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Remaining in the closet at work
by Eli Winter

It should be an employee’s right—rather than just a privilege—to be open about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity at work. But according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than half of LGBT Americans are forced to remain in the closet at work.

That number has been substantially higher in the past. For most of American history, LGBT people were stigmatized as societal oddities who were best avoided. With the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and the advent of many local and national LGBT organizations in the 1970s, societal misperceptions about LGBT Americans began to change. At first, states moved slowly to enact laws protecting LGBT Americans from some forms of discrimination. During the past few decades, the number of states protecting LGBT Americans against workplace discrimination has increased dramatically. Still, most LGBT Americans are uncomfortable being out at work, and many factors play a role in keeping the proverbial closet door locked.

Although LGBT federal employees are guaranteed protections from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many states still don’t protect their LGBT citizens from that discrimination. The Movement Advancement Project reports that only 21 states protect against LGBT workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation; 18 also offer protections based on gender identity. Some of those states only offer protections for LGBT state employees, leaving the majority of private-sector LGBT workers vulnerable to workplace discrimination. Texas does not offer any LGBT protection in the state nondiscrimination law. The state legislature is currently debating two opposite pieces of legislation—one that would prevent cities from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances, and another that would punish those who practice LGBT discrimination. The American Psychological Association reports that “in many cases, [discrimination] remains legally acceptable.”

The stigmatization of coming out at work also prevents LGBT employees from working in a safe and supportive environment. Because we live in a heteronormative society, people often react negatively to their coworkers’ coming out, viewing their actions in terms of their sexual behaviors instead of social ones. Professor Gregory Herek at the University of California at Davis reports that this societal tendency makes LGBT Americans understandably less likely to be out at work.

Barry (not his real name) says that he and his partner, John, “have both been out at work as long as we have been together.” Although neither partner has experienced overt workplace discrimination—John attributes their fortune to “the way we portray ourselves and the company that we keep”—Barry says that “there’s still a lot of antigay sentiment” at work. One employee attempted to badmouth him to a client because of his sexual orientation. “Someone told an older female patient that I was the one who was doing something she did not like being done. When the opportunity presented itself, I was able to clarify that I was not the culprit,” he says. “[Another employee insulted a gay co-worker by saying] ‘We need a real man around here to do some of the heavy lifting.’”

Research conducted by Dr. Lisa F. Platt and Alexandra Lenzen shows that such stigmatization and belittling of LGBT people—at work and away from it—has “a cumulative negative impact on their psychological well-being” and can occur in a variety of ways. For example, transgender people commonly experience micro-aggressions when they are misgendered, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people commonly experience micro-aggressions when they are told that they are “going through a phase” in regards to their sexual orientation.

Various studies show that anywhere from 15 to 68 percent of LGBT workers report experiencing discrimination at work. Among transgender employees, as many as 90 percent have experienced workplace discrimination, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

This discrimination can be seen when LGBT workers are denied job promotions, fired, given negative performance evaluations, or abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It can also be seen in the consistently lower wages LGBT workers receive, compared to their straight, cisgender counterparts. These discrepancies are far more pronounced among transgender workers, according to the Center for American Progress.

Even though such discrimination is often witnessed by straight, cisgender employees, it is rarely reported. According to the Center for American Progress, 12 to 30 percent of employees have reported seeing such discrimination in the workplace.

Thankfully, Houston is considerably more tolerant than the rest of Texas in regards to its LGBT population; the city is the largest in the world to have an openly lesbian mayor, and it has a large, vibrant LGBT community. But we have still not been able to enact the long-debated Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) passed by City Council in May 2014. It is currently at the center of a legal battle after opponents filed a petition trying to force a ballot referendum to repeal it. The ordinance would prohibit discrimination based on numerous protected characteristics—including sexual orientation and gender identity—in city employment, city contracting, housing, places of public accommodation, and most private-sector employment.

Despite the ordinance’s exemption for religious institutions (thanks to the overwhelming majority of its opponents who cited their opposition to it on religious grounds), HERO has received support from progressive religious leaders across the city. Reverend Troy Treash, senior pastor of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, is one such supporter who cites “The Great Commandment” of Christianity: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Reverend Troy (as he is known to his congregation) says that HERO “would mean you don’t have to be rich to bring discrimination to light. Currently you need the resources to hire a lawyer and file suit under federal law. [People who are] most vulnerable to discrimination do not have these resources. HERO moves the process local and makes it available to all Houstonians, without financial barriers.”

Even so, LGBT people nationwide are still subject to workplace discrimination. The Center for American Progress reports that such discrimination is a major contributing factor to the high poverty rates among LGBT people in comparison to their straight, cisgender counterparts. Among the transgender population, the poverty rate is four times higher than the national average. In addition, the American Psychological Association reports that 14 percent of LGBT Americans make less than $10,000 per year—compared to less than 5 percent of the general population. An astounding 64 percent of transgender Americans make less than $25,000 per year.

As a result, LGBT activists have attempted to have federal legislation passed protecting them from discrimination in the workplace. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, passed the Senate in the previous session of Congress, but was not acted on by the House. Activists are now crafting a comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination bill that covers both workplace and housing discrimination, among other provisions. However, it is unlikely that such a bill will be passed with Republicans holding majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Regardless, the need to protect LGBT Americans against discrimination remains as urgent as ever. It is time to make this discrimination a fact of history, not a fact of life.

Eli Winter wrote about LGBT healthcare discrimination in the March issue of OutSmart magazine.

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