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Gay Workers Still Face Discrimination

Gay marriage was just legalized in New York State, giving gay people and straight allies a lot to celebrate at gay pride parades across the country this weekend. Not to rain on the parades, but when it comes to equality in the workplace, gays have made surprisingly little progress.

Recent studies show that many gay employees are still closeted in their offices and have been discriminated against at work. The Center for Work-Life Policy found 48% of college-educated lesbian, gay and transgendered workers are not out at work.
Some say the reality for gay people at work is even grimmer.

An analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that anywhere from 15 percent to 43 percent of gay people (depending on the study) have experienced some form of discrimination and harassment at the workplace. About 10 to 28 percent say they received a negative performance evaluation or were passed over for a promotion because of their sexual orientation, and 7 to 41 percent of gay and transgender workers were verbally or physically abused or had their workplace vandalized.

In one recent incident, a Southwest pilot had a homophobic rant against flight attendants, not realizing that the traffic controllers could hear him (the pilot was briefly suspended but returned to work after diversity training).

"Employers have a long way to go," said Ritch Savin-Williams, director of the Sex & Gender Lab at Cornell University, who believes the newest study grossly overestimates the number of people who have come out on the job. "Probably most people are not out at work," he said.

Weak legal protections for LGBT employees
Part of the problem is that there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers--only a mishmash of state and local laws. Gay rights groups are pushing for a federal law--The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which has been introduced in both houses of Congress--that would give them similar workplace protections afforded to women, people of color, veterans, seniors and the disabled. "A federal law such as ENDA is needed to provide full and adequate protections to gay and transgender Americans," wrote Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.
How employers handle gay employees

Though studies show that nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, experts believe that's only the first step towards making it safe for gay and lesbian employees to come out. "What companies need is to have active education, workshops, continuing education about sexual orientation issues," said Savin-Williams. They need to educate employees on all rungs of the ladder what is unacceptable language and behavior--and reinforce it regularly, he said. They also need to foster accepting, supportive environments for all their workers, said Richard Ryan, Ph.D. professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.

How 'coming out' affects workers

Some research shows that gay people who come out are happier and more productive, "Having to conceal ones identity can have costs in terms of cognitive efficiency, performance, and certainly well being," said Ryan.

But research also shows that coming out at work doesn't affect everyone positively. Ryan just published a study in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science that found that when an individual came out in a judgmental environment, there was almost no improvement to emotional well-being.

"We don't live in a perfect world yet, people have to be very selective in who and where and when they come out," said Savin-Williams.
Share your stories of coming out at work or why you haven't:

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user brainchildvn.