Managing and coping with sexual identity at work

Y. Barry Chung, Tiffany K. Chang and Ciemone S. Rose consider the issue of LGBT people in the workplace

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workers face discrimination in the workplace. What forms does this take and what is the degree of discrimination experienced by LGBT persons? Sexual identity management and other coping strategies in the face of potential or encountered discrimination raise various issues for LGBT persons. How might these issues influence LGBT persons’ responses to discrimination? And what are the implications for policy advocacy and career counselling?

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 these ‘formal’ discriminations may or may not 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.

While protection and equality for LGBT persons have improved significantly in the UK due to the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, this does not necessarily translate into improved experiences for all LGBT persons (Warriner, 2008). Interviews in the UK with 50 lesbian and bisexual women suggested that 58 per cent of them were ‘out’ to everyone at work (Colgan et al., 2008). The interviewees reported experiencing heterosexism and sexism, and most of them had not revealed their sexual orientation to clients or customers (including students). Others have examined the impact of homophobia and discriminatory experiences reported by health and social care sector employees in the UK: Hunt et al. (2007) found that people encountered homophobic language and derision, and felt that workplaces didn’t prioritise the prevention of homophobia, in spite of legal protection in the workplace.
What impact does this have? One’s identity inevitably interacts – either directly or indirectly – with social forces that are incompatible or aversive to that identity, and this may impact upon the self-concept and/or psychological functioning of an individual (Meyer, 2007). The occurrence of this so-called ‘sexual minority stress’, the result of both overt discrimination as well as micro-aggression against LGBT persons (Balsam et al., 2011), has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes for LGBT persons (Bockting et al., 2013; Lewis, 2009). Furthermore, sexual minority stress adds to the general stress that individuals experience, as a chronic socially based experience (Meyer, 2007). Meta-analytic research comparing the US, UK, the Netherlands, and Austria revealed higher prevalence rates of mental disorders for LGB persons than heterosexual persons for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation and attempts, with suicide rates up to three to four times higher (Lewis, 2009). For LGBT persons of colour, the experience of sexual minority stress is further compounded by experiences of racism (Savage & Harley, 2005).

Diverse 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. 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.

Today, gay-friendly football teams provide a community for players, and the Football Association endorses a stance toward combating homophobia in football (see Yet in February 2014’s ‘month of action’, nine of the Premier League’s 20 teams were not involved, and only 17 from the Football League’s 72 clubs planned a ‘visible anti-homophobia stance’ ( Professional footballers who may disclose their gay sexual orientation to teammates, still refuse to come out more widely due to their anxiety over potential hostility from their fans (see Chris Basiurski, Chair of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network, wondered what happens when an ‘out’ player starts playing badly. ‘The worry is that fans will start getting on their backs and they may lose the confidence of their manager and it could be connected to their sexuality.’ 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.

There are more positive examples of athletes in the UK who received favourable responses when they came out. British Olympic diver Tom Daley expressed how his fans and fellow colleagues have been very supportive. However, Daley’s friends and family were concerned about the ramifications his coming out could potentially have on his career. Daley responded: ‘It doesn’t matter because I am a diver and that’s what I want to do, and that won’t affect my diving in any way, shape or form’ (see

This emphasis on sport identity over gay identity was also found in a study of 10 gay male athletes working in professional, collegiate, and club sport (Cavalier, 2011). However, half of them perceived their workplace as either hostile or unaccepting of sexual minorities, whereas the other half perceived it as either neutral or positive. There has been a flurry of media attention around the emergence of several openly LGBT persons in major American sport teams (e.g. Derrick Gordon, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam), but it may be too early to tell whether this will reduce hostility and increase acceptance in the whole professional athletics community. It is certainly clear that bigotry is less tolerated around issues of race than it is regarding heterosexism: consider the outrage in response to the racist comments of former NBA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling.

Another occupation where workers may perceive a high degree of heterosexism is the police. A study of officers and civilian respondents in a police department in the Southwestern US (Bernstein & Swartwout, 2012) found that those who had witnessed more LGB discrimination at work and those who had less contact with openly LGB co-workers tended to anticipate more negative consequences for LGB identity disclosure. Interestingly, anticipation of negative consequence was less related to respondents’ homophobia or demographic background (e.g. age, education, marital status, gender or race). Such findings highlight the importance of opportunities for contact among police officers of different sexual orientations.

What about health professions? Are they more welcoming or affirmative to LGBT persons? A study of LGBT physicians suggested that a majority were open about their sexual orientation at work to various degrees (e.g. 59 per cent were out to 90 per cent or more of their co-workers, 8 per cent were out to less than 10 per cent of the co-workers; Eliason et al., 2011). Two thirds worked in settings with non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation; however, only 37 per cent reported that transgender identity was protected in their non-discrimination policy. Some of these physicians still reported being discriminated against (ranging from 3 per cent being fired, to 10 per cent being denied patient referrals and 15 per cent being harassed by colleagues).

Nursing is often considered a more welcoming profession for gay men (Chung & Harmon, 1994). Interviews with lesbian and gay male nursing workers in Sweden (Rondahl et al., 2007) had similar findings as the aforementioned study of physicians. Most interviewees were open about their sexual identity at work, with a minority still experiencing harassment. All interviewees believed that openness of one’s sexual identity is important for eliminating gossip and discrimination, regardless of their own degree of openness.
Our final example is college professors. The cultural climate of higher education institutes shapes college students’ perspectives on diversity, respect and equality. Sears (2002) surveyed LGB college faculty members and found that two thirds of them viewed their place of employment as gay-affirming or tolerant. On the other hand, about 25 per cent experienced their place of employment as hostile or intolerant. Interestingly, public institutions were perceived as less LGB-welcoming than private institutes.

Sexual identity management
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:
I    Acting: behaviourally portraying oneself as heterosexual (e.g. bringing a date of the other sex to a company party);
I    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;
I    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;
I    Implicitly Out: behaving in an honest manner, without labelling oneself as LGB.
I    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). Deciding which strategies to use depends on one’s internal psychological processes, cost–benefit analysis of the possible consequences of disclosure, and environmental support (Ragins, 2008). Internal psychological processes may include sexual identity attitudes and development, centrality of one’s sexual identity, and perceived relevance and importance of disclosure. 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.

Less is known about identity management strategies for transgender persons. A study of 263 transgender persons found that identity disclosure is associated with a supportive and less discriminatory work climate. Those who disclosed also experienced greater job satisfaction (Brewster et al., 2012). Geena Rocero, a transgender model, recently came out during her TED talk in honour of International Transgender Day of Visibility. She said, ‘I could no longer live my truth for and by myself… I am here, exposed, so that one day there will never be a need for a November 20 vigil.’  

Although some may believe that identity integration and disclosure are desirable goals that lead to positive outcomes for all LGBT persons (Clair et al., 2005), it is also important to consider cultural differences. Whereas LGBT identities are socially constructed, endorsement and disclosure of such identities may not fit people from cultures without that kind of identity construction. Some LGBT people of colour may endorse a Western-dominated LGBT identity, but decide to use different identity management strategies when dealing with their own cultural community, as well as across family, friends, and work relationships (Chung & Singh, 2009). These persons may achieve harmony and satisfaction even though they do not fit the Western ideation of fully integrated and disclosed LGBT identity.

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

These three categories of coping strategies may be used concurrently, depending on one’s internal psychological processes; resources, options and policies available; and one’s self-efficacy in executing the strategies. An example of the third approach would be Jenna Talackova, a transgender model disqualified from the 2012 Miss Universe Canada because she was not born a female. Talackova and her lawyer filed a case against the organisers, and eventually, the rules were altered and she gained permission to compete.

Policy making and advocacy
Legal protection and organisational non-discrimination policies have a significant impact on LGBT persons’ career decision making and personal well-being. For example, the Equality Act 2010 in the UK legally protects gender and sexual minority groups from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. With protective laws and/or policies, LGBT persons are more likely to pursue careers based on goodness of fit with an occupation, rather than fear of discrimination and personal safety. They are also more likely to be out at work, experience less discrimination, and have better co-worker relationships (Griffith & Hebl, 2002).

An affirmative approach should go beyond non-discrimination policies, to include strategic efforts for diversity, such as showing support and providing resources for LGBT employees and social/work activities, and provision of diversity training to address climate issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity issues. For example, there are universities that have LGBT centres for promoting awareness and for supporting LGBT faculty, staff and students. Moreover, accessibility of gender neutral restrooms is essential for transgender workers in order to promote an inclusive environment for diverse employees.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) offers several recommendations for advocating for the equality of LGBT employees in the workplace (see First, it suggests identifying allies with major decision makers in the workplace who have the ability to authorise and support new policies. Another suggestion is to build support with supervisors and the human resources department for establishing an LGBT employee resource group. These recommendations may help to facilitate dialogues and awareness regarding LGBT issues in the workplace, and encourage the involvement of all employees while promoting a more inclusive environment.

Career counselling
A study of occupational therapists in England suggested that therapists should increase their knowledge of LGB cultures, as well as their understanding of the relation between sexual orientation and occupation (Kingsley & Molineux, 2000). The first step a career counsellor can take is to make their LGBT-affirmative position very explicit (e.g. statements on their websites, marketing outreach to LGBT communities and publications, LGBT-inclusive languages and response options on intake forms, displaying LGBT literature in the counselling offices). Counsellors should avoid heterosexist languages that presume heterosexual orientation and cisgender identity of their clients. Career counsellors should also be mindful of sexual identity-related factors that may impact career decision making, as well as being prepared to help clients navigate the difficult sexual identity management processes and the implications regarding how their outness affects their career choices and vice versa (e.g. Degges-White & Shoffner, 2002).

When counselling LGBT clients, it is important to include sexual or gender identity issues appropriately. Avoidance or overemphasis on LGBT issues will hinder counselling effectiveness. Career counsellors may help LGBT clients reflect on their sexual or gender identity development, and assess the level of support, resources and risk in their potential work options or current work environment. After examining their career goals, the counsellor can help the client determine strategies that fit their self-concept, goals and work environment. The pros and cons for each strategy should be discussed, and the client may practise using the strategy with the counsellor. For example, if clients decide to be honest with themselves without explicitly revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity, they may practise how to respond to heterosexist enquiries and comments (e.g. using Covering or Implicitly Out strategies). The counsellor could help clients identify role models in their personal lives or in the media in which LGBT persons were successful in coming out at work.

Evidently, LGBT employees are vulnerable to daily discrimination in the workplace. Yet there is still a tremendous dearth of institutional policies and laws that protect and safeguard LGBT persons against the pervasive discrimination they encounter. As a result, individuals have to apply strategies to manage their identities and to cope with work discrimination. However, these coping mechanisms may not be enough to protect them from the adverse impact of discrimination on their job prospects or overall well-being. We proposed some implications for advocacy and career counselling purposes. Together we can make a difference.

box text: A case vignette
‘Ella’, a 25-year-old advertising agency worker:
I identifies as genderqueer, rather than the gender
binary, and prefers the gender neutral pronoun ‘hir’.
I has no intention of undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
I considers hirself to be pansexual, given hir attraction to all individuals along the gender identity continuum.
I has not disclosed hir gender identity or sexual orientation to anyone at work (an advertising agency).
I is implicitly out at work, and behaves in an honest manner such as dressing the way that feels most comfortable to hir.
I is an excellent worker who always receives impeccable annual reviews. However, Ella’s male colleagues often make jokes about hir being a lesbian, and use pejorative words such as ‘butch’ and ‘dyke’. On one occasion, someone stated in a mocking manner, ‘Why don’t you just come out?’ in front of Ella and several of her colleagues. The supervisor ignored this.

Ella has become increasingly frustrated and saddened by the workplace environment. The culture of the agency is one where individuals tease one another all in good fun; the atmosphere is that the jokes are acceptable because they are not malicious in nature, but instead are intended to be amusing and witty.  
Does Ella feel targeted because of perceived sexual orientation or gender identity? Are these jokes harassment? If you were Ella’s colleague who had witnessed these incidents, how could you advocate on Ella’s behalf?

Y. Barry Chung
is Professor of Counseling Psychology at Indiana University Bloomington
[email protected]

Tiffany K. Chang
is a doctoral student in counselling psychology at Indiana University Bloomington
[email protected]

Ciemone S. Rose
is a doctoral student in counselling psychology at Indiana University Bloomington
[email protected]


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