I started coming out at the end of my freshman year of college. By the end of the year, pretty much everyone who needed to know knew to stop asking if I had a girlfriend. After I came out, I didn't really see the point in hiding that I was gay. I wasn't shouting it, but if the topic of relationships came up, I'd talk about my boyfriend. I was pretty lucky. I was a privileged white kid with a circle of friends and family who were, if not outright supportive, at least working out their issues on their own instead of burdening me. So, when I took a job delivering mail at the university during my junior year, it didn't occur to me that being out at work could be risky.
National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) is an annual event that started in the late 1980s to raise awareness of people who openly identified as LGBT, and to give hope to people who weren't comfortable with coming out of the closet (or for whom it wasn't yet safe to do so). Nearly 25 years later the LGBT community has come a long way in public acceptance. Some polls put support for relationship recognition over 50 percent, and the number of people who think sexual orientation can change is at an all-time low of 34 percent.
I don't remember actually telling anyone in the mailroom that I was gay, but it probably didn't take long for everyone to figure it out. My boyfriend would drop me off, and we'd kiss while saying goodbye. Nobody cared, or, if they did, they didn't say anything, and we all got along as co-workers in the workplace. And that's the point. Being gay had absolutely nothing to do with the job: sorting and delivering mail. Since then I've been extremely lucky and privileged to work on mostly LGBT issues and in environments where being gay wasn't an issue at all.
Many people don't have the privileges or freedoms in the workplace that I took for granted 12 years ago. Despite the remarkable progress made by the LGBT community, there still are no clear protections for workers in most states, meaning it's still risky for many to be out in the workplace.
There was the monumental case from the EEOC earlier this year, Macy v. Holder, which held that gender identity and gender nonconformity are protected categories under existing civil-rights protections. The case extended workplace protections to transgender people as well as those who don't fit stereotypical gender ideals.
While important, the protections extending from Macy are inadequate. The Supreme Court could overrule the decision by saying it wasn't the intent of Congress to protect LGBT people under existing law. There are currently 16 states that have protections for all LGBT people in employment settings, and an additional five have protections for just LGB people. In order to secure the protections extended by Macy and make sure that all LGBT people, regardless of where they live or work, are protected against meritless discrimination, more needs to be done.
Since 1994 the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been introduced and debated in Congress. The bill has evolved to be more inclusive (the first version covered only sexual orientation), to protect the entire LGBT community. ENDA is about leveling the playing field to ensure that applicants and employees are judged based on their qualifications and performance and not who they are, how they present themselves, or whom they love.
ENDA won't erase discrimination entirely, but it will provide a warning to employers and a path for recourse to workers who are treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It's unlikely that ENDA will go anywhere in this Congress (there's been no action in the House, and the Senate hasn't done anything since a Senate committee hearing over the summer), but it will be introduced again, and we'll fight for it next year.
In the meantime, if it feels right and safe, do what I was able to do back in the mailroom and be honest with your co-workers when having conversations in the workplace. The more people have visible LGBT colleagues, the more people will accept us as equals.
You can also join me by taking action on ENDA so that the workplace will indeed be a safe place for everyone to be out.
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