The Supreme Court recently ruled that that “the existing federal ban on workplace discrimination “because of sex” includes discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation or transgender status.” (a) You can read more about the decision at LambdaLegal.org. Although this is a huge win, LGBTQIA+ folks still face challenges when it comes to navigating their careers. Recent college graduates also face a job market that has changed drastically due to COVID-19.
As a queer woman who has held many positions across three sectors, I have experienced coming out at work over and over again. It can be a draining and scary experience, but I have found that it was worth it. After practice coming out at multiple jobs, I am currently at a job where I feel comfortable hanging photos of my partner and mentioning her when someone asks about my weekend plans.
“You don’t have to be out at work for your identity to be valid.”
When you are deciding whether or not to come out in the workplace, I urge you to prioritize your safety. You don’t have to be out at work for your identity to be valid. You may face pressure from family members, friends, or other members of the LGBTQIA+ community regarding whether or not to disclose your identity. Remember that you have full autonomy over your identity and that whatever decision you make needs to be yours alone.
In this post, I will share some recommendations for recognizing an LGBTQIA-affirming workplace, as well as recognizing red flags. According to Glassdoor, “more companies than ever are making conscious efforts to support their LGBTQ workers, yet 46% of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work.” (b) Reasons include fear of being stereotyped, fear of making others uncomfortable, fear of losing relationships with co-workers, and concern that a co-worker may think they are attracted to them just because they are LGBTQ. (c) 1 in 10 LGBTQ workers have left a job because the environment was not very accepting of LGBTQ people. (d)
“More companies than ever are making conscious efforts to support their LGBTQ workers, yet 46% of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work.” – Glassdoor
LGBTQIA+ folks still experience tokenism and microaggressions in the workplace. Tokenism is the practice of recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups “in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.” (e) Microaggressions are “indirect, often unintentional expressions” of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, or ableism. (f) Although these remarks may even be well-intentioned, they can do great harm. Professionalism often goes out the window when someone comes out as queer, and folks may ask invasive questions or expect one person to be the voice of the LGBTQIA+ community. As LGBTQIA+ folks, we are expected to remain professional through it all, even though the questions and reactions might be deeply hurtful and bring up trauma. (g)
I do not mean to paint a totally bleak picture of the workplace for LGBTQIA+ folks. However, I want to encourage LGBTQIA+ folks to educate themselves on the challenges the community still faces in the workplace. Coming out is always a risk, however knowing the facts and making an informed decision can help prepare you for any outcome.
“Because many identities fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, some folks may have nuanced or different experiences than others within the community.”
Because many identities fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, some folks may have nuanced or different experiences than others within the community. I often see organizations refer to “the LGBT community” without specifically addressing the special needs of bisexual and trans folks. Additionally, this leaves out intersex folks, asexual folks, and others.
I acknowledge that as a queer/bisexual white woman, I can only speak to my own experience. I cannot speak on behalf of folks who identify differently within the LGBTQIA+ community, nor can I speak on behalf of Black queer folks or queer folks of color. I will intentionally cite resources created by folks who hold different identities than my own. One resource I want to uplift is the podcast “BOI Meets Wellness,” hosted by Black and queer writer, speaker, and racial justice educator Evolve Benton (they/them). Episode 18, “Boi Meets Career,” features a panel of Black LGBTQIA+ professionals who speak about strategies to navigate a career as a queer professional.
Transgender and non-binary folks must navigate their gender expression throughout their careers. The job search can be especially daunting for those whose true names don’t always match the names on their legal documents. (h) A hiring manager who is not culturally competent in LGBTQIA+ topics may be confused, question the applicant and bring up painful feelings. Access to trans-inclusive healthcare is another barrier folks often face, especially folks who are seeking gender-affirming surgeries. (i) Non-binary folks additionally face challenges related to professional dress codes. (h) If you are a transgender or non-binary job-seeker, “Practical Advice for Transgender and Nonbinary Folks Navigating the Job Search” and “Navigating Gender Identity and Expression During a Job Search” may be useful articles.
“There are a lot of people out there who will say your personal life has no place at your workplace… it’s hypocritical.” – Jo, A Life Unexamined
Jo, from the blog “A Life Unexamined,” writes about being asexual and the double standard queer folks face talking about sexuality in the workplace and while networking: “There are a lot of people out there who will say that your personal life has no place at your workplace, or that talking about your sexuality at work isn’t appropriate. And that’s true to an extent…But it’s also kind of hypocritical, because almost every time I see that expressed, it’s directed at queer folks rather than straight folks… people reference their sexuality all the time.” She continues to explore how networking practices encourage folks to connect with each other on a personal level, not solely professional, and people’s relationships often come up as part of these conversations. (j)
For asexual folks, bisexual folks, and queer folks in general, talking about our relationship status requires emotional labor and can also carry repercussions. Queer folks may be stigmatized and carry the expectations of others: people in our lives worry for us, call us high-risk, and expect us to fail in life if we disclose our identities. Hida Viloria writes that being intersex is often viewed as a traumatic experience or a “hindrance” although many intersex folks have fulfilling lives. (k) Although it is true and important to recognize that queer folks do experience trauma and face challenges, that does not limit our ability to lead full lives.
How To Identify an LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Workplace
When seeking employment with an organization, it is is important to assess (to the best of your ability) whether the organization is affirming to LGBTQIA folks. These signs may also be helpful if you are considering coming out at an organization you already work for. I used these strategies during my last job search. (Even if an organization is not perfectly affirming – most aren’t – this can help you assess the culture and prioritize your safety.)
1. Are LGBTQIA+ topics mentioned on the organization’s website? If not, that’s a red flag. If LGBTQIA+ folks are mentioned, pay attention to frequency and timing. Does the organization only post about LGBTQIA+ issues during Pride Month?
2. Pay attention to the physical workplace, if you are able to visit (unfortunately, this may not be possible due to COVID-19). Are spaces divided by gender? Notice how restrooms are assigned. Does anyone have LGBTQIA+ decor at their desk?
3. Research company policies. Do policies explicitly protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity? According to the Corporate Equality Index created by the Human Rights Campaign in 2019, a company has LGBTQ-supportive policies if they meet three requirements: (1) clearly enumerated non-discrimination policies across the business that explicitly protect employees based sexual orientation and gender identity, (2) equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families, and (3) programs that track and/or advance LGBTQ-inclusion. (d)
Although non-discrimination is now federal law (*for organizations larger than 15 employees), many organizations did not have LGBTQIA-inclusive policies prior to the June 2020 decision (and likely still do not). If an organization does not yet have an LGBTQIA-inclusive policy or very recently enacted one, the workplace culture may not yet be inclusive or may still be going through changes. Another indicator is whether or not trans folks (who may be seeking gender-affirming surgeries) are explicitly mentioned in language regarding health benefits.
4. Read the entire job posting. Often, companies will state a commitment to inclusivity at the end of the posting. If a posting does not have this, it’s a huge red flag. If you are already employed, pay attention when jobs are posted.
5. Pay attention to conversation and language, especially during an interview. Often, you will interview with a member of an organization’s senior leadership. Pay attention to what they talk about, and what they don’t. Are they articulate when they speak about inclusivity in the workplace? Do they fail to mention it at all? If LGBTQIA+ topics are mentioned, do they seem comfortable speaking about LGBTQIA+ folks or do they quickly move on?
If you are already employed, think about conversations you have had with coworkers or how topics are discussed during staff meetings. Do LGBTQIA+ topics come up? Do people explicitly avoid the topic? If possible, identify at least one person within the workplace who speaks positively and/or articulately about LGBTQIA+ topics. It is helpful to find one person in the workplace who you can confide in, or who can at least be a helpful ally.
6. Ask specific questions about workplace culture during your interview. Whether or not the company seems inclusive, it is important to interrogate this further during your interview if it feels safe to do so. If you do not feel comfortable explicitly asking about LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, there are more vague questions you can ask that will not out you.
For example, you may ask questions about whether employees feel there is a sense of community, what kinds of training is provided to staff, or whether there is a corporate giving program. This can help you feel out how social issues are perceived within the organization and what the organization values. This may even reveal that the organization has an LGBTQIA+ affinity group, in the case of a larger organization. If you do not feel comfortable asking all of your questions in the interview or if additional questions arise, utilize the company’s website or follow-up with your interviewer via email.
Additional Resources for LGBTQIA+ Professionals
Glassdoor’s “Workplace Guide for LGBTQ Professionals: Embracing Your Authentic Self in Your Career” provides additional tips for LGBTQIA+ folks who are seeking jobs or deciding whether to come out at work.
I will add additional resources here as I identify them.
(a) Know Your Rights: The Supreme Court’s LGBTQ Employment Decision (b) Authentic Self: Glassdoor’s Workplace Guide for LGBTQ Professionals (c) How to navigate the gender landscape at work (d) How to Support LGBTQ Employees in the Workplace All Year Long (e) Definition of tokenism (f) What is a microaggression? (g) Navigating LGBTQ Rights at Work (h) Navigating Gender Identity and Expression During a Job Search (i) Practical Advice for Transgender and Nonbinary Folks Navigating the Job Search (j) On Coming Out as Asexual at Work (or not) (k) Standing at the Intersections: Navigating Life as a Black Intersex Man (l) Featured image from Vox.com