Why I came out (and stayed out) at work

On becoming the role model I wish I’d had

Melissa Casburn
Jun 11 · 5 min read
Photo by Diogo Ascenso on Unsplash

I’m the Director of UX for a software company called Puppet, and you’ve probably never heard of me. I’ve been in UX for 16 years and in tech for 24, and I’m an out and proud bisexual woman who spent most of her career wishing for a role model. This was especially true as I was moving into design leadership; I would have been happy just to meet an out bisexual woman in a similar role, let alone work for her and learn from her and build strength from observing her success. And because I never had one, I decided to become one.

The object of my first girl-crush was Marty Maraschino from the movie “Grease,” a pseudo-sophisticated gossip with a penchant for chiffon scarves and older men. I was 11 and knew nothing about anything but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I had no idea why because I had no language to describe my attraction. It was 1983 and all of my relatives were straight and even though San Francisco was just 36 miles from my hometown, our visits to the city centered on Chinatown rather than the Castro. So I chalked it up to something like “I really respect her and I’d like to be best friends and be around her all the time.”

Sometime in high school I figured out that all of these imaginary best friends were actually crushes but I kept it to myself, and in 1991 I went off to college in San Francisco. Plopped down in one of the world’s queer meccas with the drive to discover who I was in this new context, I came out to anybody who would listen, including my parents. I was a middle-class white girl living in one of the queerest cities on earth and I felt safe… which I know was a privilege not everyone has. And it was a privilege I lost when I left SF for Atlanta and entered uptight, buttoned-down, corporate America by way of Arthur Andersen, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world.

Years went by. I wore suits, I married a man, and I worked with men and for men. Tech was not (and in many places still is not) friendly to women, and as I didn’t see any queer women around me, it seemed unwise to hitch my career to my sexual orientation. I couldn’t see anybody leading the way and I wasn’t brave enough to go first.

Queer women were there, of course, hidden in plain sight. In July 1995, Newsweek inaccurately described bisexuality as an emergent “new sexual identity” on its cover and mainstream media kept itself busy turning us into playthings for consumption by heterosexuals with failing marriages.

Newsweek cover from July 17, 1995 stating “Bisexuality: Not Gay. Not Straight. A New Sexual Identity Emerges.”

Ellen Degeneres came out on national TV in 1997. Politicians were virulently anti-LGBT in the 1990s *because* we were becoming more visible and demanding equal treatment. Acknowledging us was simply that; it didn’t conjure us into existence. We have always been here. And as long as there has been tech, we have been in tech.

But I didn’t see anyone else like me at work, which made it much easier for me to fade into the heterosexual woodwork. And my silence made it easier for someone else to do the same.

The first time I took a design leadership position, as a Director of UX for a local digital agency in 2008, I started coming out. Slowly. To people I trusted, with trust that was sometimes fortified by a few glasses of musty red wine at the bar near the office. Nobody flinched, but nobody else in leadership came out to meet me because to my knowledge, there wasn’t anybody else. If others in senior positions were any flavor of LGBT, they kept it under wraps. I got along great with my colleagues and we often had social time together, but I was weirdly lonely at work because nobody else could or would relate to me in that way.

When an openly bisexual woman later joined the company as an individual contributor, we became instant friends (and remain friends to this day). We didn’t just talk about our shared sexual orientation every day — queer people do, in fact, discuss many other things — but there is a comfort in simply being seen in a holistic way. And yes, it is also relaxing to talk openly about dating him or her or them without being on high alert for signs of revulsion or having to laugh off skeevy comments.

Years went by.

When I arrived at Puppet in 2014, everyone directly above me on the org chart was a man and none of them were openly queer. Two strikes. But I was really excited by the tech, and unlike every other place I’ve worked, the leadership team boasted a lot of women. My own team was half women, and there were women in Engineering (although not nearly enough, even today).

And as I got to know my new colleagues, I could squint my eyes and start to see other queer people. I began to drop hints: wearing our Puppet Pride logo shirt; using a bisexual flag as my Slack status during Pride Month; making meaningful eye contact while explaining that I used to live off Castro Street. I had some work friends on Facebook and I was REAL REAL OUT, and I didn’t care if they saw it. I hoped they saw it. I wanted my worlds to combine so I just had one single identity, so I didn’t have to flip bits in my language or my choice of lunch table conversation. In DE&I parlance, I wanted to “bring my whole self to work.”

In 2020 I turned 48 and was promoted to Director of UX, and I report to a woman who reports to a woman who reports to the CEO, who is also a woman. And there are many more women in leadership than when I started, which means that statistically speaking there are more queer women. Gradually I just started discussing my bisexuality out loud, sometimes inventing opportunities to announce it, in order to strengthen the signal. I do not want to be mistaken for straight.

These days I bring it up at every opportunity, for those who feel hidden and invisible and need to know that I exist and that I might be someone they can look to. The clock has run out on seeking role models who can make me brave, so it’s me now. I have to be brave. Sometimes I have to be first so that other folks can see me, and when they show themselves right back to me it feels as good as I always hoped it would.

I also talked about my journey on this episode of Puppet’s Pulling the Strings podcast.

Support organizations that connect and elevate queer women in tech, such as Lesbians Who Tech.

Support organizations that build and sustain queer community, such as the Portland Lesbian Choir.

People of Puppet

Stories about life at Puppet from the people of Puppet.