More Than Half of LGBT Workers Closeted

Company culture, jokes, lack of laws make coming out unsafe

By Dana Wilkie May 15, 2014

More than half of Americans now support same-sex marriages. More than 9 in 10 Fortune 500 companies have explicit protections on the basis of sexual orientation, while more than two-thirds offer same-sex partner benefits. And Michael Sam just became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League.

Yet more than half of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees (53 percent) remain closeted at work, according to a poll of nearly 1,700 LGBT and non-LGBT workers published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

The poll, conducted in the spring and summer of 2013 and released in May 2014, shows a small increase in closeted employees when compared to 2009, when a similar HRC survey found that 51 percent of LGBT employees hadn’t come out at their workplaces.

The HRC is a civil rights organization that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.

Workplace Culture Makes Outing ‘Unsafe’

Employees need only listen to their co-workers’ conversations, or look at the company’s policies on hiring people with disabilities or promoting women and minorities into leadership, to determine if it’s “safe” to come out. “That insight can contribute greatly to why the majority of LGBT employees continue to be closeted at work,” said James Wright, a diversity and inclusion strategist, trainer and speaker.

One in four LGBT respondents to the HRC poll said they hear offensive remarks at work. Such comments may not be malicious or intentionally hurtful, but are part of the modern vernacular, such as “that’s so gay” or “man up.” Regardless, such comments can give LGBT workers even less incentive to come out to their colleagues.

Sixty-two percent of LGBT workers reported hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while, while 43 percent reported hearing jokes about bisexual people, and 40 percent about transgender people, at the same frequency.

While 81 percent of non-LGBT respondents said their LGBT colleagues “should not have to hide who they are at work,” fewer than half said they would be comfortable hearing them talk about their dating lives. One in four open LGBT employees reported that co-workers became uncomfortable if they mentioned something related to sexual orientation or gender identity such as a partner or spouse. This reality was evident May 12, 2014, when the newly drafted Sam gave his partner a celebratory kiss in front of TV cameras, causing CNN to lead with a story headlined: “Michael Sam’s Kiss Sparks Firestorm.”

“Most of us have grown up with a lifetime of programming that convinces us that [same-sex intimacy] is either wrong, sick or weird,” said Howard Ross, author of the forthcoming Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). “It’s like years ago when people said they were fine about giving African-Americans equal rights, but they didn’t want them living next door. This reaction is also internalized by LGBT people; at some deep level they wonder if it’s OK to be who they are, and there’s a part of them that isn’t sure it’s OK.”

More than one in three LGBT employees told HRC pollsters that they lie about their personal lives. This is hardly surprising, Wright said, as LGBT workers who are closeted are in a unique position to overhear derogatory things that colleagues say about those who are “out.”

“They can actually hide their sexuality and thus be privy to conversations not always heard by a party being discriminated against,” Wright said.

Hence, LGBT workers may not reveal that they’re married or have partners, which then makes it awkward to bring spouses or partners to a company’s social events.

Such subterfuge has consequences: Thirty percent of LGBT respondents said they felt distracted from their jobs because of workplace attitudes toward the LGBT community. Another 30 percent said they felt unhappy or depressed at work. Fifteen percent said they stayed home from work when experiencing discomfort about being LGBT.

The poll found that one-fifth of LGBT workers reported looking for another job because their current work environment wasn’t accepting of LGBT identities. Close to 1 in 10 left a job for the same reason.

“My experience is that in environments where people can be themselves, they get through things more quickly,” Ross said. “It’s easier for them to deal with challenges. But if you’ve got something you’re dealing with in your life—say, your partner is sick and you can’t share that with people and you carry that around all day long—that makes it challenging to be fully engaged.”

On the other hand, more than 1 in 4 respondents stayed in a job because the environment was accepting of the LGBT community, the poll found.

Employment Fears

Fewer than half of states—21—have laws prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBT workers. There is no federal law prohibiting this type of discrimination, although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that a complaint of discrimination based on “gender identity, change of sex, and/or transgender status” is cognizable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Wright said the vast majority of Americans believe that the passage of such laws “fixes” discrimination against the LGBT community.

“The harsh reality is once policies and laws are passed, that’s when the really hard work begins,” Wright said. “It is not enough to simply offer domestic partnership benefits, have nondiscrimination policies and have inclusiveness training. We now have to focus on the true culture of the company—the culture not everyone talks about in the glossy brochures and the fancy company videos.”

For example, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and forbade discrimination on the basis of race as well as sex in hiring, promoting and firing. Yet Americans still see discrimination in hiring, promoting and firing based on race and sex, Wright said.

“Not only do we see it, we seem to be shocked that it still happens as if everyone’s heart was changed and every mind has been expanded,” he said. “Need I mention the Donald Sterling chronicles?”

Wright was referring to the National Basketball Association’s decision in May 2014 to impose a lifetime ban on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist remarks.

Some municipalities, such as Louisville, Ky., have passed LGBT anti-discrimination laws, but even then, such laws can be impotent if workers don’t know that they exist or know how to seek redress under them.

“Most people still don’t know there’s somewhere to turn if they’re fired for being LGBT” in Louisville, said Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, an organization that promotes LGBT rights. “A number of folks who end up calling us with their story of discrimination don’t know there’s an official place for recourse.”

Moreover, Hartman said, populations that have experienced persistent discrimination tend to distrust the government systems that in the past “have disserved them.”

“There’s a fear that there will be a lack of enforcement,” he said. “So by and large, the problem is the piecemeal nature of the law, and the lack of [legal] consistency going from city to city, or state to state.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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