Working It: Lesbian Professionals Out On The Job

Being out at work isn’t always the easiest thing to do. In a white paper that focuses on lesbian professionalsThe Glass Hammer, an online community for professional women, reports that while the majority of gay women are out to their coworkers, many still feel uncomfortable in their workplace and wish their company would do more to educate about LGBT issues.

The study introduced six key findings that could help companies change their corporate culture to empower their lesbian employees:

Set the right tone by having leaders talk about LGBT diversity frequently and publicly.

Educate the straight majority about how they can support their LGBT colleagues.

Support affinity groups that allow gay and lesbian employees to network and connect with one another

Invite straight allies to participate in LGBT employee networks.

Highlight senior lesbian employees so they can be role models for others.

Sponsor external events and organizations to demonstrate corporate support.

In lots of ways, there’s nothing groundbreaking about suggesting that companies invest in their minority employees. For years, women and people of color have fought to attain positions at companies dominated by men and whites, despite overwhelming evidence that shows that diverse workplaces are more innovative than their homogeneous counterparts.

What is significant is that this set of recommendations is being given regarding a group of people who have been largely ignored in discussions of corporate diversity. While it’s hard to say why our society has kept relatively quiet on LGBT issues in the workplace, it’s likely that gay rights movements have helped bring light to unacknowledged issues by normalizing awareness of homosexuality and demanding recognition. It’s also possible that the boundaries between personal and professional have historically kept discussion of sexuality out of the arena. With a lengthening middle-to-upper-class work week, the implementation of flexible work practices and the ever-blamable world-shrinking Internet, that line is now fuzzier than ever and is opening the door to consideration of what it means to be LGBT at work.

As it turns out (surprise!), supporting queer employees is good for both workers and companies: out workers are “ambitious” (77 percent), “willing to go the extra mile” (88 percent) and better educated (48 percent have a graduate degree compared to 40 percent of their straight coworkers). An increase in productivity isn’t just limited to LGBT employees, either. A UCLA study shows that:

Instead of harming performance, we find that individuals working with openly gay partners actually perform better on both cognitive and sensory motor tasks than individuals left to wonder about the sexual orientation of their partners.” 

For some, it may seem short-sighted to focus on problems that out, middle-class lesbians face. Their concerns wouldn’t be unfounded; for many people, feeling “comfortably out” at work is the last thing on their mind. Just ask the 48 percent of gay people who aren’t out at work. Or the un- and underemployed LGBT people who got hit harder than the rest of us when the recession came. Maybe ask one of the thousands of  homeless trans* and gay teenagers just how comfortable they are.

What makes this study worth our attention is that it paints a broader picture of the LGBT community and the struggles we face. Although it’s got plenty of faces, the problem we face is singular: intolerance. Whether we’re climbing the corporate ladder or pounding the pavement, we’re waging a battle against the same enemy that we’ll only win if we keep fighting on every front.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

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35 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    This was an awesome article, so much needed truth! I agree that even though keeping personal life details separate from work is usually a pretty good idea (coworkers dont need to see my facebook party and band pics) it definitely doesn’t equate to keeping who you ARE separate.

    Do you know when I’ve felt miserable and unproductive at work? When I realized I hadn’t laughed in over a week. When I’m feeling the best and most productive? When I dont feel like I need to stifle my personality out of policy.

    Also, being in my early 20′s and never having found a permanent place for myself in work/university before, I’ve finally managed to find a great job in an office that has a family vibe, and that’s diverse in age, race, (I assume religion but that’s generally not visible at work) and LGBT people managing branches and in upper management.

    Basicly, I’d better not fuck this job up hahah! Actually the last job I’d interviewed for before my current one involved the interviewer reffering to “Mexicant’s” and referring to his friend as “Faggot”. I was pretty discouraged for a few months after that.

    I realize that my current position is rare and I feel like more work needs to be done across the board.
    ANYWAYS, vent over, thank you for the article!

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    A lot has changed since I wrote my “woe is me” comment on the article about LGBT anxiety and depression a few days ago. Like I said in that post, I have been working at my dream job for about a month now. I’m at an incredibly successful, classy, professional medical office… it’s wonderful but extremely straight and I’ve been kinda lonely.

    Well, last night at the quarterly staff meeting, I was introduced to the entire office and told to tell them about myself. I talked about my schooling, my recent move to the state… and my wife of nearly two years. The owner of the practice, an older white male who runs the place pretty tightly, genuinely smiled and then without hesitation asked what kind of work my wife does and how we were liking it here. It seemed like after the meeting, people were actually nicer to me than before, like smiling and telling me to have a good evening and stuff.

    I agree with what it says above, that out employees are more ambitious and willing to go the extra mile. I think that is so true, especially when you happen to be working at a wonderful job that you really like AND the staff is accepting and welcoming of you as you are… you want to stay there, you want to give back, you want to prove yourself. At least I’m finding that’s how I feel.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect. I kinda have that moment of hesitance in my head when I’m about to say “my wife” to my co-workers. Part of me still thinks they will roll their eyes or tell me not to make such a big deal out of it or get all uncomfortable or something. But I try to push those feelings down. I don’t think I know any of my co-workers’ spouse’s names… they all say “my husband” or “my boyfriend” all day long so I think it’s only fair.

    Anyway, thanks for this post… Very applicable to my life right now. (As always. Seems like Autostraddle always is a half step ahead of me).

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    I wonder if that 48% is weighted by LGBT employees in places where being out could cost you your job. For example, some areas of my home state, Michigan, sexual orientation is not protected under anti-discrimination law. Anyone who is LGBT or perceived to be can legally be denied housing or employment. Im sure Michigan can’t be the only place that keeps their workers in the closet like this.

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    Thanks for posting this article, it’s very encouraging. I work in a professional environment and am very open about my sexual identity to my coworkers and boss. After being hired over a year ago, the owner of the small business I work for drafted a new nondiscrimination policy to include protection of employees based on sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender indentity. My boss came to me and apologized for not including protection for LGBTQ folks previously. I’m fortunate to work for such an awesome employer. She’s a pro-choice, pro-woman business owner who gives a lot of cash to worthy causes. I love my job and give it my all, mostly because I believe in the company I work for. My partner, on the other hand, works in a very stifling and conservative office. She’s not out to anyone at work and it causes her so much stress. She fears she may lose her job if she allows anyone in her office to know her genuine self. She’s got a great job in every other way, but her quality of life and quality of work are seriously diminshed because she doesn’t feel any loyalty to the company she works for. Fuckin’ bummer, dude.

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      I kinda disagree…? I mean, the point is about being queer in the workplace: being a female involved with another female and being out about it. If you are bisexual and currently involved with a female, I would say the exact same issues pretty much apply in the exact same way. I mean, if your co-workers know you are involved with a woman, they are going to (ignorantly) peg you as a lesbian, regardless of whether or not you actually are. The issues, prejudices, and discrimination would be based on your current same-sex involvement, not on whether or not you might date a dude again in the future.

      Or am I totally missing the point?

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        That’s true. Bi-sexuals have straight privilege, unless they’re in lesbian relationships, and then they do experience discrimination, because lesbians and lesbian relationships experience discrimination. A homophobic society does not care what your Kinsey number when you’re in the “wrong” sort of relationship. And obviously, none of that applies for bi-sexuals who are with men.

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          I think the bi- erasure comes from the fact that to society, the relationship you are in determines which team people think you bat for, no matter your actual orientation.The bisexual orientation isn’t *seen.* To your co workers, in the context of this article, if you are with a man you are straight, and inherit that privilege. If you are with a woman, you are gay, and inherit that hardship.

          At the end of the day, gay rights ARE bi rights. However, on the other side of that, straight privilege is bi privilege. Just the way it is, like it or not. Within the context of the LGBT community, of course the differences are recognized. But to straights? Nah. And in this context, that is what matters.

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          I think you put it succinctly.

          To be fair I have met a few straight people who somewhat understand some of the nuances in the LGBT community (though, they have been allies and/or have had close LGBT friends). Also, on several feminist blogs I read that are written by heterosexual women, their writers seem aware. But, for the most part, I think you are right.

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          Yes, there are some straight people who are aware, but for the most part, they stare at you blankly if you say “LGBT.” They don’t even know what it means. Hell, half of them think trans and gay are the same thing. Just one of those things-ignorance with regard to that which does not affect one’s own existence.

          The straights who DO know are allies, or have friends or family members in the LGBT community, you are right. Definitely an exception rather than the rule, though, unfortunately.

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          I don’t think the comment “bisexuals have straight privilege unless they’re in lesbian relationships” makes any more sense than saying “lesbians have straight privilege while they’re single”. This makes the assumption that all bisexuals who are single or in opposite-sex relationships actively hide their sexual orientation.

          If a gay woman keeps her sexual identity secret while she’s single in order to avoid discrimination, we don’t accuse her of co-opting straight privilege – we sympathize with her for feeling the need to closet herself. So why the double standard for bisexuals?

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          Well as a lesbian who is so obviously gay that this would not apply, sorry, disagree. Anyway, was just addressing the bi erasure comment. I don’t understand it in the context of this article.

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          It might not apply to you, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t straight-looking femme lesbians, or androgynous-looking, rainbow-wearing, alternative-haircut-having bisexuals. My point is that that comment oversimplifies and overgeneralizes things in a way that seems unreasonable to me.

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          Shit, I get read as straight *all the time* at work, and I’ve been with my (female) other half for eleven years. Being that I live in a country where “my partner” refer to a partner of either gender, it gets pretty ambiguous sometimes.

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        “I mean, the point is about being queer in the workplace: being a female involved with another female and being out about it.”

        Only if you think that bisexuals only exist in a time bubble – a magical place where they have no past to talk about (including same-sex relationships) and no future that might change their current relationship status.

        Look, if a bisexual person chooses to be out, they are out, okay? It takes a lot of work, which includes a lot of coming out talks (usually multiple times to every single person a bisexual wants to be out to) and even more casual mentions of ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends and it doesn’t matter who the bisexual is or isn’t currently with. The effort is the same.

        Also – in addition to the genderqueer, androgynous and alternative looking folks – don’t forget bisexuals who are also trans*. They might be very visibly queer as well.

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      The what now? I completely disagree. I think the only thing that’s different for lesbians and bisexuals is that while it may not be easier to come out as a lesbian, it’s easier to do it in a smooth way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the conversation. “Yes, I do have a boyfriend. But next time I might have a girlfriend, you never know! I just feel like there’s so many people in the world that I could never even settle for one gender, let alone one person!” is not half as snappy as “I’m gay”.

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    Fun story: I had an internship in Philadelphia last summer, and rode the train every morning from my home in the western suburbs. My boss lived one town over from me on that same train line, though I only ever saw him once (on a different car, couldn’t say hi). About a month into that job, I met my current girlfriend and started spending most nights with her. She lived in the northern suburbs, and took the train in every day to her internship, which was about 10 blocks from mine downtown. So we rode together. One Tuesday morning, 8am train, we find the two seats left on the entire train, her parents nearby. They were the weird ones near the door where you’re actually facing two other people. I looked up and there was my boss. He had moved. And at 8am on a Tuesday morning, there is absolutely no way to get out of “Hi, Mathieu. What am I doing here? This is… um… my girlfriend.”

    He just responded with “nice to meet you” and went about working while we just sat there awkwardly, not holding hands as usual.

    He liked me MORE after that. Like two days later as he was walking to the train station and I was walking to my gf’s job in the same direction, he started on “So, how long have you been dating? How’d you meet? Why online, isn’t the gay community/bars/etc. good here? Where does she go to school? Are you going to do long-distance?” We had NEVER talked about anything remotely personal before.

    Apparently his uncle’s gay. So that was cool.

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    I’m not out at work even though I’m fairly close to my coworkers and actually like hanging out with them outside of work. It’s becoming an issue, not being open with them. Anywho, it’s mostly because of my bosses who are homophobic as fuck. My one boss told me the other day that he would never, ever wear a v-neck because he was too homophobic so at least he acknowledges it?

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