N.B., I use “LGBT” in this post as shorthand for “LGBTQIA+,” and use both “queer” and “LGBT” interchangeably. LGBT people are not a monolith. This article is written from my perspective, and does not (and cannot) reflect all queer experiences and views.
I rarely write first-person blog posts. I usually focus on the facts of recent events and the law. But something about Pride month this year is hitting differently. I’ve been trying to discern what it is and why it feels so off.
I live in Boystown, Chicago’s gay-borhood, and one of the last true “gay ghettos” left in the United States. Gay men from across the country flock here to find some measure of safety, community, and oftentimes identity. And most of them do. In fact, just the other day, someone mentioned to me how amazing it is to feel such “gay boy joy” in this city. And yet I couldn’t help but feel my inner Debbie Downer kick in when I turned my thoughts to the raft of anti-trans, anti-drag, and other anti-LGBT legislation carpeting the country. It seemed I was immune to feeling that sense of relief, even joy, that he spoke of. I couldn’t channel his ease, almost a carefreeness—and I haven’t been able to for a long time.
Our Employment is Not Always Secure
Some of my skeptical pessimism comes from personal experience. I was effectively shut out of a career path that I deeply loved when I was outed by some students at the Catholic high school I taught at several years ago. And because my employer was religious, it was able to evade accountability.
Although the Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock v. Clayton Co.decision ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected traits under Title VII, the federal employment anti-discrimination law, religious employers can be completely exempted from any Title VII obligations. In fact, a Supreme Court decision released just weeks after Bostock leaves potentially as many as 2 million workers across the U.S. without legal recourse if they face workplace abuse.
Further, Title VII only covers employers with 15 or more employees. That means that workers at small businesses may be left unprotected. Various state laws may apply to them, but many states have no such laws, or their courts have ruled that Bostock’s inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity under Title VII simply doesn’t translate to coverage under state law. That puts some LGBT workers in the same precarious position they were in pre-Bostock.
We often hear the much-touted phrase “it gets better,” but the truth is more complex. As one researcher noted, “It is getting better, but it’s not getting better everywhere all the time.”
Pride Is Under Attack
Employment is not the only way that LGBT folks have come under attack recently. By early April, over 400 bills had been introduced to curtail LGBT rights in state legislature in this year alone. These bills attempt to deny access to gender-affirming healthcare, to ban trans people from using their gender-appropriate bathrooms, to block them from playing on sports teams, to police educational curriculum so it erases LGBT identities, to outlaw drag story hour for kids, and more. Support for such restrictions on liberty is strengthened by scurrilous age-old tropes that cast LGBT people as “groomers” who sexualize children.
The intentionally disingenuous rhetoric around LGBT people comes with real consequences. A cynical attempt at firing up his base has led Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to attack Disney after it opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Recently, demonstrators lined the entrance to Disney holding Nazi flags and banners. Fears of violence from radicalized opponents—and sometimes overt threats—have led some U.S. Pride celebrations to be cancelled or scaled back.
American homophobic rhetoric also has global consequences. In May Uganda passed its latest version of the “Kill the Gays” bill, which enforces a 20-year prison sentence for “promoting homosexuality” and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” American evangelical activists were in part responsible for radicalizing Ugandan lawmakers.
It’s difficult for me to feel carefree or hopeful in this moment.
What Employers Can Do
LGBT identities are often commodified in the American marketplace, especially during Pride month. Some employers release Pride-related merchandise and advertising. Some display the Pride flag, issue a Pride-supportive statement, promote their workplace affinity groups, or have individuals list their pronouns on Zoom (all very good things, by the way).
But I’ve found that many LGBT workers simply want what their non-queer peers already have: a world that seems to have been made for them, or at least one that isn’t actively working against them. If you as an employer really want to showcase your LGBT inclusion, focus on the “bread and butter” issues that ultimately matter most to us.
Based on my personal experience, conversations with other queer workers, and my work as an employment paralegal, I offer below 10 practical actions employers can take to support LGBT workers.
- Pay your people what they’re worth—and conduct a pay audit if needed.
That means don’t pay LGBT workers less than their non-queer counterparts for similar work. The LGBT community, and especially gay men, are often portrayed as wealthy, even outpacing their heterosexual counterparts. This “myth of gay affluence” weaponizes a seemingly positive generalization to make it appear as though the LGBT community is not affected by wage discrimination and enjoys outsized political power.
The reality, however, is much less positive: LGBT men earn about 4% less than typical workers in the U.S. (up from 11% less as late as 2014), while black women in the queer community make 85 cents for every dollar a typical worker makes, and trans women make only 60 cents on the dollar. In fact, college-educated LGBT workers earn 22% less than their heterosexual counterparts a decade after graduation. About one-third of LGBT workers report that they have faced discrimination in hiring, maintaining employment, salary growth, and receiving promotions.
While discrimination in employment in non-religious institutions is now technically illegal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and at times even pushing LGBT workers out of their jobs. And whenever someone is terminated, they lose out not only on salary and benefits, but contributions to a 401(k), potential vesting in a pension, and additional salary growth and skill acquisition.
If your organization might be paying workers in an inconsistent manner, consider conducting a pay audit to right the problem. Doing so will help generate good will and respect from your employees, and keep your business out of any legal hot water. Failure to do so could be far more costly down the road, both in terms of sunken employee morale and increased legal costs.
- Don’t treat LGBT workers differently for not having children.
Although many workers face pregnancy discrimination and employers who don’t understand parents’ need for flexibility, it is ironically true that remaining childless often carries negative social and monetary consequences in employment. And as LGBT individuals have children at a far lower rate than their heterosexual peers, they are particularly susceptible to being held back.
Research has shown that employees with children are more likely to get promoted and to be extended a pay raise than those without children. Moreover, childless workers often have to pick up the slack of their parent colleagues, working after hours or forgoing the paid time off that parents enjoy. This has led some commentators to see not just a bias against the childless, but their widespread exploitation.
Piling work onto childless employees or consistently asking them to stay late to cover parent workers negatively affects all childless workers. It also reinforces heteronormative expectations that particularly penalize LGBT people, who often face the painful reality that they may never have children of their own, especially if they are not wealthy. Further, it sends a message that child-rearing confers special value on an employee, whereas passions and interests not tied to parenting are less worthwhile.
- Offer leave benefits that support diverse families.
LGBT workers should not be adversely treated for not having families. But if they decide to form a family, they should receive all the benefits that other workers enjoy.
Unfortunately, LGBT workers often face an uphill battle when it comes to starting a family. Besides encountering discrimination from their families, faith communities, and adoption agencies, we usually must shoulder the financial costs of adoption or surrogacy. One of the best ways to support us is to offer a paid parental leave policy that applies to all families, including adoptive and fostering families. Further, you can offer a paid sick leave or paid time off (PTO) policy that allows time away for such things as IVF or undertaking surrogacy.
- Offer robust healthcare plans and consider an HSA.
LGBT folks face widespread discrimination in healthcare and are often subjected to intrusive and ignorant questioning by providers. Approximately 15% of LGBT individuals have avoided or postponed medical treatment due to discrimination. Choosing a health insurance plan with a wide network will help ensure your employees are able to find LGBT-affirming care with competent professionals who understand the unique health challenges LGBT people face.
LGBT people on the whole experience poorer physical health compared to their straight, cis-gendered counterparts. We have often endured consistent stress and anxiety for years in the face of discrimination, bullying, and violence, which researchers believe explain why LGBT individuals face such an increased risk of heart disease. Among other health disparities, many in the queer community are at an increased risk of contracting HIV, and trans folks experience unique healthcare needs.
As a result of both personalized and systemic anti-LGBT bias, many LGBT people also suffer from mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. We may also struggle with self-worth, relationships with family members, and spiritual abuse from faith communities.
Such unique health issues can mean that LGBT workers face elevated healthcare costs relative to our peers. We also face the challenge of locating uniquely competent care, including trans-affirming care, which may incur additional costs. Opting for a health savings account (HSA) can help defray some of the costs of healthcare and allow LGBT workers to get more of the care we need.
- Offer remote work options.
Employers who offer more malleability in how they organize work, such as scheduling and location flexibility, tend to attract and retain otherwise unavailable talent. Remote work in particular has proven to be a positive gain for minority workers, enabling them to experience less workplace harassment and social stress.
Queer individuals often have to modify their behavior and speech in the workplace to conform to heteronormative expectations. For instance, we refrain from discussing our dating lives or even spouses. The constant vigilance, self-policing, and determining on the spot what can and cannot be shared and with whom is called LGBT code-switching—and it’s tiring.
As late as 2020, about half of LGBT workers were not out to their supervisors and over 30% had to wrestle with where to work because of their LGBT status, a number that rose to over 50% for transgender workers. Offering the ability to work from home removes much of the need to code-switch, the likelihood of encountering microaggressions, and broadens your talent pool. It will help reduce the stress that in-person work often creates for LGBT workers.
Of course, any business will need to keep an eye on how sexual harassment has adapted to remote work and ensure the digital space doesn’t reproduce the same ills as in-person work. Managers and leaders will also have to be intentional not to allow proximity bias to adversely affect their LGBT or other minority employees.
- Keep the workplace free of stereotypes.
Queer workers often encounter gender stereotypes in the workplace. A woman with short hair should not cause scandal, nor should a man with a good flow. Men should feel perfectly able to come to work with nail polish and even sporting a hot pink purse. They shouldn’t have to worry that they’ll be seen as less of a man, or less of a worker, or feel less welcome in their workplace. And we shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of constantly performing heteronormativity.
Stereotypes about LGBT interests can be another cause of stress at work. A coworker once expressed absolute shock I didn’t know of a certain pop song. While I love me some Brittney and Beyoncé, I’m really more interested in classical literature and history, the Bible, and foreign languages (nerdy, I know). It’s important to remember that there are gay farmhands. There are trans pastors. And there are lesbian fashion models. And that’s exactly as the world should be. We are not all the same, so please avoid assuming that we are.
- Root out bias—and don’t dismiss complaints because they are uncomfortable to address.
LGBT individuals are commonly subjected to microaggressions of various sorts, including intrusive questions about our personal lives. At times, we are told that we don’t really face discrimination, or are not a “real” minority. All of these comments come from a place of privilege, are misguided, and are highly offensive.
Equally upsetting is when an LGBT employee makes a complaint of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, only to be met with inaction because the bad actor is a member of another minority group. A white lesbian can be harassed by a black male colleague just as easily as by anyone else, and a gay man can be harassed by a woman (such as this gay male employee who was called a “queer” repeatedly by his female boss and even slapped in the face). Simply because workplace abuse does not follow the usual patterns of systemic bias does not mean that misconduct isn’t taking place or isn’t serious. Interpersonal interactions can be homophobic or transphobic no matter the profile of the aggressor, and complaints of anti-LGBT bias should be handled just as seriously as reports of any other workplace harassment.
- If you are going to stand with us, keep standing.
Anheuser-Busch wanted to benefit from using trans social media influencer Delaney Mulvaney to promote its Budweiser products. But after it gifted Mulvaney with a can bearing her image, the company received instant backlash from right-wing forces. The company then put top executives on leave and reoriented its marketing campaigns to focus on sports and music. This lukewarm response itself attracted criticism and caused the company to lose its LGBT-positive business rating.
Relatedly, Target featured Pride-related merchandise that only became a flashpoint in the wake of widespread legal and social media attacks on trans people. Patrons destroyed displays of LGBT-themed products and threatened staff at some locations. In response, the retailer pulled many of its products at several locations, reduced its Pride displays, and moved them to the back of its stores.
Now is not the time to get weak legs. If your business wants to reap the economic benefits of tapping into the LGBT market, then it must also be willing to suffer some occasional negative consequences. Otherwise, it appears that rhetoric around inclusion, diversity, and equity was merely a marketing ploy, not a serious sign of solidarity.
It would be best for businesses to be wholeheartedly supportive, but if your business is too afraid of the consequences from trolls, then, at least in my view, it’s best to remain neutral. No explicit support for the LGBT community is better than providing another opportunity for homophobic and transphobic forces to score a win through intimidation.
- Educate yourself.
Serving as a workplace ally for LGBT people begins with understanding us. Often much gets lost in partisan and mediatized debates over pronouns, bathrooms, marriage, and more when it comes to LGBT issues. Having an informed mindset that is based in both facts and learning from other people’s lived experience is the best foundation for making your workplace better for queer workers.
Consider online and in print resources from trustworthy sources, such as GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, or the American Psychological Association. While it’s not the responsibility of LGBT people to conduct your education around these issues, most of us are more than willing to respond to good-faith questions from inquiring minds. Kindly ask someone in the community to answer your outstanding questions, ideally a close friend or someone else with whom you have a trusting relationship.
- Create a healthy workplace culture.
LGBT employees want what all employees want: a trusting and inclusive workplace. After all, that is the foundation for increased creativity, teamwork, and profitability. A healthy culture implies that minority workers can feel safe at work to be their authentic selves. This positive environment reduces the need for code-switching, the likelihood of microaggressions, and the chances of more serious workplace misconduct.
A healthy workplace culture also means that employees are given the psychological safety to express their needs or to speak up when something is off. Workers often refrain from raising concerns because they fear retaliation, whether explicit, such as not receiving the same raise as other workers, or more implicit, as in being blocked from opportunities or being subjected to passive-aggressive comments.
Commit yourself every day to creating a healthy environment and your LGBT employees will thank you—and so will everyone else.
. . .
If your workplace desires to issue a statement or fly the flag, by all means please do. It provides at least some sense that you stand with us. But the recent uptick in hostility has real effects on our finances and health, both mental and physical. So, at least for this writer, the above 10 actions would mean far more than another Pride flag in a window or LGBT-themed merchandise. It would tell me that an employer has pride in me that runs deeper than one month a year.
This post also appears on the author's Medium profile.