On the morning of my 19th birthday I came out to my family. "Can I talk you all for a minute?" I asked, before running to the bathroom to vomit. When I returned, heart pounding and awash with anxiety, I came out.
As Pride Month draws to a close, I've been reflecting on the experience again. When I was first coming out, I was given a lot of advice, mostly by straight people. Some of it I ignored and some I took to heart. I was advised not to cut my hair, not to dress in a way that would draw attention to my identity and to not discuss being queer in academic or professional settings.
People whom I loved and respected wanted me to be safe. They wanted me to be judged based on the content of my character and not by a letter in an acronym. This advice was well-meaning and some may even say pragmatic. In my wide circle of LGBTQIA+ friends, some are out among friends and family but not at work. Others are out with friends and coworkers but not with their families. Some constantly talk about their identities, and others choose not to.
Not every person is able to come out in all areas of their lives, and not every person should feel the need to be. In many U.S. states it's legal to fire someone for being queer or trans, and safety remains a serious concern for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially trans people and people of color.
A recent Glassdoor survey found that 43% of LGBTQ employees say they are not fully out at work, and 47% say they believe that being out at work could hurt their career — including losing a job, not getting a promotion or not getting selected for a project. More than half, 53%, say they have "experienced or witnessed anti-LGBTQ comments by co-workers."
But for me, being out at work has been an incredible privilege. When I was younger, I feared that I would never have the career I aspired to, but coming out at work has allowed me quiet those doubts. It brings me pride and joy to be my full self at work, and it makes me a better coworker, a better employee and a better writer.
It makes me a happier, more honest and more interesting human being.
The very first time I came out at a job, I thought I was prepared because I wasn't about to vomit. I told a coworker that I lived with my then-girlfriend and suddenly, I was getting emails and messages from people I had barely met. One coworker asked me questions about my sex life and how I planned to have children. I got looks in the bathroom and men became awkward about opening doors.
Looking back, I wish had been given less advice. Instead, I wish I had been prepared for what coming out would mean. Here are four things I have learned to expect when you come out at work that I wish I could have told my 19-year-old self:
Expect to come out again (and again)
What surprised me most about coming out is that I would have to do it almost every day. Every time you meet a new person or build a new relationship, you are going to have to make a judgement call about what information you want to reveal about yourself.
Often, cisgender straight people assume that everyone they interact with is cisgender and straight. People with "alternative" haircuts, people who dress in "gender-bending" ways, people with pride flag tattoos — all of them will tell you that coming out is a continuous process.
Choosing to be open about my life has brought me joy, but everyone needs to conduct a personal assessment of the potential costs and benefits of coming out. You will need to constantly ask yourself, "Am I safe? Do I trust this person? Will my job be in jeopardy?" Give yourself space to answer these questions, to assess your surroundings and to continue to reassess what you want.
Expect some forms of coming out to be easier than others
If you decide to come out at work, you should know that there are some forms of coming out that are easier than others.
Depending on each workplace's culture, having an in-depth conversation about identity may or may not be considered acceptable. But it's not uncommon to talk about significant others, and sharing something with your coworkers over lunch, like that you live with a partner, can feel more casual and less stress-inducing than mentioning your specific sexual identity or gender identity.
Coming out is different for all members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Some identities are more widely understood and accepted, while others face additional challenges. Understanding these privileges will help you better understand other members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Acknowledge that coming out will be different every time and some topics will be more difficult to navigate.
Expect a wide range of responses
Every person you work with is different, and every person you come out to is going to respond differently.
Some people may be absolutely indifferent, but don't assume this means they're indifferent to you. In fact, over time, indifference may be a response that you will grow to appreciate.
Some people may be awkward. It can be surprising to people when they are faced with a topic that they do not typically discuss. Be sure to take care of yourself, and give your coworkers time and space to adjust.
Some people will be over-the-top accepting. Coming out can involve disclosing personal information, and that can give others a false sense of intimacy. They may feel that because you have come out to them you're now closer than you really are. They may want to ask seemingly one million follow-up questions. This can feel amazing, or it can feel overwhelming.
Take a deep breath, and only answer what you feel comfortable talking about.
Of course, you may face negative responses as well. Some people may call you slurs or discriminate against you. Some people may say sexually explicit things to you, or ask you sexually explicit questions. Know that these responses are a product of their bias and not your actions. You are not responsible for the inappropriate behavior of others.
If you do face these kinds of responses, be sure to reach out to your human resources representative or an outside LGBTQIA+ non-profit that specializes in workplace discrimination.
Patience with yourself and your coworkers, as well as an understanding of what is and is not appropriate, will help you deal with all of these kinds of responses. The only thing you can know for sure is that no two responses will be exactly the same.
Expect it to get easier
Coming out may not be easy, but it will get easier.
You will get stronger and wiser. Each new day and new relationship will present new challenges, but they can also bring new opportunities for growth and connection — at least it has for me.
Building a community has helped me process my identity at and outside of work, taught me what it means to come out and provided me with a chosen family that happens to be made up of the smartest, funniest and most supportive people I know.
What I wish I'd known when I was 19, was that for me, the benefits of coming out have far outweighed the challenges.
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