Why Are so Many of Us Closeted at Work?

Imagine working in the State Department as an openly gay employee in 2015. There were Pride month celebrations featuring senior leadership. Prominent speeches in support of LGBT equality from the secretary. And you enjoyed expanded benefits for your partner thanks to marriage equality. Then Donald Trump came to town.

The arrival of Trump and his anti-LGBT Cabinet members has forced many government workers back into the closet. A gay employee at the State Department who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said that although he has been out on the job, he and fellow LGBT employees have been more guarded at work.

“The day Trump was elected, I deleted my Twitter. I tweeted a lot about LGBT rights and I didn’t want to draw additional attention to myself,” he said.

As a result, LGBT staffers are demoralized.

“It makes people do their job and go home,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I stayed after five. Two years ago I had a career, now I have a job.”

The State Department employee said that in the department, LGBT acceptance is dependent on the boss’s views.

“During the Obama administration, State became a place where people could be open, and being LGBT was something people could be proud of,” he said. “Now, it’s back to who you report to and who is appointed.”

He is currently seeking employment elsewhere.

His situation reflects a larger trend of LGBT people remaining closeted at work.

The Human Rights Campaign in June released the results of a study that found 46 percent of LGBT people in the United States remain closeted at work.

The study, “A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide,” is the third major study of its kind HRC has conducted. The first workplace environment study, “Degrees of Equality,” found in 2008 that half of LGBT people were closeted at work.

“The number of LGBT workers that are closeted has barely budged in 10 years,” said Deena Fidas, author of “A Workplace Divided” and director of the HRC Foundation’s Workplace Equality program.

The reasons for this are similar from year to year, she said. LGBT workers can face stereotypes and double standards. Thirty-eight percent of closeted LGBT workers are not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of being stereotyped.

The study found that 28 percent of LGBT workers lie about their personal life; 17 percent felt exhausted from spending their time and energy concealing their sexual orientation and 13 percent from concealing their gender identity.

“On Monday morning, if your co-workers are sharing what they did over the weekend and a straight, cisgender person mentions their spouse, it’s normal. If a lesbian queer woman does the same thing, people will say that bringing personal life into the office is inappropriate,” Fidas said. “When [LGBT workers] feel frozen out of social circles and have to hide who they are, that has a significant impact on how to be effective workers.”

A transgender music director for a Catholic church said she does not share much personal information with her co-workers, who do not know she’s trans.

“I have to hide all the [information] pertaining to my gender identity and transition, my personal beliefs regarding LGBT issues, and probably aspects of my own shifting faith and beliefs,” she said. The Blade granted her anonymity so she could speak freely.

Fidas, who identifies as queer, said this double standard exists because LGBT people are still seen as “the other,” and are perceived as fundamentally different from their straight counterparts.

“We’re still a ways away from non-LGBT individuals understanding that they, too, have a gender identity and sexual orientation,” she said.

Even with a rise of understanding and acceptance of LGBT people in recent years, these stereotypes have been reinforced by legislation. Despite significant progress, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, 31 states lack LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws.

“Many people are showing up to work at risk simply for who they are and who they love,” Fidas said.

For some LGBT individuals, coming out of the closet could result in being fired. The “Workplace Divided” study found that 13 percent of LGBT workers feel that they would be fired because of their workplace’s stance on LGBT people.

The trans church music director cited other music directors’ termination for being in same-sex marriages and said that coming out would be detrimental to her career.

“I would almost certainly lose my job immediately. … I never heard of other trans organists; I think that in the long run this would be harder to conceal,” she said.

Even if LGBT workers don’t lose their job because of their identity, remaining closeted at work affects their ability to perform their duties. According to the study, 25 percent of LGBT workers reported feeling distracted at work, 31 percent reported feeling sad or depressed at work, and 20 percent said they had stayed home from work before due to an uncomfortable work environment, according to the study. Twenty percent of LGBT workers searched for a different job.

The music director said that while concealing her identity has not caused short-term issues, it could become a problem.

“I have the constant underlying feeling that I should not be in this job for the long run. As much as I love my job, which I really do, not being able to live authentically probably prevents me from wishing to pour my whole life’s energy and duration into this particular institution,” she said.

While some companies may have more progressive policies in place to protect LGBT workers, leadership that is not pro-LGBT can inhibit LGBT employees from coming out. One in 10 LGBT employees have heard their supervisor make negative remarks regarding LGBT people, a statistic that has remained the same since HRC’s first workplace environment study in 2008. “A Workplace Divided” also found that 45 percent of LGBT workers agree that the enforcement of non-discrimination policies depends on their supervisor’s personal feelings about LGBT people.

“If someone’s supervisor is not welcoming, that will impact the totality of their work,” Fidas said. “If your supervisor is signaling that they’re not welcoming, that defines a lot of the workplace experience.”

The study used focus groups of 804 LGBT-identifying individuals. To compare the results with non-LGBT people, 811 straight individuals were surveyed. Fidas said there was a special focus on intersectionality to ensure that a wide range of perspectives were captured. Using the information from in-depth interviews, researchers analyzed the similarities and differences between the two groups.

“We wanted to be as close to a representative sample of LGBTA folks of all walks of life to understand what folks are going through among the sample,” Fidas said. “It’s an effective way to get at the diversity of LGBT people.”

The purpose of the study, Fidas said, was to raise awareness of issues LGBT workers face every day, and to get companies and leadership to read and share the findings.

“We want this research, training and education to bridge some of this divide. It doesn’t benefit employers to have employees closeted. Being open will allow them to be creative and engaged in their work,” Fidas said. “I want this to start important conversations to help bridge the divide that we see in a lot of American workplaces.”