As of 2021, approximately 5.6% of American citizens over the age of 18 identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.1 The ever-growing presence of openly queer Americans brings forth a new challenge in the fight for acceptance: being out in the workplace. Today, five percent of federal employees self-identify as queer, with less than one percent identifying as transgender.2 LGBTQ+ individuals are also climbing the ranks and occupy authority positions in a myriad of industries; recently, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay man in history to serve in the president’s cabinet.3 Such feats demonstrate how far society has come in recent decades, but homophobia is still alive and well. In order to protect one’s wellbeing and safety, there are many factors to assess before coming out in the workplace.
Regulations and Laws
Employment non-discrimination laws protect LGBTQ+ people from being being unfairly hired, denied employment opportunities, and discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Current federal legislation and constitutional amendments do not give businesses specific criteria to follow to protect marginalized employees, leaving anti-discrimination policies up to the company’s discretion.4
The most prominent bill regarding anti-discrimination came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act launched the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to implement the law’s anti-discrimination directives.4 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects Americans from discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age,” and this interpretation extends protections to LGBTQ+ employees.4 However, this initiative, while persuasive, may not be binding in court.
In 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13672 to expand the language in the Civil Rights Act and explicitly outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in the workplace.5 In 2017, the Trump administration, through the Justice Department, reversed this Obama-era policy that used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively removing federally mandated protections for queer and gender non-conforming employees nationwide.6 In February 2018, a federal appeals court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does, in fact, prohibit anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.7 This decision was a victory for the LGBTQ community. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, homosexuality was considered grounds for a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces. The result of this controversy was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in which members of the gay and lesbian community could be members of the armed forces as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. In 2012, this policy was rescinded, and gay members of the military were allowed to serve without being closeted.8
Fortunately, many of the largest companies in the world prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. According to the 2022 Corporate Equality Index, 76% of Fortune 500 businesses have policies to protect LGBTQ+ employees and increase workplace inclusion.9 Additionally, 56% of these companies provide benefits to employees’ domestic partners, such as health insurance.9 Protections against gender identity discrimination have increased three percent amongst Fortune 500 companies since 2002, with 91% explicitly condemning said behavior in an effort to accommodate transgender workers.9 The push for equality in these prestigious businesses is inspiring, but many other sectors of the labor market are far from accepting. Over 12% of the United States’ LGBTQ+ population lives in states or territories with no official policy barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in public employment.10 Only one third of American states have extended anti-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and trans identity. In 25 states, gender identity non-discrimination is not covered, leaving transgender employees at risk of transphobic treatment in the workforce.10 It is extremely important to be well-versed on state laws and company policies regarding the tolerance of LGBTQ+ individuals when deciding whether an employer is a good fit for you. We recommend trying to be informed about what constitutes as discrimination in your state and prospective workplace to avoid unnecessary, unjust treatment.
Tips for Coming Out in the Workplace
Before deciding to reveal your sexual orientation or identity at work, you should asses the risks and Before deciding to reveal your sexual orientation or identity at work, you should assess the risks and issues that may arise. Each workplace is unique, so consider the following questions to evaluate LGBTQ+ inclusiveness in a workplace:11
- Does your organization use inclusive language in invitations and for social/business networking functions (e.g., “partner” rather than “husband” or “wife”)?
- Do senior leaders in your organization model inclusive behavior toward LGBTQ+ staff?
- What behaviors/actions are valued in your organization? Do any of these exclude LGBTQ+ people?
- Does your organization have LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policy statements that are publicly available on your company’s internal and/or external website?
- Does your organization provide transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits?
- Does your organization offer comprehensive, organization-wide LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion training?
Answering these general questions can provide information that indicates your organization’s familiarity with queer people in the workplace. Additionally, it can provide insight into the general policies relating to LGBTQ+ people and what protections are available . Ultimately, these questions can help reveal whether or not a prospective job is a safe space for queer employees and allow you to make an informed decision when accepting job offers.
After assessing the potential risks of coming out to your employer and fellow employees and determining whether your organization is LGBTQ+ friendly, it can be helpful to talk with someone who is LGBTQ+ or an ally. Opening up slowly to coworkers may help ease you into being completely out at work. The process can seem daunting at first, but there is usually no need to make an official announcement to all of your coworkers. Instead, you can allow coworkers to make the discovery themselves by not hiding any aspect of your identity. There are many different ways to allow for this discovery, such as talking about LGBTQ+-related topics, bringing your partner or a date to company functions, or even having a picture of your partner on your desk. You can also join the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at your workplace for support, or reach out to your organization’s human resources department and create one.
If you are considering disclosing your identity to a potential employer, you can research to see whether the employer has objections against gender identity or expresses discrimination. The Human Rights Campaign offers the Corporate Equality Index, which rates 1,271 businesses according to LGBTQ+ inclusive policies, benefits, and the “employer’s commitment to equality.”9 This index can be beneficial in assessing current or potential jobs’ policies and workplace culture. There is no “correct” way to come out to a potential employer, and prioritizing your health and wellbeing should always take precedence.
Despite rising public support for LGBTQ+ rights, in 2018, 46% of LGBTQ+ workers in the U.S. reported hiding their identity at work to avoid making people uncomfortable or having peers see them in a different light.12 Coming out to coworkers and managers may bring unwanted consequences, but being true to oneself can bring many positives. First, you no longer have to deal with the stress of hiding your sexual orientation or gender identity. You may no longer be frightened of questions that could reveal details of your personal life, allowing you to connect deeply and honestly with fellow employees. Moreover, the disappearance of identity-related stress, coupled with tolerant peers, enhances the workplace’s overall productivity. Cultivating an environment in which employees feel safe to be themselves is closely correlated with an increase in nationwide innovation and personal growth.13 Additionally, your overall health can improve. Constant stress and anxiety weakens one’s immune response, and may lead to an increased risk of acquiring infectious diseases; ridding oneself of work-related anxiety can reduce the chances of future health problems.14 Furthermore, being open and vulnerable with others makes it possible to form deeper friendships, build trusting work relationships, and foster a more positive work environment overall.
Coming out in the workplace also helps combat workplace discrimination and builds momentum for workplace protections for the LGBTQ+ community. In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook came out to his entire customer base. He said despite wanting a basic level of privacy, he hopes that if “hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”15 By speaking about your sexual orientation and sexual identity in the workplace, you can help your coworkers and peers follow your lead, and encourage them to be true to themselves. Coming out may prove to be a challenge, but it can provide numerous benefits to both yourself and the general work space.
Deciding to reveal your sexual orientation or identity at work can be difficult, but it can improve your well-being and relieve the daily stress of hiding who you are. Workplaces are becoming more diverse and increasingly inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, but there are still many factors and risks that should be considered before deciding to come out at work. Many companies’ and states’ anti-discrimination policies vary greatly from each other and learning about these policies can help with the process of coming out. After coming out at work, many people feel relieved, more productive, and more content because they do not feel the need to hide this part of their identity.
- Jones, Jeffrey M. “LGBT Identification Rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate.” Gallup.com. Gallup, 24 Feb. 2021. Web. 9 May 2022.
- Buble, Courtney. “Agencies Recognize LGBTQ+ Employees During Pride Month.” GovExec.com. Government Executive, 3 June 2021. Web. 9 May 2022.
- “Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.” Transportation.gov. United States Department of Transportation. Web. 9 May 2022.
- “Civil Rights Act (1964).” Archives.gov. National Archives, 8 Feb. 2022. Web. 10 May 2022.
- Obama, Barack. “Executive Order 13672: Further Amendments to Executive Order 11478, Equal Employment Opportunity in the Federal Government, and Executive Order 11246, Equal Employment Opportunity.” Presidency.UCSB.edu. UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, 21 July 2014. Web. 11 May 2022.
- Ford, Zack. “Trump revokes Executive Order, weakens Protections for LGBT Workers.” ThinkProgress.com. Think Progress, 29 March 2017. Web. 11 May 2022.
- Feuer, Alan and Benjamin Weiser. “Civil Rights Act Protects Gay Workers, Appeals Court Rules.” NYTimes.com. New York Times, 26 Feb. 2018. Web. 11 May 2022.
- Tikkanen, Amy. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Britannica.com. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 11 May 2022.
- “Corporate Equality Index 2022.” HRC.org. Human Rights Campaign. Web. 11 May 2022.
- Movement Project. “Equality Maps: Employment Nondiscrimination Laws.” LGBTMap.org. Movement Advancement Project. Web. 12 May 2022.
- Catalyst Staff. “Tips for Creating an LGBT-Inclusive Workplace Environment.” Profiles in Diversity Journal. Catalyst, 20 Oct. 2014. Web.
- “A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate LGBTQ Workers Nationwide.” HRC.org. Human Rights Campaign, 2018. Web. 12 May 2022.
- Vu, Trung V. “Linking LGBT Inclusion and National Innovative Capacity.” ResearchGate.net. Social Indicators Research, 3 July 2021. Web. 12 May 2022.
- O’Connor, Daryl B, Julian F. Thayer and Kavita Vedhara. “Stress and Health: A Review of Psychobiological Processes.” AnnualReviews.org. Annual Review of Psychology, 4 Sept. 2020. Web. 13 May 2022.
- Neuman, Scott. “Apple CEO Tim Cook Comes Out as Gay.” NPR.org. NPR, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 May 2022.
Last Updated: 24 May 2022.