(Editor's note: This article was published by the Center for American Progress.)
“The prevailing logic has remained that if I am out as a bisexual woman, I must be asking for something: discrimination, harassment, or even sexual assault.” — Faith Cheltenham
No one should ever feel that they are “asking” for discrimination, harassment, or sexual assault, either in or out of the workplace. Unfortunately, however, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, individuals are made to believe they deserve discrimination simply due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
In her personal video, which you can view below, Faith Cheltenham recounts her experiences of sexual harassment in her workplace when disclosing her bisexuality to her colleagues; even her supervisor said that she was asking for sexual innuendos from co-workers. In addition to describing her experiences as a black bisexual woman—which were more difficult in large part due to the “multiplier effect” of sexual orientation and race-based discrimination and bias—she explains the lack of fairness in her workplace experiences. According to Cheltenham:
It is unfair that so many bisexual women like me have to choose between being visible and being safe at work. It’s unjust that so many LGBTQ people have to choose between being employed and being open in their identity.
Watch her full narration below.
When LGBT workers are harassed—either verbally or physically—or discriminated against solely based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, they become less productive at work. What’s worse, in most circumstances this ongoing harassment may actually cause LGBT workers to fear for their safety. No employee should be subjected to a hostile work environment when he or she is simply attempting to be a productive member of society.
Without comprehensive and explicit federal workplace protections such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, employees have little legal recourse. LGBT workers in hostile work environments face three difficult choices:
- Put up with the discrimination.
- Leave the job and be left economically insecure like many other LGBT Americans.
- Work for an employer that may eventually terminate them solely for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression and not on employment qualifications—which is not really a choice at all.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers are no stranger to victimization and harassment in the workplace. In an analysis of more than 50 studies conducted since 1992, between 7 percent and 41 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers reported being verbally or physically harassed or having their work space vandalized. For transgender workers, that number is much higher, topping off at 78 percent. Because of high rates of harassment, LGBT workers do not lightly make the decision to be out in the workplace because it could have negative consequences for them—especially if they are bisexual, as Cheltenham recounts.
‘In’ or ‘out’? The difficulty of LGBT workers deciding whether to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity
Given the harassment and discrimination that LGBT workers experience, many decide to not be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity. In a recent study, nearly 4 in 10 employees—38 percent—who were out at work reported harassment and discrimination in the past five years, compared to 10 percent of employees who were not out. This means that even choosing not to be open in the workplace may still result in harassment and discrimination. Many LGBT workers who are not open at work, for instance, avoid socializing with colleagues simply to evade conversations that could result in personal questions and answers—“What did you do this weekend?”, for example, or, “Are you bringing someone to the company holiday party?” This can, in turn, cause colleagues to view some LGBT workers as distant when they are in fact attempting to protect themselves and secure their jobs in cases of workplace discrimination.
According to BiNet USA, bisexuality is “the capacity for emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to more than one sex or gender. … [Bisexuality] speaks to the potential for, but not requirement of, involvement with more than one sex/gender.” Although seemingly invisible, bisexuals report experiencing high rates of workplace discrimination, as well as physical and verbal harassment, and, similar to lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals, they have a difficult time choosing whether to be open at work. Only 6 percent to 35 percent of bisexual workers are open, compared to 52 percent to 67 percent of lesbian and gay workers and 38 percent of transgender workers.
Workplace nondiscrimination policies fall flat in the face of alarmingly high rates of LGBT discrimination. Certainly, ENDA will not automatically change the minds of biased employers who do not find LGBT individuals to fit their definition of “moral,” but it will provide protections for these workers and allow them to seek legal recourse in cases of discrimination and harassment. LGBT-specific policy priorities such as ENDA will go a long way toward tackling workplace discrimination against LGBT workers.
Make no mistake: Workplace discrimination against LGBT workers is a continuous problem that has no place in our society. This discrimination—fueled by bias and dislike and rarely based on facts—often prevents LGBT workers from thriving in a supportive work environment. Congress has failed to provide explicit and comprehensive protections for LGBT workers, which often places an insurmountable burden on these workers and their families. Without ENDA, it will be difficult for the LGBT community to build a prosperous life for themselves and their families. For this reason and for many others, Congress must pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst with the FIRE Initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works to eliminate the social, economic, and health disparities faced by LGBT people of color.