The Coming Out Collection
a series created by the Boston LGBTQ+/AAPI Community
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"Beside being personally liberating, coming out is a means to claim space.
Jason Ng (he/him)
National Coming Out Day (October 11) is a day of great significance to the LGBTQ+ community, and NAAAP Boston proudly joins in celebrating those who have come out or are in the process of coming out.
Despite great strides over the past decades, LGBTQ+ individuals still encounter significant challenges in and out of the workplace. Twenty-seven states still lack workplace protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in public and private employment. Concerns over the future of same-sex marriage have mounted as the SCOTUS shuffle progresses. And across the nation, LGBTQ+ lives continue to be threatened, chastised, bullied, disowned, and even lost every day, often exacerbated by intersectional factors such as race and socioeconomic status.
In a society that still grapples with homophobia and transphobia, coming out is as salient and powerful a tool as ever. Hate and prejudice thrive in environments of silence and ignorance. Coming out is a way to fight the silence. Beside being personally liberating, coming out is a means to claim space. To claim one’s identity. For the LGBTQ+ individuals reading today, we honor and celebrate with you, no matter where you may find yourself in this journey.
Over the next few weeks we will be highlighting coming out stories and other pieces written by members of the LGBTQ+/AAPI community of greater Boston. We hope this series, the Coming Out Collection, begins to humanize the voices and narratives of these people who are your coworkers, your friends, and your family members.
To the allies reading, members of your community count on your leadership to create an environment of understanding and support. Only then can we all benefit from the full and vibrant talent, perspectives, and gifts that the LGBTQ+ community has to offer.
Be Seen. Be Heard. Be Loud. Be Proud.
Jason Ng (he/him)
Associate Director of Pride, NAAAP Boston
letter from NAAAP Pride co-founder
Harris Zhao (he/him)
Each year, as we come closer to National Coming Out Day, I take a moment to reflect and recollect on how different my life has become ever since I came out as gay. Now that I’m out, it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to go back to a life of constant covering. My sexual orientation and my self identity are two parts of the same whole, but unlike a coin or a light switch, I cannot simply “turn off” the gay. In fact, it mentally hurts every time I timber my voice to sound a little more masculine, every time I tell a “little white lie” to relatives when they request updates on my love life, or when I would hide away the photo of my significant other on my phone because I don’t feel safe to display a photo of us like all the other colleagues who do so at work.
"... I want to imagine a world where being your whole authentic self is celebrated."
Coming out is a tool that we (in the LGBTQ+) community use in order to claim our space, accept our identities, and declare that we cannot be any less than our whole authentic selves. It’s about giving yourself permission to pursue happiness the same way that everyone else does.
At the same time, it is also important that we recognize “coming out” is the first step to reaching true equality. The reason why National Coming Out Day is a significant day of celebration, is because without representation, we hold no power. By coming out and letting those around you recognize that we exist, that we are normal, and that we deserve to be treated like everyone else, it makes it hard to create laws and rules that choose to exclude us.
Like many of you reading this right now, I want to imagine a world where being your whole authentic self is celebrated. I hope that one day, I can be accepted: for who I am and for who I choose to love. I have trust that we are heading in the right direction and that we will end up on the right side of history.
Harris Zhao (he/him)
Co-Founder, NAAAP Pride
third time's the charm...
- Janice Lee
For most queer folks, coming out is a continuous process. You don’t just come out once and then voila— everyone knows you’re queer from that point onward. For every new person you meet, you can choose to come out— or not. That is, unless you don a pixie cut, cuffed jeans, septum piercing, and a tattoo sleeve— but even then many straight people will still assume you’re just edgy. But I digress.
For me, coming out has been a process not just in terms of having to come out to different people over time, but also multiple times to one person: my mother. The first time was when I was a freshman in high school. Her response: “Well, in my all-girls catholic high school I had friends who had crushes on girls. But they’re now married (to men). It’s probably a phase for you, too.”
I believed her. I wanted to believe her. So I kept going to church, kept praying to God to banish these thoughts, kept feeling guilty for my sinful nature. By junior year, I’d had it— I stopped going to church and trying to squash it in my head. But it wasn’t until sophomore year in college that I came out to my mom for the second time.
" ...I gave myself intentional self-exposure in order to better accept my sexuality"
“Mom, it’s gonna be hard for you to hear, but just so you know I still have these feelings.” I think it was this time that things actually hit her. She replied that she could listen, but that she wasn’t ready to have this conversation. I knew I should appreciate the fact that she wasn’t threatening to disown me or anything like that— she’s a very understanding and loving mother— but I couldn’t help feeling rejected, misunderstood, alone. Sure I had friends whom I had come out to and were supportive, but what I needed and craved at the time was unconditional love from my own mother.
For the next couple of years, my mom and I never talked about this, or anything really. I closed off my personal life from her. Even though sexuality was just a small part of my life, I felt that if I couldn’t talk to her openly about it— since I knew it would make her uncomfortable— how could I be my authentic self around her? She’d done so much for me; how could I repay her with this?
And so I didn’t tell her about the progress I was making as I gave myself intentional self-exposure in order to better accept my sexuality. I didn’t tell her about any particular person, the ups, nor the downs. Instead, I relied on my friends to support me as I grew in these areas. In order to do the work of combating internalized homophobia and compulsory heterosexuality, in order to normalize queerness, I felt that I needed to surround myself with people who were 100% accepting, people who could inspire me with their complete acceptance of both themselves and of me.
Another reason I felt the need to figure myself out more before talking again with my mom was that I was confused about the “sexual” part of sexuality. The world all around me seemed to suggest attraction was primarily sexual, but I didn’t really feel that way. Was I asexual? Demisexual? Or just sexually repressed by years of religion and conservative upbringing? Do I like her as a friend? Something more? What do I really want? These are questions I was asking myself at the time, and continued to do so for the next few years. I didn’t feel ready to talk to my mom about all this; I didn’t want to confuse her with my confusion. I felt that I needed to clearly understand, define, and label my feelings in order to validate my conviction that they weren’t purely platonic.
"Every time we talk about it, we both find it easier and easier."
It wasn’t until the end of my senior year of college that I came out to my mom for the third and last time. We were sharing a bed in an Airbnb, drifting into sleep. Maybe it was something about being so physically close, of feeling connected and intimate. Maybe I had subconsciously wanted for so long to bring this up again. When I did so, she surprised me with so much more empathy and openness than I’d anticipated. She might have said she’d kissed a girl once too. I don’t remember really— we were both half asleep at this point.
Today, the topic of my sexuality comes up occasionally in our conversations. Every time we talk about it, we both find it easier and easier. As a baby gay, I had intentionally repeatedly exposed myself to queer media in order to normalize queerness and banish the internalized homophobia in myself. I guess my mom needed that too.
Equally as important as the number of exposures is the time given between them. She needed time to process everything. I’m sure there was a lot of reckoning she had to do to give up her dreams and visions of my future husband and a heterosexual life. A lot of pushing through the discomfort of picturing me in a homosexual relationship. I recognize that I had a much earlier start; of course she needed time too. As a middle-aged Asian Christian living in a homophobic country, there wasn’t much incentive to question homophobia if it weren’t for her own daughter. It took time, but her eventual willingness to change her views in order to love me as I am is something I’m grateful for every day.
- Janice Lee
when I became free...
- Abhiram Arunkumar
I was born in India, where August 15th is celebrated as Independence Day, having achieved freedom from British rule in 1947. To celebrate, schools distribute candy and host patriotic parades. I remember in 1999 as a seventh grader wistfully gazing at the leader of my parade group, wondering why he made me want to impress him with my rhythmic marching. I still remember his booming voice shouting the words “LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT!”
I always knew, for the most part of life, that I was gay. As a teen, my classmates would play the “pairing” game of trying to match boys with girls, and girls with boys. I was always “paired” with almost any new girl that joined our school in the middle of the academic year. But I would fantasize of a world where I could be “paired” with another boy instead. As I grew up and waded my way through high school, I tried to fit into a very heteronormative society by pretending to be someone I’m not.
"I got accustomed to thinking that I was one of those 'freaks' of nature. "
Occasionally, feelings of suppression would lead to bouts of despair and hopelessness. In retrospect, I think I was just going through the motions in those years. While people in other parts of the world were having a serious conversation about LGBTQ identity and freedom, India was still behind. My parents, grandparents, and friends would say disparaging things about the LGBTQ community, occasionally using phrases like “freak of nature”. I got accustomed to thinking that I was one of those “freaks” of nature.
I joined my undergraduate program in Chemical Engineering in Mumbai when I was 18 – the year was 2005. The four years I spent in undergrad laid the foundation to my eventual “freedom”.
My first “boyfriend” was one of my undergraduate friends. In the final years of undergrad, I spent a lot of time with him and it felt good. However, it was also a “dirty secret” because he refused to acknowledge that he was gay and preferred to keep our relationship a “side gig” – he really used those words. I couldn’t blame him because the situation in India was repressive, and it was stigmatic to be openly gay.
I decided to cope by identifying LGBTQ organizations in India. One was the Humsafar Foundation that offered support to LGBTQ individuals suffering from family rejection and counseling for safe sex practices, among other things. I somehow mustered the guts to drop in to their office one day in 2008 and I remember being terrified. I wanted to chicken out and run away. But the person at the front desk was very understanding; they directed me to a support group on coping with coming out. I still remember walking into that first session and meeting other LGBTQ individuals. I was terrified of that group meeting. On my way home from that meeting, I felt guilty of being terrified but I realized that other people in that group were probably terrified their first time too. I never went back to that group, but that experience was the pivotal moment when I decided to leave India. Even in a confidential group setting, I was still shackled by the fear that someone might recognize me.
I chose to pursue a doctorate program outside of India, in the United States – to become an expert in a dedicated field, but also to discover myself living alone. I had a spotless academic record and a perfect GRE score, so I had no trouble getting into the program of my choice. I made the decision to come to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to pursue a PhD in Chemical Engineering.
"I was acing my graduate program but needed an excuse to avoid a forced arrangement."
On July 2nd, 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which mandated that consensual sexual-relations that were “against the order of nature” were illegal and punishable up to 10 years in prison. The decision gave hope to the LGBTQ community in India. Nevertheless, my parents, grandparents, and friends were very opposed. I made my departure for the United States in August, just one month later.
I remember arriving in JFK and transferring through Chicago to Madison. The first two years of my five-year program went by uneventfully because I focused solely on my coursework and dissertation. I gave everyone I interacted with the impression that I was just another “normal” heterosexual man. There were times I considered meeting other LGBTQ individuals by attending social events at the LGBT campus center. However, I chickened out every time. I just wasn’t ready yet.
Around then, my grandparents wanted me to consider getting a traditional arranged marriage, to a woman from my hometown. My parents may have agreed to this had I not told them that I was struggling with grad school and needed to focus. In reality, I was acing my graduate program but needed an excuse to avoid a forced arrangement. I relegated myself to the notion that I would likely become one of those men that remained single throughout life, and that I would die without my loved ones knowing anything about my sexual orientation.
In 2011 and 2012, many state supreme courts in the US were striking down unconstitutional mandates that dictated that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. In November 2012, President Obama won re-election, but most importantly for me, Tammy Baldwin won the seat for US Senate to represent Wisconsin. Tammy Baldwin was the first openly gay person and openly LGBT person to be elected to the US Senate – and I thought that it was very appropriate that she was one of my senators. The shifting political environment made me more comfortable to explore my options for coming out. On January 3, 2013, when Senator Baldwin took the oath of office, I decided to sign up for the mentor program at the LGBT campus center. After this, my coming out journey escalated quickly.
My peer mentor was another out, LGBT person. One of the things I learned was that there are resources for coming out. I also learned that it is possible to be out, confident, and authentically yourself. This should not be a difficult thing, but it was, for someone like me struggling to come out and be who I wanted to be.
"When I finally came out to my father, it was nowhere close to what I was expecting..."
I then joined two support groups. One of them was called “Keep on Coming Out” or KOCO, conducted by two professional MDs at the UW Health Center. We met every Thursday for an hour and discussed our struggles. I met many students on campus who were facing similar struggles with their identity. Many of them dreaded being kicked out of home and being left on the streets if they came out. This made me feel fortunate that I was financially independent at that time of my life. I also joined another “coming out group” that was conducted by an organization called the Outreach LGBT Community Center in Madison, WI. It was a free, confidential support group that met every month for about two to three hours and had people from different stages in their life. I met individuals with various coming out problems: people with kids, people in marriages, and people who were in their eighties, all struggling to come out.
Finally, in July 2013, I decided to first come out to my brother and then to my mother, via a phone call. While my mother took a few weeks to come to grips with the news, she eventually came around. She asked me to hold off on telling my father for another year. I was barely able to hold on to that timeframe. When I finally came out to my father, it was nowhere close to what I was expecting; it went smoothly. These instances created the momentum for me to come out to all my friends and extended family. Interestingly, it was some of my friends, not my family, who couldn’t come to terms with who I am.
"I still think that this journey continues for me."
Nevertheless, I graduated with my PhD in December 2014 and moved to Boston to work at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). In retrospect, coming out had a positive impact on my professional attitude and mindset: I got several patents submitted, good quality publications in high impact journals, and a lot of confidence in general.
Fast forward to 2020, I am out to most people but not completely out at work. Discrimination for being out at work can occur in very subtle ways. Some coworkers would not want to collaborate or associate with me because of my sexual orientation. Nevertheless, this was not common, and I was very happy to be part of LGBT-focused professional business resource groups (PBRGs).
I had the opportunity to network and meet some amazing people and friends as part of business resource groups in Boston: The Boston Gay Professionals Group, OutBio, and the American Chemical Society’s LGBT Chemists and Allies group. OutBio is a group dedicated to LGBTQ professionals in the biotech industry. From 2015 to date, I lead coming out groups to learn about the struggles that people face and share my own coming out experiences, both in and out of the workplace.
I consider myself to have become “free” in 2013, when I started my coming out journey. However, I still think that this journey continues for me. My coming out story was precipitated and supported by political events in the US and around the world – an important reason as to why elections have consequences. My first instinct in professional circumstances has been to not come out, and given the current political situation in the US, it is not easy to know whether you will face discrimination. But seeking confidential help in focus groups was instrumental to my journey. For just a few hours, they helped me be the person I really am. To get a taste of how freedom felt. And that made me want to be free forever.
- Abhiram Arunkumar
how I wish I could come out...
It started with a simple question of an emphatic “Are you gay!?” as my religious mom was acting wildly suspicious of a female college friend coming over so often. I said no in response as I knew I could not explain to a first-generation mother who typically acts before she thinks. That’s how she survives in a new world where English isn’t her first language.
College years are where you practice your social skills the most. It’s a great opportunity to be open-minded and interact with different kinds of people from all over the country and possibly the world. If you’re lucky, you start to find who you really are while you’re an adult-in-training.
" ... I thought I could live as a straight-passing woman for the rest of my life or until my parents passed."
Yes, my female friend and I were dating while in college. We were like any other couple but with some conditions like not being able to hold hands in public. Only a small number of people knew - both friends and enemies alike. Enemies spread it like wildfire or use it as a way to make themselves feel better. “Are you gay?” was the turning point during my college years where I gained and lost friends while maintaining a certain image to my family.
How I wished I came out was never part of my life plan as I thought I could live as a straight-passing woman for the rest of my life or until my parents passed. Until then is when I truly can be myself. Practicing my social skills during college was difficult as I also lived at home during my undergraduate years which did hinder some of my social skills. If you asked me, I was level 5 in socializing and level 80 for being the poster child of studying at the school of their choice.
If I was courageous, I would’ve sat my parents in the same room and told them both at the same time. My parents balance each other out in terms of personality where the patriarch is typically more demanding in logic and reasoning. As long as alcohol is not sprinkled into the picture, we can be a happy family. I am fortunate to be the youngest of three where I can confide in my siblings or at least one of them. So my older sister became my practice run for “coming out” as she was like a second mom to me growing up. You know, the one that speaks English and has a better emotional IQ. The outcome wasn’t what I expected as it seems that she understood that being gay is a choice and that she feels disappointed about my “decision”. To add more to it, she wishes that her children will be straight when they’re older.
" As humans, our instincts are not always true"
Post-college and onto the workforce, I casually bring it up with the new friends I make and also colleagues who ask off-chance. My director at a previous job, an openly gay caucasian woman, asked me if I went to the college that’s written on my longsleeve shirt. I replied “No, it’s my ex-girlfriend’s”. If it was someone else, I would have said “ex” instead depending on how I feel how one perceives me as a person. As humans, our instincts are not always true so maybe it is best to be yourself than be afraid of what they really think.
My father passed away earlier this year and I still never officially came out to my family to this day. Regardless, I still have a good support system of those who are aware. Even if I did try to hide it, my personality and everyday clothing would probably set off everyone’s “gaydar” anyway. I am myself in a way but also not fully. I would like my family to meet my significant other and their family with no disappointment or judgement. What I learned is to be able to come out is to be able to make peace with oneself’s identity. Until then, I have to overcome my projected image to become myself.
navigating sexual orientation in the workplace...
- Abhiram Arunkumar
I first joined the corporate world in December 2014 at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) in Devens, MA. Rewind a few months, when I got the job offer, I was still wrapping up my doctoral dissertation and preparing to leave university. I was anticipating the transition to industry very much – I was only recently out and I had always wondered how it would be to identify as openly gay in the workplace. Growing up in India, I was used to a perception that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of policy was in place in the corporate world. Living in the United States for five years, along with the evolving politics of being gay changed my perception: I was very excited to start my career by being open about my sexual orientation. I was to find out that it was not going to be as easy as I thought it would.
" Many people automatically assumed that I was a heterosexual, cis-gender male."
When I was in a university town like Madison, WI, coming out was easy. Living and interacting with socially progressive individuals in my professional and personal cycles drove this. Moving to a progressive state like MA (which has many university “bubbles”) should have maintained this general vibe. However, I found that a big pharmaceutical company is its own “bubble”, drawing a very diverse group of people with different backgrounds, different social views and different experiences. When I joined BMS, I was out to my immediate peers. However, I struggled to come out to one of my closest co-workers at the time (I am going to call them “A”).
“A” trained me on some of my day-to-day responsibilities and gave me my first lessons on working in industry. I had multiple business trips with them to several BMS locations. We had great conversations that were technical, socio-economic and industry focused. Based on my interactions with them on several of those issues, I could never come out to them. Many people automatically assumed that I was a heterosexual, cis-gender male. I had to worry that my immediate peers could out me to “A”. I was lucky in that “A” mostly kept to themselves and had other friends from BMS, and they didn’t discuss my personal life for the most part.
As I worked cross-functionally with more of the legacy BMS crowd, I was interacting with a different demographic: older in age, highly experienced, more old-school, and generally more hetero-normative. Every time they discussed something personal, it was about their children or something very superficial. Occasionally they would ask me if I had a “wife” or “girlfriend”. This almost made me feel like I was being pushed into the closet – looking back, I realize that this is because I was worried about being discriminated against. This can be the case for many young individuals who enter the corporate world: we enter with certain expectations but the reality is different.
So, how did I deal with this situation? I made use of professional business resource groups (PBRGs): one of these groups was focused on LGBT professionals and allies. These groups were a good focal point to think about how your identity and experiences could make for a more diverse and inclusive workplace – and across different geographic locations. One of the employees I met at these groups was responsible for developing training material for diversity and inclusion. My experiences along with those of many other queer employees were considered in designing the training material that was rolled out to the whole company in 2016. It was substantially different from the D&I training I had taken when I joined BMS in 2014.
"Be confident, build personal connections with colleagues, supervisors and peers..."
I made it clear to my direct reports, people on my matrix teams and my peers that I value their experiences, their background and the role of their personal experiences and identities on the success of our projects. This led to a very positive and productive working environment for the rest of my time at BMS. I made the time to understand the experiences of other people who were not queer, made personal connections with them at work to ensure that we worked well together. Everyone has something to offer, so if you are unsure about how your sexual orientation may be perceived, it is always a good idea to have one-on-one conversations, understand their professional background and drop your orientation in a subtle manner to begin with.
As I transitioned to a different major biotechnology company in 2018, Amgen Inc., I found that the same approach worked. In the time between 2014 and 2020, many major corporations have made it clear that they will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the environment in our micro-organizations within the entire organization can be different: much like how a town in Kentucky, or New York City can be different than average America.
The micro-organizational environment is what shapes our success in our professional trajectory. If you struggle to be “out” in your micro-organizational environment, know that you are not alone. Be confident, build personal connections with colleagues, supervisors and peers, and let that positive connection help you be yourself. I have often wondered about not talking about my personal life at work. I have found that that approach helps when you are working with very focused, short-spanned project teams. On longer-term projects that approach has not worked for me, because questions about one’s general life come up.
"it is normal to feel 'lost' when transitioning from academia to a diverse corporate workplace"
As an example, I joined a cross-company collaboration for a high profile investigation at Amgen. This investigation lasted my entire duration at Amgen and I had to work with multiple people across three major companies. During the course of this investigation, the vibe would sometimes be stressful. Adding the personal touch and making the personal connection helped in having a productive work team. I could not pretend to be a cis-gender, heterosexual man with the other people in this team. Groups like “OutBio” are cross-company LGBT organizations in the biotech industry and they often have monthly social events. These events are great for networking and for meeting other LGBT colleagues in your own organization and outside of your organization. They are also good for discussing your workplace LGBT situation to other people who may relate.
As a closing to this article, there are a few things I want to restate: it is normal to feel “lost” when transitioning from academia to a diverse corporate workplace. It is necessary to evaluate co-workers in the unique manner that those interactions deserve, but also important to establish personal connections with long-term colleagues. Make use of employee resource groups and LGBT focused cross-industry groups. Be out, be proud, and just be!
- Abhiram Arunkumar