Issues and Challenges for Sexual Minorities in the Workplace

Approximately ten percent of the population identifies as “GLBT”: gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (*). Over the past decade, sexual minorities have found increased sensitivity and respect as sexual orientation has become recognized as a legitimate “diversity issue”. In the seventies, the major psychiatric and psychological organizations began to acknowledge homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality, rather than a pathological condition to be treated or changed. And there is accumulating medical research evidence that sexual orientation and gender identity are at least partly biologically determined.

Societal norms and assumptions have been slowly coming along, so that gays and lesbians are well-accepted in some communities and at least better tolerated in many. However, in some people and in some places, there remains prejudice – with its accompanying threats of social isolation, discrimination, harassment and even violence against GLBT persons.

So it can still be difficult to be a GLBT person in the workplace…. Depending on the work setting, there are usually only weak (if any) protections against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. This makes many wary of disclosing their GLBT status, even to managers and co-workers they like and trust. Although this might seem like something that should be kept private, remember that sexual orientation does not just refer to sexual feelings or behaviors. Rather, it can encompass many aspects of one’s identity and lifestyle, including appearance, interests, communication style, social relationships and family composition.

Heterosexuals reveal their orientation quite casually and comfortably, without having to think about how they will be impacted professionally: talking about dating and social activities; sharing engagement, marriage and anniversary plans; wearing engagement and wedding rings; displaying pictures of spouses or significant others; and perhaps using endearments such as “Honey” when their heterosexual partner calls or visits the workplace. Imagine working with a group of people for five or ten years, and having to avoid using all gender-specific pronouns when talking about your life outside of work

Although some organizations try to create a hospitable environment for sexual minorities, this can break down in the face of anxiety, confusion or ignorance regarding GLBT issues. For example, managers or co-workers who assume that people “choose” to be gay might view gay or lesbian employees as immoral people or social misfits. Those who confuse homosexuality or bisexuality with sexual perversions such as pedophilia (sexual attraction to children) might have irrational fear or animosity toward GLBT co-workers. Those who grew up with strict religious prohibitions against homosexuality can be uniquely challenged to put their own values and beliefs aside in the interest of maintaining good relationships with sexual minorities at work.

Like everyone else, GLBT employees want to be treated fairly and respectfully; to be given opportunities for meaningful and productive work; and to be appropriately recognized and rewarded for their efforts. At first glance, it might seem that they can best accomplish this by concealing their sexual orientation rather than “calling attention to themselves”. But it is unfair to place this burden on GLBT employees, who should be as free as their heterosexual colleagues to share an appropriate level of personal information without fear of negative consequences for their careers.

Many organizations offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which should provide a safe environment for discussing sexual minority issues in the workplace. Likewise, EAP’s can help those wanting to increase their understanding and ability to support GLBT co-workers, friends and family members. Another valuable resource is the self-help organization, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG), which can be contacted at 202-467-8180.

(*) psychologically identified with the gender opposite to which one was born; transsexuals are those who actually proceed with gender reassignment.