Gay Corporate Climbers Should Lead Job Rights Fight
From a quick scan of the society pages, you might get the impression that the homogenization of homosexuals into larger American culture is nearly complete. We have openly gay CEOs of mega-corporations (Apple’s Tim Cook, NBC Entertainment’s Robert Greenblatt, and we’re even at the top in pro basketball with Rick Welts, president of the Golden State Warriors). Not so long ago, you could be dismissed from the US Foreign Service for being queer, but today there are at least half a dozen gay ambassadors (John Berry to Australia, Rufus Gifford to Denmark, James Costos to Spain, and Ted Osius to Vietnam, among them).
What amazing progress we have made…at least in the upper male echelon of society. The problem is that the strides for those at the top have yet to trickle down to the masses: to most lesbians, to the less affluent, to homeless or bullied youths and especially to transgender people.
Look at almost any list of prominent LGBT business leaders and the only female names you’ll find are those who head up lesbian-oriented companies (Kathy Wolfe of Wolfe Video, for example, or Judy Dlugacz of Olivia, the iconic travel company specializing in vacations for gay women.) The glass ceiling does not shatter easily for gay girls.
Of course it’s not only women. Nearly half of all the LGBT people who work in corporate America are still afraid to be open in their jobs about their orientation or gender identity. A recent study of nearly 3,000 LGBT workers by the Center for Talent Innovation found that almost half (48 percent) are still not out of the closet with their employers or coworkers. They worry that being honest could subject them to bullying or put their careers at risk. Many of them have good reason for concern because there are still no federal laws protecting LGBT Americans from being discriminated against in employment (or housing or accommodations or lending or many other legal and healthcare matters).
That should outrage us all, and we should be using our recent marriage victories to push harder for full civil equality. But too many career-successful gays—especially high-achieving males—are becoming complacent. They shrug their shoulders at the plight of their peers, showing little empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. Or, perhaps because they feel personally secure in their upwardly mobile employment and housing situations, they mistakenly believe that the battle for LGBT rights is over. The world has become their oyster and they have shucked the responsibility to march, lobby, and campaign for gay rights anymore.
Though they’re hesitant to broadcast it, many gay advocacy organizations are now having a more difficult time raising funds and garnering volunteers than they did when marriage equality was a hot-button issue. Pleas to support job and housing rights legislation, which continue to face a difficult path in Congress, are falling on many newly deafened ears.
For several LGBT groups with which I am familiar, most of the folks who remain active are baby boomers, a generation that will not easily forget how many decades of hard work it has taken to get this far. I wonder how many of the new crop of gay executives and diplomats have even heard of the groundbreaking work of the original Mattachine Society in the 1950s or Franklin Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington in the early 1960s? (If you don’t know them, please do some Googling, because it is important and it will be on the quiz.)
There is much that even the busiest of gay corporate climbers can do—beyond cutting checks (which remains of huge importance to queer nonprofits). For one, they can pressure legislators to urge passage of federal and local LGBT-inclusive fair housing and employment legislation. They can make sure their own firms are discrimination free, showing other companies how easy and worthwhile it is. They can use their advanced social status to speak up for and create programs to help less privileged LGBT citizens (safe houses for bullied/homeless youth and women, for example).
They can also work within their companies to develop mentoring programs for younger LGBT people trying to enter the workforce. In England, many universities sponsor such mentoring programs, which help assure that their gay and transgender graduates have appropriate jobs to go along with their degrees.
Trans Americans have faced especially difficult experiences in the job market, but this summer the Human Rights Campaign has begun working with a company called Trans Tech Social Enterprises (TTSE) to address the situation.
“Many of us have seen a disconnect between the reality of transgender people’s lives and the steady progress of corporate America—where far too many transgender people are facing unemployment, violence, and a lack of access to healthcare and other critical services, while at the same time companies are increasingly offering transgender-inclusive policies,” said Deena Fidas, head of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program, in announcing the cooperative program in June.
The HRC is providing a Washington office for Chicago-based TransTech, which offers education, job-skills training, and workplace connections to transgender people. Its mentorship program gives students hands-on experience in multi-media production, graphic design, and web development. It includes apprenticeships, scholarships, and sliding-scale pricing to make opportunities more affordable.
Another innovative mentoring project is operated by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. Partnering with MentorNet®, it guides LGBTQ college and post-graduate students through their transitions to workforce employee in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Students are brought together with a national network of academic institutions, corporations, early-career faculty, and scientific and technical professionals. (More info: noglstp.org/programs-projects/mentoring-program/).
An additional aspect of the NOGLSTP mentoring program is that it encourages participants to ask practical questions about being gay in the workforce. For example, “Can an employer refuse to hire me because I state honestly on my application that I am married—to a person of the same sex?”
Unfortunately, despite the federal right to marry, in many states the answer has not changed: “Yes, you can be denied a job—just because they find out you’re gay.”
Or as Rep. David N. Cicilline, one of six openly gay House members and the lead sponsor of legislation to correct the situation, puts it, “You can be married on Saturday, post your pictures on Instagram on Sunday, and be fired from your job on Monday.”
No matter their stature or the company they keep, all gay executives should be crusading relentlessly to change that fact. As Eldridge Cleaver once said, “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.”