This is a common question that many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) individuals struggle with in the United States. Essentially, when it comes to your personal life, it’s up to you what you decide to disclose to your boss and co-workers, but there are some strategies you can use to help coming out should you wish to do so. Also in this post, we discuss some laws and policies pertaining specifically to LGBT employment that people in the queer community should be aware of and keep track of in the future.
Gauging Company Culture and Diversity in the Workplace
Many people in the queer community tend to be conservative with the disclosure of their orientation at work, one of the main reasons being that they worry how people around the office might react. It can be especially hard if you work in an environment where it’s unclear if the culture values diversity in the workplace.
In these scenarios, a common tactic is to test the ideological waters of co-workers by bringing up popular news stories related to the topic (perhaps a tweeted executive order banning transgender people from serving in the military) and gauging people’s reactions.
Often, an individual considering coming out at work might confide in a small number of co-workers—their “work friends”—at first, and either leave the process there or slowly come out in waves, person by person. This can help the individual to create a support system at work that might mirror the one they have in their social circles. That kind of support is valuable especially in cases where coming out might be met with harassment or aggression from others in the workplace.
How Can You Be Outed at Work?
There can be certain scenarios out of your control that might cause you to be outed at work. For example, at work functions (like company holiday parties) when everyone brings their partners as plus-ones, you may find yourself in a bind. In this instance, you might have to decide between coming out by bringing your partner, attending alone, or avoiding the event entirely.
Another common way your sexual orientation may be disclosed to your boss is when you apply for health benefits.
Once same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, same-sex couples became entitled to the same marital rights as heterosexual couples including health coverage, life insurance, or pension programs.
If such benefits are offered by your employer and can be extended to your spouse or domestic partner, be aware that it’s likely you’ll be outed to your boss when they see the application.
Facing Discrimination at Work
LGBT+ people worry about their rights at work. Despite executive orders made by President Clinton in 1995 (Executive Order 12968, which included “sexual orientation” for the first time in non-discrimination language) and President Obama in 2014 (Executive Order 13672, which amended previous executive orders to include the protection of non-heterosexual people from discrimination at work), recent administrative policies might be weakening those protections.
For example, in March 2017, the Trump administration rescinded President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, which makes it easier for businesses receiving federal contracts to avoid reporting how they comply with labor and civil rights laws. It is speculated that these regulations can affect equal pay initiatives for women and certain protections of LGBT people in workplaces.
In the case of Zarda v. Altitude Express, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief (in July 2017) to the court of appeals arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which pertains to workplace discrimination) doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. The DOJ argues that the protections only extend to sex discrimination where men and women are not treated equally. However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interprets Title VII as forbidding any discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and enforces those regulations on all private sector employers.
So far, the EEOC’s protections supersede any contrary state or local laws, and the commission’s reach extends past the private sector in the form of various hearings and appeals to protect LGBT employees in the federal sector from discrimination as well. This means that, for the time being, it is likely that an employer discriminating against LGBT employees in any sector will be held accountable. However, these regulations are something queer individuals will have to keep an eye on because, if the Department of Justice is granted the appeal in Zarda v. Altitude Express, the EEOC’s protection against LGBT discrimination could be dismantled.
Staying in the Know
In any event, the current state of the law protects LGBT employees from discrimination and guarantees their right to privacy. This means that what you choose to share about your sexual orientation (and personal life in general) with co-workers and employers is up to you. But it’s still a good idea to keep yourself informed about how LGBT Law may or may not be changing.
Do you have anything to add about coming out at work?