Managing and coping with sexual identity at work

Posted on November 8, 2016

Despite increasing legal protection from work discrimination, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons across the world still suffer from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They may be denied employment, fired, passed over for promotion, or given less desirable assignments or compensations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While many of these 'formal' discriminations may now be protected by governmental or organisational policies, LGBT persons also encounter 'informal' discriminatory actions such, as being isolated by co-workers, vandalism, heterosexist remarks or jokes, or even physical assault (Chung, 2001). Furthermore, discriminatory acts have become more subtle recently, causing self-doubts on the part of LGBT persons ('Was it about my LGBT identity or was I not good enough?'), as well as challenges in confronting discrimination.

To understand the various forms and degrees of discrimination against LGBT workers, let’s consider some examples. Take Justin Fashanu, the first (and only) openly gay UK footballer in the men's professional league. In 1981, he broke both racial and sexual orientation barriers when he joined Nottingham Forest as the first million-pound black football player. However, it was reported that Fashanu experienced homophobia and harassment from his team manager. In 1990, Fashanu came out via the news media, allegedly to avert being outed. Less than a decade later, he committed suicide after receiving a sexual assault charge while he was in the US. In her 2012 documentary 'Britain's Gay Footballers', Justin Fashanu's niece, Amal, compared the struggles of being gay in the league to being black in her uncle's time. In the film, Amal's father said that there would be more of a chance of having a black Pope than finding an openly gay professional football player.

Even in the progressive culture of the UK, it seems, individuals continue to have to manage their sexual identity in the workplace in order to protect themselves from potential negative repercussions. LGB persons possibly come out at work due to: (a) honesty and integrity, (b) desire for closer relationships with co-workers, or (c) to educate or advocate for LGB issues (Gusmano, 2008). To cope with possible discrimination, LGB persons often need to consider how to manage the disclosure of their sexual identity at work, a process called 'sexual identity management' (Button, 2004; Croteau et al., 2008). Chung (2001) discussed five sexual identity management strategies:
1. Acting: behaviourally portraying oneself as heterosexual (e.g. bringing a date of the other sex to a company party);
2. Passing (or what Button called Counterfeiting): constructing a fake heterosexual identity by fabricating information, e.g. altering the name and gender pronoun of one’s same-sex date or partner;
3. Covering (or Avoidance according to Button): carefully controlling the amount of information disclosed to co-workers that may reveal one's LGB orientation, without lying or fabricating information;
4. Implicitly Out: behaving in an honest manner, without labelling oneself as LGB.
5. Explicitly Out (labelled Integration by Button): openly identifying as LGB.

LGB persons may employ different sexual identity management strategies in the same time frame, depending on the work environment (e.g. in different job interviews or with different co-workers). Those who are less affirmative of their LGB identities, those who see sexual identity as less important than their other identities, or those who consider sexual identity as irrelevant to their work, are less likely to come out at work. Possible benefits of disclosure may include relief and the freedom to be oneself; increased self-esteem and affirmation; closer interpersonal relationships; opportunities for resources, support, and mentoring; and being part of organisational and social change. On the other hand, the costs could be loss of employment, discrimination, harassment, social isolation and physical assault. Environmental support for identity disclosure includes successful role models who have come out at work, presence of heterosexual alias, and institutional support and protection. The interactions among these multiple factors could make disclosure decisions complicated and difficult for LGB persons.

Based on interviews with LGB workers who had experienced work discrimination (see Chung et al., 2009), we suggest three coping strategies:
1. non-assertive methods, such as quitting one's job, being silent, avoiding sources of discrimination, self-talk, and overcompensation by working harder;
2. seeking social support from one's partner, 3. confronting discrimination by addressing various parties (e.g. the offender, supervisor, human resources, media), taking legal action, or circumventing policies.

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Category(s):LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) Issues, Workplace Issues

Source material from British Psychological Society