“If You Can’t Be Your True Self [At Work], Maybe That’s Not The Right Employer.”

by Michael Cox

I’m Michael Cox, I’m from Harlan, Kentucky.

So one time, I was on a flight sitting next to a person who was clearly a businessman, dressed in a suit, salt and pepper hair, much like me. Pretty much the same size. And we were on about a six-hour flight across country, so I was going to be really close to him for about six hours. So as we’re about to make small talk, he asked me about what my wife does. And I realized as our thighs rubbed together that I probably shouldn’t tell him that I was gay. So I actually made up a story about my wife being a school teacher. Now, at the time, my partner was a school teacher, so I just changed the gender. But I told him this story about my wife and literally changed every pronoun for the comfort of him so that we could sit next to each other for that six hour flight.

After we finished our small talk in the first twenty minutes of the flight, I had the next five-and-a-half hours to think about how I had not been honest with this person, and while we were both comfortably uncomfortable sitting next to each other, he had no idea who I was and I had not been honest with him, and I’d really betrayed my own relationship and who I really was. So I decided at that point I wouldn’t do that again.

Years later, I was working for a new employer, a Fortune 1 company, #1 retailer, Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, the heart of the south. And I was traveling there on business. So it was my first trip to meet my new colleagues – I had been with the company for about two months – and I was flying from San Francisco, California, basically the cradle of the LGBTQ community in the universe, to Bentonville, Arkansas.

It wasn’t until I had thought about it as I was on the flight to Bentonville and realized I had a pride pin on my badge that I knew I was going to have to either hide who I really was and take that pin off, or keep that pin in and come out to everyone I met during that visit.

My bag was down below the seat in front of me, so I pulled the bag out and I took the pin off. Then I thought about the consequences of doing that in case I ran into anyone who knew I was a member of the ERG or they maybe would even see the hole in my badge where that pin would’ve been, I knew that that wouldn’t look like I was being authentic. So I put the pin back in. Well, then I started thinking about all the people I was going to meet and what their biases may be against people who are LGBTQ, so I took the pin back out. So then I realized that I may run into people I know from California, so I put the pin back in.

So literally for the four hours of the flight to Texas, and then two hours from Texas to Bentonville, Arkansas, I was putting the pin in, taking it back out, until I finally decided right before landing in Bentonville that I needed to have that pin in and be my true and authentic self.

My first meeting was with someone who I knew was fairly conservative. I’d read his bio, I’d seen his background, I knew his politics. And so I was really concerned about that first meeting. Literally walking into the building, I was still debating whether to take the pin off or leave it in. I decided to leave it in. He actually turned out to be one of my best relationships, and even though we never talked about being gay or we talked about Pride @ Wal-Mart, he was very supportive of me and my career, and helping me work and network within Bentonville, and remains a friend even until this day.

So as I flew back to California, and I was reflecting on the visit, I had a real sense of pride that I had worn my pin, my pride pin per se, I had worn my pin and I had been my authentic self to everyone.

For me personally, I think the act of coming out is something that everyone has to decide when it’s right for them. I think that’s why we see in the workplace a lot of times executives who don’t come out is because for whatever reason they’re not comfortable in being out and being their authentic selves. But I think the decisions behind that are so personal. I think our responsibility is as corporate leaders is to make sure we create environments where whoever you are, at whatever level of the organization, you can be out and proud.

If you can’t be your true and authentic self, maybe that’s not the right employer. So I wanted to share this story so people know how important it is to be in an environment where you can be your full self.

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