A talk with… Maren Borggräfe
“As subjective as they may be, these fears are certainly legitimate.”
Maren Borggräfe, founder and partner of autenticon – consulting in context, supports change processes as a systemic adviser, trainer and coach. The subjects closest to her heart are changing corporate culture and effective communication.
Maren, this is your third year in a row as a trainer at PROUT AT WORK’s “Should I or shouldn’t I” coming out seminar. What is your connection with LGBTIQ and coming out?
Maren Borggräfe: When I was 19, just after I moved from a small town in southern Germany to Berlin to study, I realised I can also fall in love with women – head over heels in love! As I come from a very religious home, this was utterly inconceivable to me up to that point. I viewed homosexuals as sinners who had to strive to get back on the right path. So this was quite a shock – not just for me but especially for my parents! My mother sensed very quickly that something wasn’t quite right, so I felt there was no other way than to come out to my parents relatively fast. After that, fate took its course. My parents disapproved of my “unnatural” tendencies that don’t represent God’s will and they still cannot fully accept my way of life. And that’s despite the fact that, after some twists and turns, I have been with my wife for 14 years and we have two wonderful boys. From personal experience, I know the inner and outer distress that coming out can cause. But I also experienced how taking a close look at yourself helps you mature. It gives me great strength when I fully accept and openly live this part of my personality.
“From personal experience, I know the inner and outer distress that coming out can cause.”
What experiences did you have when you came out?
Maren Borggräfe: Coming out to my family was a rocky road that began with my parents prohibiting me from talking to other people about it – even my own (younger) brothers, which was followed by times when I was completely estranged from my parents, and ended up with me realising to my surprise that support can come from unexpected places. For example, my grandparents and my aunts on my mother’s side were very supportive right from the start, and my grandma on my father’s side reacted surprisingly calmly. Other family members – like my mother – would not come to my wedding. That hurt very much at the time. What helped me was to actively embark on a journey of acceptance with the support of a professional coach – acceptance of myself as well as the people who had, and still have, difficulties accepting me as I am. It was very important for me to realise that everyone is doing their best and that I can’t bring about, let alone force, a change in other people’s attitudes. This brought me inner peace. I was able to reconcile with the rebel in me and thus prepare to get closer to people again, especially my mother.
With very few exceptions, my experiences of coming out to my friends and colleagues were very positive. The more open I am about my way of life, the more open the reactions are too. At work, I took a completely different approach to coming out. As I met my wife there while both of us were still in our probationary periods, we were very careful at first – until someone who we hadn’t actually told asked us whether we were still together. Rumours were going round that we had split up. After that, we no longer thought it necessary to beat about the bush. In fact, hardly anyone was surprised. No wonder! We were so much in love and it’s hard to keep that hidden. When I was introduced as a new joiner at a subsequent employer, I came out in front of everyone by saying that I was politically active in the LGBTI movement as a hobby. Here, too, the reactions were mostly approving and confirmative, although I could sense that I was perceived as being “different” somehow. Since becoming self-employed, I decide based on the situation whether or not to tell project partners and clients about my family. Just like any other heterosexual person relies more or less on gut feeling when choosing to reveal personal information or not.
Why do you think it’s important to come out in the workplace?
Maren Borggräfe: I’m convinced that people are at their most creative, innovative and effective when they feel comfortable in their working environment, trust their colleagues and supervisors and are allowed to show the entirety of their personality. If I’m using up part of my energy hiding some of my personality, it’s like I’m driving with the handbrake on. This is very difficult and draining. Strength that I need to put into my work is going to waste. I’m in a state of permanent inner conflict with myself, which makes it difficult to show people the real me. As humans, we have a very keen sense of when the person in front of us is not behaving coherently. This can be a problem for managers in particular. Apart from the fact that having a secret makes us susceptible to blackmail, we’re constantly walking a tightrope when we present ourselves – as is often necessary in the modern working world. The resulting stress can even make you ill and cause psychosomatic symptoms.
On the other hand, by being open about my identity, I can be a tremendous asset to an organisation and add to its diversity, which – as proved by many studies – is a prerequisite for high-performing teams. I can help shape the culture and pave the way for others to follow my example.
“I would generally like to encourage anyone out there who is still hesitant (and there are many more of them than we think!).”
What would be your advice to LGBT*IQ employees who are afraid that their colleagues will disapprove of them coming out in the workplace?
Maren Borggräfe: As subjective as they may be, these fears are certainly legitimate. Everyone must decide for themselves whether, and if so, when and how they come out. That’s a very important thing for me to say, especially if you have a situation where a company’s diversity management policy portrays coming out as being desirable. The decision to take this step is very personal and may have far-reaching consequences.
I recommend having the courage to seek support. This might be a friend who we trust, a contact person within the company, for example from the LGBTI network if there is one, or a professional coach. PROUT AT WORK regularly holds a seminar entitled “Should I or shouldn’t I? Coming out in the workplace”. Facilitated by experienced trainers, LGBs can share their stories in a protected space, reflect on their experiences of coming out so far, try out new approaches and give each other encouragement in the lead-up to coming out at work. In addition, more and more coaches offer support for the process of coming out. Like me, they frequently come from the LGBTI Community themselves and know from experience what the particular challenges are. There are online pools of LGBTI-friendly coaches that allow people expressing an interest to find a suitable person in their region.
Many people who are about to decide whether to come out in the workplace find it helpful to look at what they have previously experienced when coming out in different situations.. What did I experience? How did I feel? How did others typically react and how did I feel about that? What helped me? What strategies and behaviours helped me cope with difficult situations? Which of them might be useful to me in the current situation? Which ones would I prefer not to use this time and what would I like to do differently?
Employees should also keep themselves well informed, observe their environment and assess the situation realistically: how open is the corporate culture? How are non-business issues generally dealt with? Who is openly LGBTI in the company? What are the risks of coming out? Am I prepared to take them? How important is it to me to come out? What are the benefits? Am I prepared to change my employer if it doesn’t work out?
I would generally like to encourage anyone out there who is still hesitant (and there are many more of them than we think!). Be bold and show yourself. If you are centred and are true to yourself, unexpected paths open up. What you put out there will come back to you!