By now, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve re-started this article. I searched for a nice, relatable story. I tried an interesting plot twist. I told myself, and was told by friends, to make it personal. But I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, because I guess I’m one of the lucky few gay men who hasn’t encountered any kind of prejudice in my professional life so far.
But I’m well aware that, on this side of the rainbow, that’s not always the reality. There is a long, yellow brick road between where we’re at right now, and where we should be, when it comes to LGBT+ rights and inclusivity, both in and out of the workplace.
So, here’s what I’d like to share with you about LGBT+ people in the workplace and why it is important to talk about it.
Not in Kansas anymore: realities of LGBT+ people in the workplace
Last year, during Pride Month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a benchmark on the LGBT+ rights movement. During the 2010s more countries than ever before legalized same sex marriage and adoption or co-adoption by same sex couples and by people who identify as LGBT+. Gay culture seems to have become mainstream. But as much as the West seems to now be an Emerald City for the LGBT+ community, the Wicked Witch is still looming over it.
In many sectors considered more conservative, like finance or politics, staying in the closet becomes an option for many for fear of prejudice, homophobia, or barriers to career progression.
Sports is another career path with a long history of homophobia. Gus Kenworthy, an Olympic medalist free skier who came out after the 2014 Winter Olympics, shared that he feared losing sponsors and his fan base, and being unfairly judged in competitions, if word got out that he was gay. Kenworthy said that it was only when the effort and pain of remaining in the closet became unbearable that he decided to come out.
John Browne, The Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP, a company he worked for for 41 years, saw himself outed on account of a scandal involving his former partner back in 2007. He said several times he was terrified that his sexual orientation would be exposed. He was sure it would ruin his career. In truth, the number of out LGBT+ people at senior levels for big companies and corporations is still small.
While researching for this article I was shocked by the numbers. About 46% of people stay in the closet at their workplaces. Reasons range from fear of being discriminated against, to concerns about not being promoted, to anxiety over a straight colleague unfairly assuming that their LGBT+ coworker is attracted to them, merely because they’re the same gender.
Closeted workers generally are less productive and under more stress. Like being surrounded by flying monkeys, they must dodge questions about their personal lives, many times lying about it and then facing the additional stress of having to keep up with the lie.
In an interview, Lord Browne shared that being closeted generally makes people less sociable at work, which in turn damages their networking. When asked if he would have been a better CEO had he been out while he was still CEO at BP, he categorically said yes. He would’ve been closer to the people he worked with, and people are the core of any business.
When it comes to inclusivity in the workplace, it starts with something as simple as this — LGBT+ people always consider how accepting a workplace is in what comes to sexual and gender orientation before applying to a job.
So where do we go from here? How do we create an accepting, friendly and, most importantly, safe environment for LGBT+ people?
We’re off to see the Wizard: building safe environments
You start like Dorothy — you get a party of friends! It is important for people to get together to talk about what is relevant for the LGBT+ community. It is essential that this task force be made up of people within and outside the LGBT+ community. It is important to talk, to listen, to share, and only by hearing out its people can a company truly understand their needs.
The first rule of coming out is that it should be the choice of the person who is doing it. When people are at this stage, it is important for them to feel that it’s safe to come out. How do companies create that safe environment? By letting their employees know that it is. This can be through words or actions, businesses just need to make sure their employees know that they can come out if they want to and guarantee that this will have no negative impact.
Part of creating this safe environment is not making any assumptions. A woman that wears a wedding ring is married. And because she’s a woman, she’s married to a man. When facing assumptions by others, LGBT+ people may find themselves choosing between lying, diverging the subject or coming out. Avoid putting others on the spot.
Respect what belongs to others. Most people would frown upon colleagues stealing other people’s lunches from the communal fridge, yet some people find it silly to have colleagues informing them of what personal pronouns they prefer to be treated by. Their identity, even more so than their lunch, is theirs and theirs alone. I remember working with a transgender colleague that shared that, before she transitioned, one of the most painful things was having to live and express herself daily in a language she didn’t identify with, as her native Portuguese constantly demands masculine or feminine pronouns.
It’s either to have a binary view of things. It’s either this or that, black or white. Most of us have grown up in a binary world. Yet today we know that binary is not as predominant as we may have believed it to be. Much like the Scarecrow in search for knowledge, do your research. If you don’t know about the subject or there’s something about it you don’t understand, be brave like the Cowardly Lion and reach out to someone who knows. And remember to be like the Tinman and be sensitive when asking questions.
Getting to the Emerald City: the work that lies ahead
Some companies adopt a “that’s none of my business” stance. But this is a matter of tolerance, rather than acceptance. Lucky for me, I have always worked for companies that have proved to be nothing but accepting.
I am yet to feel that my sexuality in any way prevented me of reaching something when it comes to work. I have worked for teams that made it clear, in the kindest of ways, that it I could be myself and all that comes with it — my love of History, wearing long scarfs, babbling about Royal Families or being gay.
For a very long time, I don’t remember sparing a second thought to the very subject I’m now writing about for. But even if I don’t feel prejudice, others might. And being a gay man surely doesn’t make you immediately aware of the issues other LGBT+ people may be facing in the workplace. There is still work to be done to make things better.
Unbabel is no exception when it comes to being a safe and inclusive space. Nevertheless, our People Team is creating policies that promote diversity and inclusion to make sure homophobia and prejudice never become issues here.
In current times, poppy fields still lie between the LGBT+ community and The Emerald City. Yet its shine seems closer, and brighter, every day. The LGBT+ rights movement keeps moving forward. The yellow brick road keeps growing. So whether it’s on a flying bubble, with a pair of fabulous ruby slippers or in your favourite sneakers, come along and help build it. One day we’ll be over the rainbow.