Until Our Workplaces Are Safe, LGBTQ People Will Be Trapped In The Closet

It's on all of us, queer or not, to build a safer world for LGBTQ people.
Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images

When I told my gay Uncle Frank I was bisexual, he said I was lucky to be coming out in the 2010s instead of the 1970s when he did.

He’s right in many ways. Since the Stonewall riots in 1969, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous progress in gaining visibility and equity thanks to the countless queer and trans activists who fought for their lives and freedom. Queer and trans visibility is everywhere now, from elected officials like Andrea Jenkins to musicians like Janelle Monáe to television shows like “Pose.” Things certainly have improved since the ’70s, when my uncle worried about not being able to get a job.

Yet even with the strides that have been made, many queer folks keep their pride private. According to a recent study from the Human Rights Campaign, nearly half of LGBTQ people are still in the closet, specifically in the workplace. Another recent HRC study reports that only 27 percent of LGBTQ youth felt comfortable to be out and open at school, and only 26 percent of them felt safe.

Unfortunately, even in 2018, our society still isn’t completely safe for LGBTQ people to live their lives in peace. Yes, we’ve gained more visibility, but visibility is a double-edged sword. As we gain more support for LGBTQ rights, we also become more vulnerable.

“If society becomes a safer place for all LGBTQ people, there will no longer be a need for a closet.”

According to HRC’s report, 46 percent of employed LGBTQ people remain closeted at work because they fear they’ll be stereotyped, make co-workers feel uncomfortable or that they’re coming on to them, and lose workplace friendships.

But it’s LGBTQ people who feel uncomfortable. The study shares that 20 percent of LGBTQ workers said employers and co-workers have told them to “dress more feminine or masculine,” 53 percent said they’ve heard bigoted jokes from co-workers, and 45 percent said they feel workplace nondiscrimination policies are only implemented based on the employer’s personal feelings about LGBTQ people.

While I’ve never experienced this kind of outright hostility, I do know what it’s like to be wary of being out and open at work. The main source of tension was trying to get my co-workers to recognize me as non-binary and use they/them pronouns for me. No one ever outright said my identity was invalid, but it was obvious they didn’t understand I wasn’t just a guy who liked to wear makeup for fun.

Sure, I could have easily just talked to them about what it means to be non-binary and corrected them every time they referred to me as “he.” But I worried about creating tension at work by constantly reminding them about my pronouns. So after a while, I stopped trying and just silently cringed whenever they misgendered me.

It also didn’t help that most of my co-workers at my last job voted for Trump. I know that not all Republicans are anti-LGBTQ bigots, but Trump’s record on LGBTQ rights shows an evident disdain for the lives and livelihood of LGBTQ people, and it stands to reason that anyone who supports him supports his anti-LGBTQ agenda. Trump has emboldened so many people to be openly bigoted, and LGBTQ hate crimes have been on the rise since his election.

Why would anyone feel safe, let alone comfortable, coming out at a time like this when you can’t tell who’s friend or who’s foe?

“Visibility is a double-edged sword. As we gain more support for LGBTQ rights, we also become more vulnerable.”

This is one of the many reasons why being out of the closet is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I get the opportunity to educate others about LGBTQ issues and help people realize that we’re neither freaks nor degenerates. On the other hand, I see and hear things I didn’t notice when I was in the closet, like transphobic jokes and automatic assumptions that everyone is cis and straight.

Being out puts me at risk for targeted hate. If I speak up and try to engage in serious conversations with colleagues, I risk making things at work extremely uncomfortable. And when people get uncomfortable, they’ll either start walking on eggshells around me or they’ll get tired of me and my workplace could become a hostile environment for me. Is it best to speak up and risk everything, or stay silent just to keep the peace?

Of course, one does not even need to speak up and engage to be ostracized. Trying to do something as simple as buying a wedding cake or purchasing a home opens the door for blatant discrimination and persecution. Why be out and open if it just opens one up to terrible treatment?

To be out of the closet and open about your sexuality is certainly a brave act, because while times have changed, a lot of the discrimination and violence LGBTQ people face is still the same and forces some of us to keep our identities to ourselves (or at least limited to people we can trust). Sure, visibility makes it impossible to ignore us and gives hope to other LGBTQ people to have pride in who they are. However, we can only say and do so much.

Sure, we can march, yell, scream, and petition the powers that be all we want, but the powers that be ― the lawmakers, the co-workers, classmates and friends with straight privilege ― have to use their powers to make change. As I mentioned in a previous article, the onus is on straight and cis people to create a safer world for queer and trans people. If society becomes a safer place for all LGBTQ people, there will no longer be a need for a closet.

Tris Mamone is a bisexual genderqueer (“they”/“them”) writer based in Maryland who focuses on the intersections of social justice and secular humanism. They also host the “Bi Any Means” podcast and co-host the “Biskeptical” podcast.

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