Honesty and Communication: APL Staff Members Share ‘Coming Out’ Stories
This story is brought to us by Allies in the Workplace, which supports LGBT and allied staff at the Applied Physics Laboratory.
Max Crownover was concerned when his son abruptly announced that he was going to leave the Naval Academy after the first semester of his sophomore year.
“I was upset,” he said. “I had a naval career, and he had seemed happy there. He just informed us that he had decided to leave, and all he would say is that it wasn’t for him.”
About six months later, he and his son met up. “I’ll never forget it,” Crownover said “We were at a Coldstone Creamery and he said, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m gay.’”
Crownover, who works in APL’s National Security Analysis Department, said he was completely shocked. His son was an athlete who had dated a number of girls, and didn’t seem to fit any of the stereotypes he had of what being gay was. “But after the initial shock wore off and I had a few minutes to think, I just told him that I loved him and always would. No matter what,” Crownover said.
Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, an annual commemoration of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, also intended to promote awareness of gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender issues. The day — just like coming out itself — holds different meanings for different people.
Mike Sweeney, of APL’s Security Services Department, is a Navy veteran who has been with his partner for 19 years and has two children. “Coming out is very individual,” he said, “and it’s a process. Life puts you into new relationships and situations all the time, and coming out happens frequently.”
Although he has personally never chosen Oct. 11 to come out, he said he recognizes the day’s significance. “I’m glad that they have a day for [coming out] because it puts it out there for conversation and communication. And some people may need that ‘day of courage’ to take this big step that they may have been internalizing for years.”
Sweeney also said that coming out doesn’t mean shouting it from the rooftops. “Personally, I don’t wear it on my sleeve; I don’t walk around with a pride flag on my shoulder, but at some point I did tell myself that moving forward I wasn’t going to lie about it; if someone asked me respectfully, I would be truthful.”
Chris Wood, of APL’s Force Projection, added that people should be clear that there is a big distinction between disclosing ones sexual orientation versus talking about one’s sexual behavior, especially in the context of a work environment.
“You don’t talk about sexual behavior at work. Nobody should be talking about that at work,” Wood said. Coming out is not about crossing those sorts of lines, he said, but about being wholly comfortable around colleagues, family or friends. “If you can be out, then you spend a lot less time hiding things or changing the story or omitting things or stressing out when people ask a simple question like, ‘How was your weekend?’”
Crownover, who is now president of Allies in the Workplace, APL’s Employee Resource Group for members and allies of the LGBT community, said that that’s what drove the message home for him as a parent — that his son just wanted to be honest about who he is. “We all have stereotypes, mental models, and biases — some that we don’t even realize — but have to work hard to not let them limit our ability to see people for who they really are,” he said.
Both Wood and Sweeney said that having to hide something central about yourself is not only stressful, but can also harm your job performance. That’s why both have chosen to be “out” at work. “In hiding even the smallest thing, you’re expending energy. Because I’m out, I’m not expending any energy on trying to avoid something. All my energy is on the job,” Sweeney said.
Aside from one negative experience, he finds most co-workers aren’t interested in his personal life. “I love working here because it’s really smart people working on really important things, and I think the majority of people don’t care about your life at home. They want to know what can you contribute. They want to know if you can meet this end. I like the fact that we’re doing good things here and the focus is on the deliverable.”
Wood, who came to APL through a connection with the Allies group, was open about his orientation from the start and said that it has been a relief not to have to worry about it. “In the beginning, APLers might view you as an outsider because they don’t know you, but when you show them what you can do, they don’t really care what goes on outside of work,” he said. “You just do a good job, prove yourself and then you’re part of the club.”
But he admits that fear of rejection can hold some people back from coming out for years. He remembers telling a classmate before he told his best friend.
“It was easier to tell someone I didn’t have anything invested with. The longer you have a relationship, the harder it can be to come out because expectations are set. You’re in this relationship – professional or personal – and you get the impression you might let them down by coming out. But once you open Pandora’s box, you really never regret the decision.”