Navigating LGBTQ Rights at Work

My first same-sex relationship began just two weeks before I started my first job out of college. I was working in a progressive job but the community surrounding my office was conservative. Having only recently come out to my closest friends, I wasn’t sure how to navigate being queer in the workplace.

LGBTQ rights have progressed nationwide, with the repeal of harmful policies like the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still work to be done. A recent GLAAD survey found that one third of Americans are uncomfortable with LGBTQ coworkers. Only this month did a federal appeals court rule that the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ workers from being fired for their sexuality. Previous studies found that someone can currently be fired for being gay in 28 states; it’s likely LGBTQ worker protections will head to the Supreme Court next. While you may be accepting of everyone regardless of sexuality, there are steps you can take to make sure your queer colleagues feel safe.

I was lucky. On my first day in the workforce, I saw a framed photo on my boss’s desk of two women in white dresses. It was her and her wife on her wedding day.

It’s important to note that as an able-bodied, financially privileged white woman, I have a lot of privileges that others do not. I am seen as only a representative of myself, rather than my whole race or ethnic identity.  Even with these privileges, as a queer woman at work, I have been in situations throughout my professional career where I feel tokenized or targeted by uncomfortable microaggressions.

I’d like to share suggestions for supporting your queer coworkers or coming out at work yourself, but this is only the beginning of a conversation – not a comprehensive list. Please continue the conversation and share tips or your experiences in the comments!

Supporting your queer coworkers

  • Don’t out anyone without their permission. While your colleague may feel comfortable enough to open up to you, don’t assume they are out to everyone. Someone’s identity is not a piece of office gossip. Coming out is a deeply personal thing, and while they may trust you, it’s safest to ask them if anyone else knows before you inadvertently spread their business.
  • Don’t ask inappropriate personal questions. You’d be surprised that professionalism and basic respect can go out the window when someone is queer. Don’t ask about their sex life, their genitalia, or other personal things like whether their parents know or when they knew.
  • Educate yourself. Members of marginalized identities are often expected to be a voice of their community. Don’t assume that your coworker can give you their opinion on every topic from sperm donors to bi erasure. Websites like GLAAD or Everyday Feminism provides resources so you can learn about LGBTQ rights and community yourself without calling on your colleagues to educate you.
  • Call out microaggressions when you see them. While you know better than to ask invasive questions or make other inappropriate comments, fellow colleagues may not. Queer people at work are forced into a situation where they must remain professional even in instances where their identity is being questioned. Commit yourself to speaking out first so your LGBTQ coworkers don’t have to.
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms. Gendered bathrooms are uncomfortable and unsafe for our trans* and nonbinary colleagues and friends – and they’re just not necessary. Find out if your workforce offers gender-neutral bathrooms, and if they don’t, speak to HR or your office leadership about creating these critical safe spaces.

Coming out in the workforce

  • Find an ally within work. Maybe this is someone who is also queer, or maybe someone who has a gay child. If you want to come out at work but are nervous, doing so by slowly building up your close support circle can give you a sense of safety, and you know there are people in your office who have your back.
  • Seek support outside of work. Find your local LGBTQ community center and attend their coming out support discussion groups. Many major cities have Gay and Lesbian Chambers of Commerce that can provide resources for those in business. Find profession-based LGBT groups like the LGBT Bar Association, or LGBT caucuses within professional organizations. All of these resources can connect you with other queer professionals who know what you’re going through and can provide guidance and support.
  • Finally – and most importantly: Know that you don’t have to be out at work for your identity to be valid. Coming out at work is not required. Straight or gay, many people purposefully keep their private life private and separate from work. While existing in a heteronormative society means everyone is assumed straight by default, what you chose to share with your employer and colleagues is a wholly personal decision. However you identify, you are valid and loved regardless of how and when you share your identity.

Anything I missed? Share your experiences or words of affirmation in the comments below!

Allison Punch is a Washington D.C.-based writer and Member Success Associate at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. Allison works with global development organizations large and small and manages Devex’s University Membership, working with universities to provide their students with the best practical advice on careers in global development. She was the recipient of the Deacon Maccubin Young Writer’s Award in Prose at the 2016 OutWrite LGBT Book Fair, and graduated from the University of Michigan in 2014.