooked, but when employers have the courage to truly support all LGBT+ people, it can be life changing.

It’s been a huge relief to bring my whole self to work and I know employers can do more to support bi people like me.

When I’m not hiding who I am, I have more energy to complete quality work and support my colleagues.

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