For Many LGBTs, The Workplace Is Still A Closet

Michele, a mid-level manager at a software development company, is generally open about her bisexuality. While her colleagues are usually accepting, she never knows how much to reveal to clients. “If I’m going into a client meeting, I’ll think, ‘Will this client freak out if I mention my partner? What are the pros and cons?’ I have to decide whether it’s worth it or not.”

Even as Americans increasingly support same-sex marriage — according to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans are in favor, a complete flip from 15 years ago — a significant number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people still find the workplace to be less than welcoming. A global study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 46 percent of LGBT employees in the United States are not out in their professional lives; even in other accepting countries, sizable majorities are closeted — 61 percent in Brazil, 57 percent in South Africa, and 53 percent in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the percentages of closeted employees are far higher in India (67 percent), China (70 percent), Hong Kong (78 percent) and Russia (80 percent).

Across our ten-market sample, a quarter of respondents who are closeted at work fear exposure to teasing, ridicule, or harassment. Other respondents worry about the deterioration of relationships with their colleagues, the possibility of adverse employment action on the job, or even termination.

Even among respondents who say that they are “out at work,” most are not out to everyone: 66 percent of LGB respondents and 75 percent of trans respondents who identify as “out at work” say not all of their colleagues know they are LGBT. Depending on the environment inside and outside of the workplace, LGBT individuals are forced to adopt different strategies to adapt.

Covering

Despite stories testifying to the transformational effects of “coming out,” there’s an unforeseen challenge awaiting LGBT individuals on the other side of the closet door at work: the demand that they “cover,” or downplay their identities. On the journey to full inclusion, nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) in our ten-country survey avoid drawing attention to their LGBT identity in the presence of colleagues who know they are LGBT.

Covering may seem innocuous but it comes at a price: 39 percent of respondents avoid or engage less with colleagues or feel that relationships with certain colleagues have suffered and 32 percent feel they have sacrificed their personal authenticities at work. “Covering has definitely impacted my work, and not in a good way,” says Justin, an M&A lawyer currently based in Singapore. “I can’t chat with my colleagues about my home life, so I end up not knowing anyone personally.” Personal contacts are key in Singapore, where many deals are struck outside the office. As a result, Justin says, “promotions are impacted because your colleagues don’t really know you.”

Passing

Coming out can present a particular challenge because it is a continuous process: Each new person an LGBT individual meets represents a new closet. “It’s not like you can make a public service announcement,” a focus group participant says. “You have to tell people on a case-by-case basis, so you’re always coming out.”

Among those who choose to remain in the closet, many make an effort to pass for straight by, for example, changing their appearance, speech patterns, and/or mannerisms to conform to conventional mores. Some 60 percent of our respondents say they adopt strategies to pass: lying or avoiding mention of personal life outside of work; keeping quiet when they hear negative comments about LGBT people; misrepresenting their opinion on LGBT issues; avoiding colleagues who are known or believed to be LGBT.

Passing exacts an enormous toll, both on employees and their employers. In our multimarket survey, individuals cited that passing incurs costs to their relationships with coworkers, to their emotional well-being, and to their personal authenticities.

Conversion

The pressure to convert can come both from legal and non-legal sources. Any country with a sodomy statute would qualify as a jurisdiction that encouraged conversion. The essence of a sodomy statute is that it criminalizes the activity that many view to be constitutive of gay identity. Other legal burdens on gay individuals can create a similar climate of conversion. For example, Russia’s nationwide ban on “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” criminalizes even the mention of homosexuality around minors and suppresses political advocacy in support of LGBT equality.

Even when anti-gay laws aren’t enforced, they create a ripple effect that carries the message that LGBT individuals are second-class citizens. For every LGBT individual who has the choice to come out, countless others are forced deeper into the closet for their own safety.

There’s a lot to celebrate during Pride Month this year, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before every gay man or woman can display a photograph of their spouse on their desk and not worry about the repercussions to their career.

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