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Will gay marriage help open closets at work?

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amny Photo Credit: Chris Thatcher, center, who came out at work last year, mingles at a work function. (Nicholas Grant)

Chris Thatcher needed a little liquid courage before telling his colleagues that he is gay.

“I’m pretty sure I was drunk when I first told my co-workers,” said the 24-year-old PR rep, who lives in Astoria.

Having grown up in a much less accepting community upstate — where he was closeted at his first job out of college — Thatcher was nervous about his colleagues’ reactions.

“It wasn’t something I was sure I was capable of doing,” he said.

It might have been easier for Thatcher had gay marriage been legalized in New York long ago — but, then again, maybe not.

While experts say marriage equality may offer gay employees encouragement to come out at work, it’s really up to businesses to create a welcoming environment — something that is still sorely lacking in many corners.

Thatcher did come out to his co-workers at an after-hours gathering last year, and the moment arrived and passed with hardly a blink.

“Now we talk about everything from relationships to sex like it’s just a common thing,” he said.

However, his uplifting story isn’t being told by nearly half of his gay and lesbian peers nationwide.

According to a June study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a Manhattan-based think tank, 48 percent of college-educated gay and lesbian Americans hide their sexuality on the job.

“There still isn’t an inclusive environment at a lot of places,” said Karen Sumberg, senior vice president at the center. “A lot of the informal practices” push gay and lesbian workers to the margins, she said.

That’s most often in the form of discriminatory language in the office or not asking gay colleagues about their weekends, Sumberg said.

Won’t the spread of gay marriage change all that?

“Marriage equality will bring more visibility to the issue,” she said, “but I think individual businesses need to take a look at their own policies.”

Twenty states have laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation, including New York. There are no such federal laws.

For social worker and freelance writer Mandy Van Deven, explaining her sexual identity is sometimes a thorny issue at work.

She identifies as “queer,” which means her attraction to men and women transcends gender identity, she said. Her partner is a man, and that confuses her colleagues when she tells them she’s not straight.

“The authenticity of my identity has been questioned. ... The resistance [I get] is typically for not fitting neatly into ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ categorizations,” Van Deven said, adding that “I’m uncomfortable with the way people sort of self-select cliques.”

Still, a lot of progress has been made. Years ago, very few would have been brave enough to step forward at Thatcher’s young age.

“I’m glad I did it so young,” he said, “but that’s just my character. I say it how it is.”

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How to break the news to your co-workers

For those who have been secretive about their sexual orientation, the idea of coming out at work might be frightening. Here are some tips for making your relationship public at work:

Know who you are

“You always have to manage your band whether you are gay, lesbian, straight, bi-sexual or transgender,” said Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a career expert with Vault.com.  “You always have to be professional first.”

Riley Folds, the founder of Out For Work, a national non-profit that is dedicated to educating and empowering LGBTQ students, believes you should strongly identify with who you are, because it will make it easier to share that with those you work closely with on a daily basis.

Know the organization

Folds adds that it is important to do your homework and learn about the organization’s attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals.

“Is the company LGBTQ inclusive? Do they have Employee Resource Groups for LGBTQ employees? Do they support initiatives or take part in any advocacy for these groups?  It’s important to know the background of the company before you determine how you want to go about making the announcement,” Folds said.

Take baby steps

Folds suggests testing the waters a bit, whether it means checking into health benefits or putting a picture of your significant other on your desk.

If you want to start telling people, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio suggests going to Human Resources first or a close friend at work and then asking for their advice on how to tell others.

Just make it part of the conversation

Career experts say the best way to bring it up is to just tell the truth.  If you are a male co-worker and you went out with your husband or boyfriend to a great restaurant, then just say it simply and honestly.

“If something joyous happens in your life, you should be able to tell people,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio said.  “The longer you wait, the more the situation becomes bigger than it really should be.”

Don’t make it about you

By bringing it up at a company event, you run the risk of damaging your career — and not for the reasons you may think.

“You are working every day with your colleagues and building relationships with them, but you have held this back from them and wait until a company party before you tell everyone,” Folds explains.  “Some people might see it as a form of betrayal and that could hurt your team’s productivity.  It might be better to tell them before the event.”

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