Workplaces are becoming the new closet for LGBTQ+ individuals

Acceptance can’t exist when individuals aren’t given the professional space to be their authentic selves

Bobby Liang touches on his experiences as an openly gay man in the workplace. 
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Supplied by Bobby Liang

For as long as I can remember, I have identified as a gay man. As I grew older and came to better understand my sexuality, being out to those around me came almost naturally. 

By high school, I was part of a tight-knit club of “out” gays. We had ambition, flaunting our newfound, fabulous identities to a world that was growing increasingly more accepting of us.

Now, as a university student and young professional, stepping into the workplace can sometimes feel like stepping right back into the closet. 

The way I define “the closet” is not by sexual orientation alone, but by the feelings and traits LGBTQ+ individuals suppress for the sake of professionalism and to avoid being stereotyped. 

We shouldn’t have to accept that being our authentic selves—which can align with stereotypes of individuals in the LGBTQ+ community—is in bad taste.

The idea of workplace acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community begins to fall apart when it clashes with heteronormative social standards for professionalism and leadership. The mere mention of a same-sex partner can be interpreted as inappropriate for the work environment, while straight employees can openly discuss their romantic relationships without meeting the same criticism. 

Even companies who support their LGBTQ+ employees through mentorship programs, workshops, and participating in Pride month, can fail to do so if they maintain ingrained discomfort with LGBTQ+ relationships and individual forms of expression. 

For instance, a man in a suit walking into a downtown financial firm’s office wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes would likely face raised eyebrows from passersby—and perhaps more aggressive reactions. Though he may be able to enter his office without any issues, he would likely not feel comfortable in his choice of dress. 

Having worked at several large and small companies over the past few summers, I’ve noticed that I’ve frequently felt the need to ask myself one question: Am I too gay?

No, it’s not like I was ever dousing myself with glitter and singing Britney Spears at the top of my lungs. In a past position, my professionalism was called into question solely because many felt that the tone of my voice was too feminine. I was shunned for being too flamboyant, and treated as if I were too emotional to handle difficult tasks or make important decisions. 

These thoughts are not only rooted in my own professional experience, but in multiple research studies proving that gay and otherwise queer individuals face substantial hurdles when they exhibit traits aligning with LGBTQ+ stereotypes.

Men who speak at a higher pitch are typically subject to greater scrutiny surrounding their authority and credibility as employees. In a study published by PLoS ONE, respondents agreed that they preferred traditionally masculine voices over feminine voices in their leaders.

The results of the study point to a distinct phenomenon. Men with higher voices are at risk of having their authority disregarded by their heteronormative peers, who often associate this trait with the LGBTQ+ community.

A survey conducted by Telus found that nearly one-third of Canadians don’t view their workplace as being LGBTQ+-inclusive. Forms of discrimination described were not overt, but instead more subtly embedded in workplace culture. Assumptions made about sexual orientation, the use of inappropriate language, and LGBTQ+ employees being subconsciously looked over for higher positions were all factors in that impression. 

Unsurprisingly, 57 per cent of the survey’s respondents said they were not fully out at work, with 15 per cent showing concern that they would miss out on career opportunities if they were fully out. 

This leads to individuals suppressing traits they feel will cause peers to discover their sexual orientations. Beyond the professional consequences of being outed at work—or being seen as “too” out—Canadian LGBTQ+ employees also expressed fear for their personal safety at work.

Though it may seem obvious to many that discussing one's personal life is indeed unprofessional, it goes without saying that for many, such as myself, sexual identity encompasses a large part of who I am. 

Co-workers don’t always consciously interpret an individual’s behaviour as “too gay,” but it can be hard to avoid the stigma regardless. The energy LGBTQ+ employees spend convincing their peers to take them seriously could be used instead to thrive and excel in the workplace.

Organisations who actively support the LGBTQ+ community through policy are effectively improving the situation. However, issues with workplace culture and professionalism must be addressed alongside the systematic factors that contribute to LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination. 

When crafting anti-discriminatory policies, corporate Human Resources departments across Canada should include sensitivity training addressing the role of heteronormative workplace standards in the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s clear that an uphill battle remains for queer individuals to feel comfortable being out in the workplace. 

While we can hide our identities to appear more professional—and many of us are actively doing so—that lack of acceptance does the next generation no favours.

We have to take a stand and claim the workplace as a space where we can take pride in being authentically ourselves. 

 

Bobby Liang is a second-year Commerce student.

 

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