With so many corporations coming out for LGBT rights, why are so many workers still in the closet? 1

With so many corporations coming out for LGBT rights, why are so many workers still in the closet?

charlotte pride photo.fixed

It is hard to deny the remarkable ascendance of LGBT rights over the past decade. But the breathtaking gains in marriage equality in all corners of the country have obscured the focus on at least one important arena where we still lack equality – the workplace.

A recent Human Rights Campaign survey details the experiences of LGBT people at work.  Perhaps most startlingly in an era when being out is in for LGBT celebrities, sports figures, and politicians the survey revealed that 53% of everyday LGBT folks are still fully or mostly closeted at work.  When polled about why they remain closeted, 38% of respondents cited the possibility of making others feel uncomfortable; 36% responded that they feared the possibility of being stereotyped; 31% feared losing connections or relationships with coworkers; and 23% anticipated being passed over for advancement or development opportunities.

LGBT workers who fear disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity are probably pretty accurate in predicting how their co-workers might react.  Less than half of non-LGBT survey respondents said they felt comfortable hearing an LGBT coworker talk about their social life, dating, or a related subject, and more than 70% agreed that it would be “unprofessional” to talk openly about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. Of course, this is a standard that is not applied to straight workers, who routinely regale their closeted LGBT co-workers with stories about their opposite-sex relationships and social life.  Indeed, more than 60% of non-LGBT respondents reported that children, spouses, and social activities were indispensable topics of conversation in the workplace.

But this survey gives us more to worry about than how LGBT workers are censored in coffee room conversations.  Another finding is that more than one in five respondents had looked for alternate employment in order to avoid anti-LGBT hostility.  And nearly 10% of LGBT employees report they felt so much hostility at their workplace due to their sexual orientation that they had no choice but to leave their job.

The numbers are far worse for transgender workers: a report issued in 2011 by two LGBT rights organizations found that 90% of transgender people nationwide had experienced at least one form of harassment, physical assault, mistreatment, or sexual assault at work because of their gender identity.  And almost half have been fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of anti-transgender bias.

So what is to be done to turn the promise of welcoming workplaces into a reality?  Some might blame closeted employees for hiding their identities from co-workers, thus depriving co-workers of the opportunity to unlearn their stereotypes and bias.  However, the burden should not fall on LGBT employees to expose themselves to the very real risks of harassment, ostracism, job loss, or worse.  As has been the case in the marriage equality movement, coming out has an important role to play in making change in the workplace for LGBT people.  But it cannot happen without the protections of strong anti-discrimination laws and comprehensive employer policies that promote inclusion, train managers to combat harassment, and provide equal benefits for LGBT employees and their families.   In another post, I will be outlining how corporations can do just that.  As for passing laws to end employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT people, the prescription is simple — Congress should finally to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act!

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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