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AWSJ June 16, 2000

More Casual Office Structure Helps Gays’ Coming Out in Singapore By SAMANTHA MARSHALL Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Singaporean Web site entrepreneur Shenzi Chua realized he was gay two and a half years ago, he didn’t hesitate to come out of the closet to his colleagues. “Because in the Web business, people I’m dealing with are very yuppie, not old and traditional; I’m not worried at all,” he said.

Such openness, especially in Singapore, where homosexuality is still illegal, was unheard of a few years ago. But the New Economy has loosened much more than dress codes and job titles. Diversity – whether in hairstyle or sexual orientation — is part and parcel of the office culture at many technology companies. Even at more traditional firms in Asia, a skilled-labor squeeze is forcing the adoption of more antidiscrimination policies.

“It’s a very nascent trend,” said Russell Heng, a gay activist in Singapore. The vast majority of gays are still closeted in the workplace, and workers still run a high risk of being penalized for their sexuality. Asian countries for the most part have no legal protections for gays, and so nothing, in theory, prevents a company from firing an employee for his sexual preferences.

But Mr. Heng notes that a growing number of gay professionals and managers are opting for disclosure. A handful are even coming to work functions with their gay partners, and introducing them as such. Of course, there are degrees of being out. Most still prefer discretion, stating matter-of-factly that they are gay when asked, but not going out of their way to introduce the topic. And there are still many who go to extremes to hide their sexuality from their co-workers, even avoiding altogether public appearances with their same-sex partner.

Clearly, certain industries are much more receptive than others. One expatriate lesbian executive at a U.S. investment bank describes her industry as one of the more homophobic. She says she wouldn’t be open about her sexuality even if she were working for the same company in the U.S. The “old boys club” atmosphere makes it hard enough for straight women to get ahead, never mind gays, she said.

At the other end of the spectrum is a company like Intel. In Singapore, the chip maker last year set up a gay corporate social club, at the instigation of one of its gay executives. In the U.S., according to Intel’s Web site, it has “formally sanctioned” employee groups that provide “networking, integration, development and outreach activities” to “African-Americans; Latinos; Native Americans; Asians; Indians; Christians; Muslims,” as well as “gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender employees; women and others.”

In the U.S., the buzzword for this trend is “inclusiveness,” where companies, in their quest to attract and retain employees, provide perks like social clubs for everyone from lesbian single mothers to vegetarians.

The change is far subtler in Asia. Mr. Chua was working for Global Knowledge Network, a U.S.-based information-technology training company, when he disclosed his sexual orientation. “The hierarchy is quite flat, with no competition, so people don’t use your homosexuality as a tool to bring you down,” he said. Because most of his work was outside the company, and he didn’t have much contact with senior management, he felt there was less to lose by coming out.

Not that Mr. Chua, 29, stood on the desktops and proclaimed his sexuality. He chose instead to tell a handful of colleagues with whom he socialized, allowing the information to come out in the natural course of conversation “about life and everything.” Far from alienating his colleagues, his revelation improved his relationship with his co-workers, mostly Asians in their 20s and 30s. “People get used to you the more you tell them about you — they take it as another level of friendship,” he said.

For Alex Au, disclosure was a matter of leadership. At the time, Mr. Au was a senior manager at a Singapore-listed paint manufacturer, which he declined to name. “It was important to reassure them [other gay employees at the company] that they shouldn’t feel threatened,” he said. It was easier for him because “there weren’t many layers above me that could put the screws in,” said Mr. Au, who recently tried to organize a gay and lesbian forum in Singapore, only to have it squashed by the government. (Mr. Au declined to identify his current company or position, saying he wants to keep his professional affiliation separate from his comments about homosexuality.)

Mr. Au, now 47, had become exasperated with one of his male colleagues, “who kept going on about girlie bars,” and dragging Mr. Au to his favorite sleazy nightclubs. He finally told the colleague he wasn’t interested in the subject. When the co-worker asked why, he told him outright that he was gay. Far from being shocked, the co- worker simply said, “Ah, that’s why you wanted to leave that bar sooner than I did,” Mr. Au recalled. He soon let others in the company know, although he found it difficult to get the word out. “People were so honored that I confided in them that felt they should keep my secret for me,” he said.

But without a boss like Mr. Au, the constant threat of a glass ceiling silences the vast majority of gays. A junior marketing executive at a major American computer company had high hopes for his future when he first joined the firm, which was very explicit in its antidiscrimination policies. But within weeks he overheard colleagues making cruel remarks about the homosexuality of a gay senior manager who had left the company. “At that point I decided, no one must know,” said the executive, who is 24. “It’s always easy to justify promoting someone else if they don’t like a gay.”

He has found ways to fend off the curiosity of his colleagues without isolating himself. When a co-worker once accused him of being gay because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he joking responded that yes, he was gay, and then shot the question back. “Ironically, no one will believe it in the future if it were to come out,” he said. Most of his colleagues don’t probe further when he offers evasive answers to personal questions.

The executive also plays it cool when a co-worker catches him in the street with his partner. He refuses to lie, but finds if he just introduces his lover as a “friend,” and doesn’t act surprised or guilty, people don’t jump to conclusions.

Down the road, though, the marketing executive said he is unlikely to stay in a job where he feels he has to skirt basic questions about his identity. He has a lot of friends who are older, farther along in their careers and apt to remain closeted at work. He doesn’t wish for that for himself. “In the end, it’s just a job and it’s not worth it,” he said.

Write to Samantha Marshall at sam.marshall@… …………………………………


This article was first archived by Kenneth Lau on SiGNeL: