For many queer professionals, the workplace poses a serious gauntlet. Job discrimination protections vary widely, and many people who can pass for straight or cisgender still choose not to come out at work because it’s just easier. Today, there is still no federal law that protects individuals from workplace discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, though there is an ongoing fight to try and change this. In 28 states, you can be fired for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. In 30 states, you can be fired for being transgender. And unemployment rates are higher for LGBTQ+ people than for their heterosexual counterparts. According to recent statistics from Out And Equal, a quarter of LGBTQ+ employees said they had experienced discrimination in the last five years; and one in 10 LGBTQ+ employees have left a job because they didn’t feel welcome.
For transgender and gender non-conforming people, it's even worse. The unemployment rate for trans people is three to four times higher — depending on race — than the rest of the population. And, while there are certainly some well-meaning workplaces, many trans and gender nonconforming people still don’t feel welcome. Whether it’s a lack of gender neutral bathrooms, dealing with misgendering, or a general lack of education and accommodations, many work environments are hostile places for trans people.
Work discrimination isn’t always always an overt act, such as being called a name or losing your job over your identity. Often, it's small micro-aggressions — an offhand homophobic comment from a coworker, a colleagues' inability to use your preferred pronouns, or a general office culture that implicitly suggests that you really don't belong.
Despite undeniable progress, the modern American workplace is still far from truly welcoming for queer people. To illustrate some of the work that still needs to be done, we talked to six LGBTQ+ people about their experiences at work — and what they wish their workplaces looked like.
27, Queer, trans, non-binary, Lawrence, KS, retail associate
“The biggest challenge I'm currently facing in my professional life is around my pronouns. My coworkers have been supportive and willing to learn about using gender neutral language for me. However, working with customers in a retail capacity requires so much patience and bravery when it comes to deciding if I want to correct them on my pronouns or give them the space to make the mistake. It feels difficult, draining, and sometimes inappropriate to have a discussion on gender with folks in a conservative state who often are new to the world of breaking the binary, pronouns, and using trans inclusive language.
“My ideal workplace would have many queer and trans employees. We would have mandatory, yearly competency trainings around LGBTQIA topics. There would be large, accessible, single stall gender neutral bathrooms available. The language we would use for our clients, customers, and the people we serve would be neutral until they disclose their gender identity themselves. There would be zero tolerance for transphobia, homophobia, racism, fatphobia, and misogyny. Micro-aggressions would be addressed and we would create an environment supportive of learning and growing to be better every day.
“I would absolutely take more — and bigger – risks if I knew that work environments were going to be competent in queer and trans advocacy. This would mean I would be able to grow and build myself up professionally as well as financially, in hopes of bringing myself out of poverty.”
31, queer, non binary, Atlanta, GA, freelance writer and nonprofit consultant
“There are few job opportunities for me as a working-class, Black, queer, non-binary writer and nonprofit worker in the South. I moved to Seattle for a few years because I felt like my career was going nowhere fast in Atlanta. Upon moving back to Georgia, I quickly experienced the familiar feelings of frustration and unworthiness while looking for full-time, living wage employment.
“Currently, I’m freelancing and consulting while I wait to start graduate school in the fall. I’m enjoying working for myself because many of my past workplaces have been sites of trauma for me. It’s been super demoralizing to work at organizations with alleged anti-oppression values that actively harm their most marginalized workers.
“My ideal workplace would be one where anti-oppression and workplace democracy are prioritized. This would look like a transformative justice and community accountability approach being used to deal with conflict and violence; workers having ownership and decision-making power over their areas of work and how their workplace operates; free and culturally relevant emotional and mental health resources and support; and more.
“Working dehumanizing jobs has definitely negatively impacted my emotional, mental, and physical health, and I dream of a work environment where I can come to work as my whole self and not be treated as a second-class citizen. I believe it would literally add years onto my life.”
23, bisexual, McAllen, TX, newspaper reporter
“I am not openly bi because there is still a negative stigma behind one’s sexuality. I am not out to my parents either. However, when I feel comfortable with someone and the opportunity presents itself, I do say I am bi. I would be afraid to have my coworkers see me differently because of my sexuality. Sometimes I make comments, and there are friends of mine that will say things such as 'Please don't hit on me now.' I don’t think we have reached that place in our society where we can be entirely open about our sexuality.
“My ideal workplace would be one where my coworkers talked about their personal lives more. Being in a more welcoming work environment would allow me to feel comfortable around coworkers and superiors and to have more open and broad conversations. Feeling like I will not be judged [in the workplace] would make me feel more comfortable talking about my sexual preferences. "
30, bisexual, Los Angeles, CA, freelance strategist and writer
“Before becoming a freelancer, I worked at a company where my insights as a first generation, Black, bisexual woman were counted on while my actual person was not appreciated. I dealt with micro-aggressions of all kinds. Now that I freelance, I have a little more autonomy, and this is a bit less of an issue.
“My ideal workplace would look like a newsroom where they didn’t hire freelancers or a token Black person merely to appear progressive. It would be a place where the importance of diversity wasn’t talked about in the abstract but actually practiced through mentorship programs and senior level hires that reflect the actual world. If this were the case, I would probably be more open to not freelancing and actually working somewhere full time.”
25, Chicago, IL, queer, user experience designer at a technology company
“My first professional career job out of college was at an ultra conservative office during the 2016 election cycle. There were a lot of challenges. I never came out as queer, kept everything neutral, and stayed mostly safe there. However, I missed out on feeling like myself, and that chipped away at my self-confidence.
“It's hard to go to a place and hide a large part of who you are. Sometimes it's for your own safety, sometimes it's because it's not your time to be out and ready yet. At my current job, I've been out since nearly day one, and it has made a world of difference.
“My ideal workplace would have some sort of diversity group, possibly even a LGBT employee resource group dedicated to diversity and accountability within the organization — not just saying ‘Yes we love everyone here!’ but actually showing it. Queer mentorship would be incredible, showing younger mentees that career paths are possible, that things are safe, and that there is queer leadership out there. It would be so helpful to have conversations at the intersection of who we are and the work we do, and how those things affect each other. Validation goes a long way.”