New Federal workplace protections: A start (not end) toward LGBT workplace equality

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Michael A. Tew

Today, President Obama moved the ball significantly closer to the goal of American employment equality. In signing an Executive Order barring discrimination in employment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender employees working for the Federal Government or for companies holding contracts with the Federal Government, the President (despite pressure from the right and from some religious leaders) did not include the kind of religious exemptions currently in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate. The order will protect roughly 28 million workers, or (one-fifth of the U.S. workforce). Of those workers, the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that the executive order will cover 14 million who do not already work for companies or in in states with protection from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 21 states protect LGB employees, 19 states protect LGBT employees, along with a significant majority of Fortune 500 companies and over 200 municipalities). This is the second time the Federal Government has stepped up – the first being the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell which removed service barriers to (mostly) LGB military service personnel. Look up the subject though…the military discrimination battles are still being fought. Being able to serve is not the same as being treated equally. Protection from overt workplace discrimination is not the same as working in environments where people are not stigmatized.

As important and meaningful as the President’s Executive Order is, however, the American workplace has a long way to go toward reaching full equality. The Human Rights Campaign’s May 2014 report, The Cost of the Closet, reports that 53% of self-identified LGBT people conceal their identities in the workplace. 35% lie about their sexuality. These numbers are not surprising considering the potential costs of being yourself. Interestingly, while there is hope for positive outcomes to the vast array of Marriage Equality cases currently in the Federal Courts, more LGBT persons may be able to marry than will be protected against workplace discrimination.

A recent study addresses the presence, dimensions of, and effects of discrimination and stigmatization in the workplace. Understanding lesbian, gay, and bisexual worker stigmatization: a review of the literature (Gates and Viggiani, 2014) appears in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy (Vol. 34, Issue 5/6). The authors provide a strong, literature review based foundation for understanding the extent of stigma that LGB (these researchers neglected to include Trans* employees in this study) face at work. They argue that “Human service workers, advocates, policymakers, and others” need to work from an “anti-oppressive framework” which requires understanding the social and historical context for workplace stigma and discrimination. Important to this study is their examination of how factors such as Outness, Gender, Gender Expression, Education, Social Class and other variables contribute to provide such understanding. They assert that “LGB worker discrimination is a human rights issue,” and offer strong arguments that “Actively fighting against LGB workplace stigmatization must become a national priority.” President Obama’s Executive Order is a start. Understanding how workplace discrimination works is critical to informed public policy. New orders and legislation provide protection. Understanding will make such protection meaningful.

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About Equality Research Center

The mission of the Equality Research Center is to promote, support, and disseminate research focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality and human rights. The Center is dedicated to the advancement of Equality by connecting academic, evidence based research to community action, public policy, and curricular innovation.
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