Out of the Corporate Closet

How African American gays and lesbians can gain ground in the workplace

MediaVest Group Americas.

“We’ve found that companies are reconsidering or considering for the first time how they treat GLBT employees because they realize that supporting their GLBT employees is good for the bottom line,” says Daryl Herrschaft, director of HRC’s Workplace Project. “The GLBT market is valued at about $680 billion a year, and market research has shown that GLBT people pay more attention to workplace policies than the general population, so they are more likely to look at these policies when making purchasing decisions,” he says.

According to HRC, more than half, or 264, of the 500 largest publicly traded companies now provide domestic partner benefits. A decade ago only 28 did. In addition to health coverage, many GLBT workers also get adoption assistance, help with relocation costs for their partners if transferred, and bereavement leave if their partner dies. Clearly, GLBT workers are gaining unprecedented ground in the workplace. Many are even securing prominent positions in pro-equality companies as partners, managers, and senior executives. But to the African American worker, a win for the gay community isn’t necessarily a win for the black gay community.

“African Americans often cite that one of the barriers to advancement is being viewed as having divergent cultural norms from their white peers,” says H. Alexander Robinson, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that supports black GLBT people.

“I think the same is true for gay employees. So that means for black gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees, it’s one more thing that might make them different, which makes it even more challenging to get ahead.”

So how can African American GLBT workers advance in the corporate arena, especially if they don’t work for a pro-equality organization? Start by wielding your best weapon: your abilities, Robinson says. Contribute to the company’s bottom line by excelling at your job.

Also, use informal networks of power to show what you’re made of. Choose to see your entire minority status as an asset rather than a deficit and welcome opportunities to represent your group in front of others. Recently, Theodore was asked by her superiors to serve as a facilitator at a diversity tax conference, and she gladly accepted.

I got to meet with people who are heads of our firm and to see and hear from CEOs and CFOs of other companies as well,” she says. “I seem to be on the radar of certain people here and I feel like I’ve gotten more opportunities to get my name out there and get people to know who I am because I’m different.”

If your corporate culture is not as inclusive as you would like, you can try to initiate change. Just exercise caution. As a GLBT worker, speaking up could mean being labeled a troublemaker or worse. According to HRC, it’s still legal in 43 states to fire an employee because of his or her sexual orientation.

Robinson offers the following tips for creating a more gay-friendly work environment:
View the company’s needs holistically. “If your

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