On one end of the continuum, there are workers who say that it would be professional suicide to come out as a lesbian or gay person at the office. On the other end of the continuum, there are people who feel that times have changed. "Particularly if you work on one coast or the other," says Jeff in New York City, "The thought of coming out at work is a yawner. What do we have to lose?"
It turns out that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people continue to have a lot to lose in areas far beyond compensation, whether they are public about their orientation or not.
While there is evidence that our country has made progress in the media - not too long ago, the popularity of a TV show like "Will & Grace" would have been unthinkable - the progress made in the workplace has been limited. Here are some of the changes that some employers - and many employees -- are working towards.
1. The laws of the land will protect LGBT people from being fired simply for their perceived sexual orientation.
Most people do not realize it: In 37 states it is legal to fire someone simply for being gay. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), supported by companies like IBM, Kodak and FleetBoston Financial, seeks to extend the federal employment discrimination protection that currently covers race, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability to sexual orientation. As Kodak's VP or HR Robert Berman stated at ENDA hearings, "Kodak believes that protection against discrimination because of one's sexual orientation is a basic civil right."
2. Partner coverage on health benefits will be the rule, not the exception.
When the US Chamber of Commerce reported recently that benefit costs averaged 39 percent of total payroll in 2001, up from 37.5 percent in 2000, the employers who pay out those benefits probably took more notice than did the employees who receive them. But why should heterosexual employees receive more compensation (through health benefits for their families) than those who are lesbian or gay? Currently, only 29% of the Fortune 500 offer health benefits to domestic partners.
3. Openly LGBT employees are recognized and valued at every level of the organization.
Few employees can point to a top-tier openly LGBT leader in their company. The stakes are simply too high, and many companies (and their LGBT executives) say they have too many other things to worry about without having to complicate issues by dealing with homophobia. This is but one measure of an organization's true openness to people of all sexual orientations. (Naming out executive Allan Gilmour as Ford's chief financial officer is a recent exception to this - Bravo to Ford, and to Mr. Gilmour!)
4. All communities in the US will be covered by laws protecting LGBT people from hate crimes.
Federal hate crimes laws do not include real or perceived sexual orientation, so when such a crime is committed, communities do not currently have access to resources from the FBI and Department of Justice. Given that local law enforcement agencies vary in their approaches to dealing with these crimes, a common standard across the country is essential. One employer chose to relocate a lesbian who was receiving threats to her home and family - likely because of her leadership of the gay and lesbian group at her company. The law in her state did not protect her from hate crimes based on sexual orientation.
5. Same-sex parents and their children will receive the same societal, legal and employer support that other families receive.
In many states, children of same-sex parents are permitted by law to have only one legal parent of each sex. The safety and security of parental continuity (should one parent die or become incapacitated) is not present for the child whose second parent is not recognized under the law. A heterosexual parent who neglects or chooses to walk away from his or her child has more rights and responsibilities than a dedicated, responsible, loving lesbian or gay co-parent.
6. Whatever their sexual orientation, people will be respected for expressing themselves authentically without being labeled as "too masculine" or "too feminine" for their gender.
How a person expresses his or her gender identity should not affect the quality or evaluation of his or her work. Increasingly, people of every sexual orientation are challenging assumptions about personal expression - in subtle ways, as more women are comfortable wearing pants to work, for instance, or in more dramatic ways for those who don attire more typically associated with the opposite gender when that feels most comfortable to them. The gender expression continuum must continue to expand.
7. The benefits and privileges that are afforded to married couples will be available to same-sex couples.
The Government Accounting Office reports that there are more than 1000 such benefits that are denied to those who are blocked from the institution of marriage, from hospital visitation for next of kin to government benefits such as disability and social security. Of course, same-sex couples would also assume the responsibilities associated with marriage - providing child support and continuity for children, or paying taxes as a married couple, for instance. Currently, the survivor of a partnership of 20 years (whose partner dies) will be taxed on the estate if they are a same-sex couple, but will escape many such taxes if they are a married couple. A Human Rights Campaign publication notes "73 percent of Americans support inheritance rights for same-sex domestic partners, and 70 percent approve health insurance and other employee benefits, according to a 2001 poll conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation."
8. Every organization will include LGBT issues in their diversity strategy and statements.
It's not unusual to attend a diversity conference or meeting and hear relative silence on LGBT issues. The reasons sexual orientation and transgender issues are omitted include a lack of awareness; a concern for diluting their diversity agenda; and personal or religious beliefs that do not include placing value on sexual orientation diversity. Many employees hear silence on this issue as homophobic, and sometimes they are right. This can be particularly painful for employees where the reputed VP of diversity does not consider LGBT issues a part of their scope of responsibility.
9. Every LGBT group will address issues of race, gender and other dimensions of diversity in their practices and goals.
Advocacy groups inside or outside of organizations often are so consumed with their own agendas that they fail to consider their responsibilities to eliminate unfair treatment wherever it exists. The concerns of white gay men forming a company LGBT group may be different from those of African American lesbians in the same company, for example. How do the white gay men ensure they appropriately reach out to the diversity within the LGBT community? And, beyond that, how do all LGBT people become informed and reliable allies to other (non-LGBT) people in their organization, such as people with disabilities or people of African, Hispanic or Asian descent?
There are many resources available to individuals and organizations that want to be a part of creating a more welcoming community for people of every gender identity and sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign (http://www.hrc.org/) is the largest LGBT civil rights group in the nation, with over half a million members. Their WorkNet site provides valuable tools and resources to organizations looking for help. The Southern Poverty Law Center (http://www.spl.org/) tracks hate crimes of all kinds, and provide "Teaching Tolerance" tools and publications for use in the schools. In addition, numerous national conferences provide resources and networking support so you can learn from colleagues who face similar challenges.
Creating a welcoming environment can start small, however. Using inclusive language always - even when you assume you are talking with a heterosexual crowd - sends a strong message. Where you used to say "Bring your husbands and wives to the holiday party," instead consider saying, "Bring your partners and spouses." Ask a trusted LGBT colleague to give you feedback or make suggestions about ways to improve company practices. Respectfully challenge jokes or insinuating comments that are intended to deride LGBT people. Make a point of supporting and attending events that are intended to educate and celebrate diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity. Read the biweekly periodical, "The Advocate." And don't forget to watch "Will & Grace!"
Kim Cromwell, principal of Cromwell Consulting, can be reached through her website: http://www.kimcromwell.com/