Nearly four in 10 avoid being open about their sexual orientation and gender identity because they fear being stereotyped, according to a report.
Things haven’t gotten much better for LGBTQ workers, a new report shows.
When 23-year old C Mandler came out as non-binary in 2016 to their close friends and family, they remained closeted to coworkers and employers at their office job at the time. And even when they began to use they/them pronouns in their personal life, they didn’t feel comfortable doing so at work. “There were queer people there, but I didn’t have a close enough relationship with people in the office where I felt like I could come out,” the New York-based trans writer told Moneyish. “I didn’t want to be pushed into a binary, and I was afraid that if I came out at work, I would have to have conversations about it.”
Although Mandler is now out at their current job, their story reflects those of the almost half (46%) of LGBTQ employees who have not come out in their workplaces, according to a recent survey from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Like Mandler, 38% avoid being open about their sexual orientation and gender identity because they fear being stereotyped, while 36% fear making people feel uncomfortable. Nearly one in three (31%) says the possibility of losing connections or relationships with coworkers stops them from coming out, and 27% report fearing people might think they will be attracted to them just because they’re LGBTQ.
“The data in this survey and report validates the stories that we hear from LGBTQ workers many times over: that they are unable to be themselves at work in the ways that their non-LGBTQ co-workers are able,” study co-author Liz Cooper, the HRC’s associate director of Corporate Equality Programs, told Moneyish.
There’s also a persistent double standard of inclusion around what LGBTQ workers are allowed to share at work, Cooper added. While 80% of non-LGBTQ workers believe that LGBTQ workers shouldn’t have to hide who they are at work, over half of the same non-LGBTQ workers think it’s unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.
“Often ‘talking about’ sexual orientation in the workplace can be as simple as referencing your partner or spouse,” Cooper said. “Non-LGBTQ workers are allowed to share, but when LGBTQ employees engage in that same level of workplace chit-chat, they are seen as doing something unprofessional.”
Dee Bowden, 57, works for a government contractor on a military installation in Northern Virginia. And as an older black gay woman, Bowden’s choice not to come out at work is simply a matter of keeping her private life private. “On a government contract you can lose your job at any given time, and because of that, I chose not to have my sexuality be an issue,” she told Moneyish. “I strive to be as professional as I can be. I’ve been here for a year and never talked about anybody of significance in my life.”
And just like her race doesn’t affect her job, Bowden said, her sexuality doesn’t play a part in it either. “I don’t feel like I have to hide myself — I am out, but I don’t put that on my business cards or website,” she said. “To be truthful, my being gay doesn’t affect my job, and I’m just here to do my job.”
The survey’s findings show that the situation has not much improved since the HRC Foundation’s 2008 Degrees of Equality report, which showed that 50% of LGBTQ workers had not come out at work. One in five LGBTQ workers say their colleagues have told them to dress in a more feminine or masculine way, while 53% of LGBTQ workers report hearing jokes about gay men or lesbians in their workplace.
Despite the number of sexually inappropriate comments and jokes made, most LGBTQ workers say they’re not comfortable reporting negative comments to a supervisor or human resources because they don’t think anything would be done about it, and they don’t want to hurt their relationships with coworkers.
In addition, a lot of LGBTQ workers fear that their companies’ inclusive policies won’t be enforced if the employers and employees already have negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people, Cooper said. “Forty-five percent of LGBTQ workers agree with that statement, even when that individual employee is their own boss,” she said. “Reiterating that a non-discrimination policy is part of the business’s core values is part of the solution.”
And suppressing a part of their identity can have a serious impact on LGBTQ people’s mental well-being and productivity at work: 31% of LGBTQ workers say they have felt unhappy or depressed at work, and 17% say they’ve felt exhausted from spending time and energy hiding their sexual orientation; 13% felt that way from hiding their gender identity. Meanwhile, 25% of LGBTQ workers report feeling distracted from work.
But disclosing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity can also lead people to feel defined solely by that part of who they are. “I was afraid that my whole identity would be about my pronouns and that would be the key characteristic people defined me by,” Mandler said. “Nobody is obligated to come out; there’s no right or wrong way to come out. You’re valued if you come out or not.”
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