The Human Rights Campaign published a study earlier this year which found that 46 percent of LGBT people are in the closet at work. Those surveyed cited numerous reasons for keeping their sexuality private, which include fears that they might be stereotyped, create discomfort for co-workers, or sacrifice rapport with colleagues and lose vital relationships as a result of coming out.
But as numerous LBGTQ+ people shared with HuffPost, being out in the workplace can come with its own set of challenges ― from unconscious bias and downright exclusion to a constant stream of coded language, microaggressions and inappropriate, irrelevant references to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Coded language can refer to statements that implicate a person’s identity, often in a negative context, without stating it directly. One person told HuffPost his manager thought he’d “lost his sparkle” ― implying that a measure of “sparkle” must exist in every gay man. People shared examples of microaggressions ranging from inappropriate questions about their sex lives to a dismissal of their sexuality altogether. Even when the people delivering such statements may not intend to offend, enduring them can make navigating professional life all the more stressful.
Below, seven LGBTQ+ people share examples of coded language and microaggressions they have experienced at their place of work.
“At this point, I’d rather be just assumed as straight than to continue having to explain what bisexuality is over and over again.”
“My co-workers regularly but intentionally make comments that hurt me as a bisexual woman. Usually, it’s along the lines of being “half” or “not really” gay. There is only one other queer person at my office, a gay man. My co-workers frequently forget that I’m also queer and only count him when they talk about diversity in our office. None of it is malicious, but at this point, I’d rather just be assumed as straight than to continue having to explain what bisexuality is over and over again.” —Molly, 24, Iowa
“Being told I’ve ‘lost my sparkle’ in a formal review.”
“I’ve experienced other gay men in a work environment morphing into, then heavily leaning on, a stereotypical persona as an effective way of communicating with female members of the team. I’ve been told I ‘lost my sparkle’ in a formal review when I refused to engage with the same colleagues in this way.” —Adam, 29, London
“One male co-worker had the audacity to ask me when I ‘switched sides.’”
“I work in film, which as the whole world now knows, has a misogyny problem as an industry. As a lesbian working in film, I have, over the course of my career, bore the brunt of both misogyny and homophobia. Yay! One time I worked on a movie with an all-male crew except for me, and they all felt like it was their right to know if I had ever slept with a man, and whether or not that man was the ‘right man.’ Heterosexual men can have such a hard time fathoming female pleasure without the presence of a man, and will make sure to let you know.
One male co-worker had the audacity to ask me when I ‘switched sides,’ rather than the far more appropriate question, ‘When did you come out?’ A different male co-worker asked me over lunch in the kitchen at the office, seemingly out of nowhere, ‘So, what do lesbians consider sex?’ I was shocked that he thought this was an appropriate question to ask a co-worker in a professional setting. My immediate response was ‘How do you and your wife have sex?’ He was taken aback and tried to defend his question as one stemming from curiosity, as if that made it any better. I explained to him that while he may be understandably curious about non-heterosexual sex, Google would be a more appropriate outlet.” —Anonymous, 29
“‘I know a drag queen you would get along so well with. She also looks just like a woman.’”
“As a person who is transgender, I run into coded messaging all the time in my workplace. Some examples are: ‘OMG, I know a drag queen you would get along so well with. She also looks just like a woman.’ ‘You’re the type of person this company doesn’t need working for them.’ (This person was gone within a week of me reporting this to our ethics department.) ‘I don’t support your decision to do what you’re doing, but unfortunately, I have to defend it.’
And those are just a few. I run into this stuff almost daily. It’s not always worth my time to pursue it, even though my company has an aggressive ethics department and gender identity is a fully protected status.” —Claire Renee, 48, Minneapolis, Minnesota
“The worst part isn’t the outward aggression, discrimination or transphobia. The worst is exclusion.”
“I’ve had people tell my boss they didn’t want to sit near me because they felt ‘uncomfortable.’ Interviewees have told me that they were asked, before they came onto the team, if they could work with a transgender co-worker. Just a few days ago, a co-worker asked if I was going to be Marilyn Manson for Halloween, because all I’d need was a white latex suit to look like his infamous album cover.
But the worst part isn’t the outward aggression, discrimination or transphobia. The worst is the exclusion. For example, times I would have previously been involved in public outreach, I’m no longer invited to participate since transitioning. People opening the door to the restroom and immediately walking out without saying a word when they see me fixing my hair or makeup. Running fundraising events for our annual holiday function, and then not even garnering a mention in the obligatory “thank you” emails. Being where I am, both geographically and within the particular industry I’m in, I expect some overt aggression and transphobic rhetoric. I just didn’t expect it, nor the exclusion, at this level.” —K, 41, Pennsylvania
“I’m in the awkward position of deciding whether to come out after knowing them for a short time, or trying to end the conversation without lying.”
“As an L in the LGBTQ+, the assumption is that I’m into guys. Especially when I’ve just joined a team and I haven’t sussed out their attitudes yet, I’m in the awkward position of deciding whether to come out after knowing them for a short time, or trying to end a conversation without lying.
At two workplaces, the boss ― in one case, my direct manager ― said that he ‘liked’ lesbians. One strongly implied he would have masturbated to a lesbian couple on television if his girlfriend hadn’t been sat next to him.
It’s getting so tiring that I’m strongly considering searching for a company that only hires women or LGBTQ+ people, even if it means moving countries so I don’t have to go through all of this again.” —Jess, 29, Birmingham, U.K.
“‘I’m fine with you and your cousin’s kind working here, but I won’t put up with that kind of activity at our place of work.’”
“In 2015 I worked at a small town skating rink owned by a family from the neighboring town. When I began working there, I knew the owners were very conservative. My cousin, who also worked there at the time, is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community and was very open about it. Being bisexual is never something I brought up in the workplace until my girlfriend came to visit me there one weekend. I had never heard the owners speak about LGBTQ+ topics until that day.
My boss spotted me hugging my girlfriend and made a point of shaking her finger at us. I asked what she meant by this, and she stated that they don’t ‘condone that type of behavior in the workplace.’ Before I left for lunch my boss stopped me and said ‘I understand you might be upset by what I said, but you have to understand that some people might be offended by that type of scene.’ Once I heard this I completely understood where it was going. I told her there was no scene, I was simply greeting my partner, as my co-workers often did. That’s when she said ‘I’m fine with you and your cousin’s kind working here, but I won’t put up with that kind of activity at our place of work.’ I had learned to disregard that kind of behavior from people, but this would be the first time I had experienced it in the workplace.” —Sara Owens, 19, Milan, Tennessee