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Identity Covering In the Workplace

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

“Why don’t you do more to hide who you are?”  

“Wouldn’t work be easier for you if people didn’t know?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these questions.  And maybe I could be less visible. Maybe I could wait longer to bring people into my confidence and trust.  Maybe it might be easier. . . at first . . . but, maybe it would lead to situations like ones I’ve already experienced where my identity as a transgender woman has come to light later in the cycle of a work relationship and caused all sorts of tensions and issues. So for me it’s easier to be upfront and let the issues happen early so that maybe we can work through them without all the trust issues and heartache.  

When a person downplays or intentionally does not disclose a known stigmatized identity to better fit within a dominant culture, it’s called covering.  

I have tried covering my identity at work and it didn’t always go well.

The first time was when I was serving in the Army.  I knew that I felt like a girl but hadn’t really figured out how to assimilate the full truth of that.  By the end of my 3rd year in I was in crisis. I presented as male because that is what everyone thought I was.  But there came a time when I reached a point where I couldn’t will myself into the barber’s chair and I stopped forcing myself to remain emotionally distant from the men and women I served with.  It didn’t take long before I crossed a line that called attention to the fact that I was . . . well they decided on gay. But back in the 90’s admitting to your command, when confronted, that you felt like a girl meant gay because they didn’t have the language or understanding to know what transgender was and I had only learned what it meant a few months before leaving for Korea, myself. I ended up being discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Another time was when I actually began my transition.  It was exhausting hiding who I was all the time and I only lasted four months before I simply couldn’t go another day.  And, to be honest, at four months into my transition, I wasn’t even close to passing.  But being authentic and knowing I didn’t pass was so much easier than hiding who I am.

There are four manifestations of covering:

  • Appearance, which is when a person changes their self-expression;

  • Advocacy, which is when a person avoids discussing topics central to their identity;

  • Affiliation, which is when a person avoids behaviors associated with identity group; and

  • Association, which is when a person intentionally avoids socializing with other members of their identity group.

In the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s (HRC) 2018 report, A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide, they discuss being closeted at work.  Which is a very common way of referring to covering one’s LGBTQIA+ identity. Here are some of their findings.

46% of LGBTQ workers are closeted at work. The top reasons given for not being open at work about their sexual orientation and gender identity are:

  • Possibility of being stereotyped: 38%

  • Possibly making people feel uncomfortable: 36%

  • Possibility of losing connections or relationships with coworkers: 31%

What this tells us that a significant number of people feel they need to cover their identities in order to fit and be effective in their positions.  But why is this a problem? And what impact does it really have?

HRC’s report goes on to say that working in an unwelcoming environment can lead to the following outcomes:

  • 25% of LGBTQ workers feeling distracted from work

  • 17% felt exhausted from spending time and energy hiding their sexual orientation and 13% from hiding their gender identity

  • 20% of LGBTQ workers avoided a special event at work such as lunch, happy hour, or a holiday party

  • 25% of LGBTQ workers avoided certain people at work

  • 31% felt unhappy or depressed at work

  • 20% have stayed home from work because the workplace wasn’t always accepting of LGBTQ people

  • 20% searched for a different job

Look at all that lost productivity. And this missed opportunities for team building and collaboration.  And the loss of talent is no small issue either.  I focused on LGBTQIA+ issues in this article because being a transgender woman is a huge part of who I am and this affects me personally.  But there are many identity groups that an employee could belong to that they feel the need to cover.  Such as those who belong to religious minorities, those with a political affiliation that differs from the majority of their coworkers, racial minorities who are concerned that will feed negative stereotypes (This fear that they will live up to a negative stereotype about their identity group is called Stereotype Threat.), and many others.

Fostering Inclusive Cultures in the workplace is important because it will allow your employees to be authentic and to build better relationships with their coworkers, clients, and customers.  Which, in turn, improves their productivity and potentially decreases the likelihood that they will seek employment elsewhere.


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