The “Coming Out” Challenge

African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender professionals are trying to gain more ground in corporate America, but unchecked discrimination still exists.

Even with these improvements, however, advocacy groups still have extensive work to do in helping to overcome discrimination practices against this population of workers. There are currently no federal laws in place to protect against discrimination or termination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Twelve states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation only. And even with the advancements made by some corporations, Donna Payne, associate director of diversity for the HRC, believes that African American LGBT employees have even more difficult challenges that are compounded by race.

“Chief diversity officers are looking to engage more African American LGBT employees, asking them to participate in LGBT groups within their corporation because they feel they don’t have a wide range of diversity in the LGBT group,” explains Payne. “It’s mostly the white LGBT males and sometimes females that come forward,” she says.

Pro-LGBT and civil rights organizations are rallying for the passing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA), a bill that will prohibit an employee from being fired, kept from being hired, or denied a promotion based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It was reintroduced last summer after failing to get signed into law in 2007. “There needs to be an honest dialogue about how LGBTs are being treated in the workplace—in most states you can be fired just because you are perceived to be LGBT,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. “This bill is an unfinished component of the civil rights movement to make sure all Americans, regardless of our differences, are able to work in an atmosphere without discrimination and intimidation.”

On a daily basis, there are a host of barriers and subtle discrimination practices that LGBT employees face, such as being excluded from general or specific networking opportunities and/or other company events, being restricted in their contact with clients or customers, and having no LGBT role models or leaders. The glass ceiling for LGBT employees usually results from a company’s lack of education and awareness on these challenges as well as LGBT issues, such as personal inhibitions about revealing their orientation.

An employee’s decision to “come out”—or not to come out—lays the foundation for the level of success they can have in an organization. A survey commissioned by the HRC found that out of 761 LGBT participants, only 25% of African Americans reveal their status on the job. For those who choose not to reveal their status, it requires an immense amount of time and effort to lie about their personal lives, resulting in depression, exhaustion, avoiding certain people and events, and staying home from work.

“When employees are free to focus on their jobs, and not on changing pronouns or hiding a part of themselves, they are better able to advance professionally,” comments Selisse Berry, founder and executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization based that advocates for safe and equal workplaces for LGBTs.

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