Out at work

Published 28, Dec, 2012

Showing the way. David Phillips recounts a history of being out about being gay at work and later, about being HIV-positive.

Out at work

Recently I underwent a professional transition that led me to think often about the significance I attach to being open in work-related settings about my HIV history, among other conditions.

Part of that importance comes from challenging stigma, wanting those around me to understand how varied our experiences of living with HIV can be, just as they have seen associates grapple before with cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps more importance comes from being able see with 20/20 hindsight how my personal HIV narrative has intersected with my education and professional experience to put me where I am now; and I have been privileged to tout my seven years as a human research subject on my resume alongside volunteer leadership in HIV and LGBT health organizations. 

For many, disclosure in the workplace may seem not worth the risks: for me, particularly when working within one of the world's largest biomedical research organizations, it is my right and responsibility. 

Since I accepted my HIV status almost 15 years ago, I have always been open about it, among other potentially life-threatening health issues, with my direct managers; but it wasn’t until about three years ago that I recognized the need to bring HIV into the everyday, even as the subject of my work rarely touched the disease.  As an adult I’ve never held a job in which I wasn’t very matter-of-factly out as a Gay man, whether as a teacher, a banker, or in IT; so, why, I thought, should I be any different about HIV?  I had kept my hair trimmed very short since December 1994 to pay homage to the scars from over two dozen brain surgeries, but where was my recognition of co-existing with the virus?  Sure, I had a great first-day spoken redux of my life with HIV and hydrocephalus for managers ready, and I could explain heavy neurosurgical drama in lay terms for co-workers; but I was still largely in the HIV closet. 

Even then, it wouldn’t have taken long to google up my HIV story if one had looked for it.  I had self-identified in articles and commentary in both LGBT, HIV-oriented, and broader media.  I had offered public testimony to government bodies that was recorded, with the video made available online.  I also share a name with a prominent virologist, another well-known population-control researcher, and a Canadian meteorologist, among others; so, people in HIV circles who don't know me well have mistaken me for someone else, and some cover existed for the association of my name with HIV.  I had found a level of association with HIV with which I was comfortable, but I didn't feel that I was "owning"  HIV to the best of my ability.

And then came the spring of 2009. Walking past an associate's office in the corporate hub of a major federal contractor, I saw several co-workers huddled behind her desk, while my voice spilled from the speakers of her PC: they were viewing the online trailer for the documentary Outrage (see below) for which I had recounted an encounter when I was 21 with a then-member of the U.S. House of Representatives. My past had fully caught up with my present. It had started to catch up in September 2007 when my past spread like a virus among blogs through RSS feeds as soon as one writer documented it; and I reckoned with the notoriety quickly, telling my boss at another firm and being highly selective about additonal media figures with whom I would discuss the matter.  Director Kirby Dick was one of the few people so trusted, and we filmed on a bitterly cold December night on the second floor of The DC Eagle.  If I could claim in the public record my decades-old indiscretion and acknowledge it at work where just the thought of Gay sex was enough to spin the conversation elsewhere, why couldn't I claim in everday office interaction my survival with HIV? 

Gradually, I began just letting it drop here and there, and nothing changed, except for what one of my closest associates called "a deep appreciation of [my] integrity."