LGBT Workers in Social Service Settings
Creating a Safer Workplace
Bea Hanson, LMSW, Chief Program Officer, and Corey Tax, M.A., Program Practice Quality Assurance Specialist, Safe Horizon
In 1974, US Representative Bella Abzug, a Democrat from New York State and lifelong fighter for social and economic justice issues, introduced the Equality Act of 1974, a federal bill that included provisions to ban discrimination against lesbians and gay men in employment. That legislation never passed.
In 2007, through advocacy for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), we are still fighting for legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination, not only on the basis of sexual orientation, but also on the basis of gender identity.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face serious discrimination in employment, including being fired, being denied promotions and experiencing harassment on the job based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. A review of studies of workplace discrimination found that 16-68% of LGB respondents and 15-57% of transgender employees experienced employment discrimination at some point in their lives.
Currently, federal sexual harassment law has been interpreted to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual employees in some instances involving gender based acts and stereotypes. In 2002, New York State passed legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but does not include gender identity. However, New York State courts have interpreted laws to include some protection from discrimination to transgender workers. In 1986, New York City Human Rights law prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, then, in 2002, extended this law to include “actual or perceived gender.”
This overview of the legislation tells us a few things: 1) that there is no workplace protection for LGBT workers on the federal level; 2) that New York State is only a little further along, with recent workplace protection based on sexual orientation and no specific protections based on gender identity; and that 3) while New York City has a 20 year history of workplace protections based on sexual orientation, only five years of those are based on gender identity. Since workplace protections based on sexual orientation have been in place for so long, efforts to create a safer workplace based on sexual orientation are likely to be at a more advanced stage than for those based on gender identity. Consequently, this article will more sharply focus on areas of gender identity. As social workers, many of us are compelled by the professional ethic of social justice – and working together to create a safer work environment for LGBT staff and clients is just such a challenge.
Scenario: Is this a safe work environment?
A social service organization offers domestic partner benefits and has a nondiscrimination policy. However, an LGBT staff person sees few out LGBT colleagues and none in leadership. The organization serves some LGBT clients, but does not target LGBT clients and is not inclusive of LGBT experiences in outreach or training materials. Additionally, this staff person has seen colleagues respond to LGBT clients with a high level of judgment, refer to transgender clients with inappropriate pronouns, and often provide a lower level of advocacy and service to LGBT clients. The staff person has witnessed colleagues make homophobic and transphobic comments and jokes.
How Organizations Can Create Safer Workplaces
The following provides guidelines on creating safer workplaces for LGBT workers:
• Institute a policy that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
• Routinely conduct LGBT diversity trainings
• Offer LGBT friendly benefits packages, including domestic partner benefits, and transgender health benefits
• Prohibit discrimination against clients, suppliers, and vendors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity
• Promote an LGBT friendly workplace culture (i.e., posters, literature, events)
• Actively recruit and develop LGBT employees
• Grant restroom access according to an employee’s gender presentation
• Ensure dress codes are gender neutral and apply them consistently
• Address individuals with names, titles, pronouns, and other terms appropriate to their gender identity
The New York City Human Rights Commission, in response to the passage of laws against gender identity discrimination, developed compliance guidelines that define gender identity and related terms, identify areas in which the law applies (including employment), and discuss ways to avoid discriminating practices.
How Managers Can Support LGBT Staff
• Watch carefully for signs of harassment and discrimination
• Tell staff that you take LGBT workplace safety seriously
• Do not tolerate any kind of discrimination
• When hiring, discuss non-discrimination policies and practices
• Advocate for sensitivity training
• Consider safety issues. For example, safety concerns for LGBT outreach workers
• Discuss potential responses to racist, sexist or homophobic behavior from clients before it happens
• Examine client service policies and models. Single gender support groups that do not accept transgender clients, lack of LGBT referrals in a larger referral list, and intervention models that are not LGBT inclusive may send a message of intolerance.
How Colleagues Can Support LGBT Co-workers
• Publicly support safe workplaces for LGBT colleagues
• Ask LGBT colleagues what can be done to increase workplace safety
• Request LGBT sensitivity training
• Report any discriminatory or harassing behavior
• Educate yourself about discrimination and the LGBT community
• Pay attention to language
• Avoid assumptions about people’s sexual orientation and gender identity. If you aren’t sure, ask
• Demand a respectful workplace culture in general
• Interrupt all prejudiced statements and actions, not just homophobia. LGBT employees may feel that tolerance of prejudice creates a hostile environment, and may watch management and colleague responses to racism, sexism and homophobia closely.