This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Out in the Workplace

As a student at Vassar, Scott Mendelsohn ’93 was “the brash, loud, young gay person on the President’s Committee, wearing my activist button,” he says today. Upon graduating from college and entering the workforce, “I always was out. If someone didn’t want to deal with me, that was fine.” For some of Mendelsohn’s coworkers, though, making that decision hasn’t always been an easy one. “I ended up at a job where I was out but my boss wasn’t,” Mendelsohn explains. “He confided in me. It was unusual for me—after being so gung ho—to have someone else’s secret to keep.”

This issue of whether or not to be out in the workplace, not to mention how to be out in the workplace, was the focus of a recent “Out in the Workplace” alumnae/i panel at Vassar. “It was really about the intersection of our public self and our private self, who we are professionally versus personally,” Mendelsohn explains.

The panel included a diverse mix of alumnae/i: Mark Burstein ’84, Vassar trustee and executive vice president at Princeton University; Melissa Silberman ’94, a deputy executive director at the New York City Department of Education; Keith St. John ’81, deputy counsel to the minority at the New York State Senate and the first black, openly gay elected official in the U.S.; Christianna Wood ’81, Vassar trustee and chair of the board of governors of the International Corporate Governance Network; and Jason Wu ’07, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York. Mendelsohn, a director of strategy and planning and co-director of the Workplace Learning Resource Center with the New York City Department of Education, served as moderator.

They shared experiences ranging from being very publicly “out” to remaining quite private because of work in a conservative industry. Panelists also discussed issues such as subtle cues—how one dressed, or how one accessorized an office space—that gave signals about gender identity and sexual orientation, not only in terms of not giving away one’s private life, but also in terms of effectively communicating that private life to colleagues. “If you work in an environment where the assumption is that you’re straight, you become quickly aware that in that environment, you would constantly have to be coming out,” explains Mendelsohn. “It takes energy to be constantly defining yourself to people. So how do you send that message and avoid repeating the same conversations?”

Students appreciated the insights offered by the alumnae/i. “My sense is that a lot of underclassmen hadn’t thought about some of these issues,” says Mendelsohn. “But students with internship experience, and seniors thinking about applying to jobs, were much more plugged in and grateful to hear from people who’ve navigated these questions. What do you put on your resume if you’re graduating from school and have been heavily involved in gay organizations? How do you show your leadership? How do you frame it so you’re not cutting yourself off from opportunities you might want, but also give yourself credit for the work you’ve done, and to do so with integrity?”

Mendelsohn notes that, for the newest generation of Vassar students, the question is not whether to be out in the workplace. That much is usually taken for granted. The new question is rather one of “how to manage relationships and be part of a work community as an out person.”

“Out in the Workplace” was the latest in a series of events spearheaded by the LGBTIQA Alumnae/i Planning Group, formerly known as LAGAVC, in cooperation with the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, Office of Career Development, and Office of Campus Life and Diversity. Other recent Alumnae/i Planning Group events have included the “Smashing History” conference, as well as numerous gatherings over winter break in cities around the country, all with an eye toward connecting current students with alumnae/i. “We are continuing to focus on the intergenerational connections for this community,” says Mendelsohn. “Students and young graduates have as much to teach us as we have to offer them. Events like this help to bridge the generations. It’s an exciting time for the community to do more for each other, and for Vassar.”

­–Peter Bronski

Image © iStockphoto / mattjeacock.

April 2012

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