This year has been one of many moves towards progress for gays – repeal of DADT seems very likely, Section 3 of DOMA has been declared unconstitutional, and in a much talked-about Gallup poll, a majority of Americans now believe that same-sex marriage should be legally valid, something unprecedented in American history. Which is why it’s surprising to learn from the Center for Work-Life Policy that a full 48% of college-graduated queers are still in the closet at their places of work.
There are quite a few questions remaining after reading through the study released this week – the most obvious of which being why are so many queers still living in secrecy? As the Center for Work-Life Policy notes, this is a safer and more welcoming time than ever to be out at work.
Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 57 percent of them extend benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, the report says. Cisco even makes up the tax premium for its employees that gay couples in domestic partnerships pay over married straight couples, which is estimated to be at about $1,000 per year.
Is it because even these policies aren’t enough to convince employees that their workplaces are safe? Is there too wide a divide between company policy and company culture? That seems very possible; the study notes that “[thirty] seven percent of straight women and 52 percent of straight men say they prefer gay people keep their personal lives to themselves, and 29 states do not prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT workers.” Is it a lack of communication and understanding? Karen Sumberg, one of the report’s co-authors, thinks so. “It’s not just the policies, but also how well they’re communicated… What we found is that people aren’t always sure that they have these policies or what it means, both gay and straight.”
Those explanations don’t answer every question about this study. Based on the media coverage of it and without having seen the text of the study, a few things are unclear.
Namely: how is “closeted” defined in this case? Does it mean having made a specific decision not to disclose the truth about your sexual orientation to your coworkers, or does it mean that you choose not to talk about your personal life in general, either because you’re gay or because you’re private? And does it mean you just don’t talk about your girlfriend, or that you make up a boyfriend, too? The difference between the two seems significant. Another shocking statistic from the Center’s study on gay college-educated employees is the one that says “one third of them are even leading “double lives,” meaning that they’re closeted in the office while being out at home.” If those individuals are leading “double lives,” what are the other two-thirds doing? Are they closeted in the rest of their lives as well as at work? If so, isn’t it maybe a bigger story that 66% of employed college-graduated queers are apparently completely closeted?
That’s not to say that the numbers in this study actually are contradictory or inaccurate; it’s more that the statistical information being bandied about by those talking about this study seems like it is maybe not communicated clearly or accurately. Statistics can be much more complex than many people realize, even in journalism, and if quoted in the wrong context or without context can be very misleading. Furthermore, the population studied here was very specific – plenty of people, including queer people, in the workforce aren’t college graduates. Are these numbers different for them?
Without there being a corresponding study on that community, it seems at least plausible that lower-education and/or working-class queers could have more to lose by being out at work than their college-graduated counterparts. But if almost a full half of even the relatively more privileged group doesn’t feel safe being out at work, what’s the situation for people at other levels of income or education? It seems like they’d suffer the same adverse effects of being closeted at work that these study participants experience – the ones who we now know “report job-related stress and isolation than their peers, and are also more likely to say they want to leave their current jobs.”
There’s hardly been a study in the history of studies that hasn’t ultimately highlighted the need for more research in the area, and this is one more example. The message that the workplace is still an unwelcoming place to gay and lesbian employees is clear; now we just need to learn why, and what we need to do to fix it.
See also: How to Come Out at Work