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Dominique Mann Headshot

Being Gay in the Workplace Is About More Than ENDA

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"Coming out is never easy, even if you have a supportive family and community. You are entitled to your own views and personal life and that shouldn't compromise your work," said one colleague in a chat about what it means to be in gay in the workplace.

In the wake of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act floating in Congress, America has roared with equal rights battles and discrimination lawsuits. Read between the headlines, and the country often forgets another facet of LGBT debates, one that cannot always be measured by empirical data or laws: workplace culture.

National discussions are now spotlighting the daily pressures gays face in certain industries: the gay teacher in a Catholic school, the gay employee on Wall Street, the gay professional sports player in a hyper-masculine locker room.

Here's what's often omitted from these conversations: The difficulties of being gay in the workplace do not always originate from discriminatory employers. Inclusive workplace cultures can alleviate tensions before they spiral into explosive problems. Shaping positive work environments starts with voicing personal stories and embracing them.

One young woman, who chose to remain anonymous, confronted an unanticipated hurdle at the workplace -- feeling ostracized by her own community. Let's call her Jacqueline.

As a news producer, Jacqueline overcame the uncertainties about her "queer woman of color" identity with workplace projects. When colleagues asked Jacqueline about her personal life, she pivoted and asked about theirs or lied. She gave voice to those often muffled in mainstream media, particularly people of color and gay communities. She involved other colleagues in these projects too, including another gay co-worker.

They were two of few gay women of color at the workplace, which coded unspoken understanding. Every personal and professional email exchanged between them about anecdotes, events, positive encouragement or professional criticisms empowered Jacqueline and slowly stamped out negativity from the outside world. The stress of breaking news or long hours, counterbalanced with simple coffee meetings, made the workplace less isolating for her, even if being gay wasn't explicitly part of it.

That trust shattered with a workplace argument; the co-worker didn't want to work on projects with Jacqueline anymore. The relationship had become too personal.

Although the incident seemed frivolous, it dug deeper when Jacqueline faced human resources. The co-worker had forwarded HR all of the personal emails exchanged between them about the complicated emotions rooted in coming out. All the anger, hurt and shame Jacqueline felt from having a predominantly white, heterosexual institution callously tell her that she made a peer uncomfortable, caused her to utter the only defensive retreat she knew: "I'm not gay. You got this whole story wrong."

That lie spurred a firestorm of hate until the incident subsided. No one at work seemed to care, beyond the murmurs and snickering from the co-worker's colleagues, but the personal pain still lingered. Jacqueline's personal struggles had been on a professional chopping block, and she fought to hold back tears of humiliation after work some days.

Although it was unnecessary, Jacqueline independently set up a meeting with HR to come clean -- she wanted to at least leave the situation with her character intact. Her small notepad trembled slightly as she recited a handful of notes about how sorry she was for what happened and for mischaracterizing her co-worker.

The wrong she felt was solely personal -- a hurtful epiphany that no matter how hard she had tried, the co-worker had never really accepted her and never would. She had sought acceptance from a gay employee who acted, perhaps unintentionally, as a proxy for homophobia.

Jacqueline could have benefitted from a safer community, one that another gay employee found in the most unlikely place: the finance industry.

Meet Jonah. For years, he had worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Whenever J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other banks expanded, Jonah helped regulate the process. His move from Las Vegas to New York had been a melting pot of professional excitement and private concern. Would an industry popularly characterized as an "old boys club" with a "bro" attitude accept a young gay kid?

An unexpected surprise met Jonah on the first day of work. A gay co-worker led the on-boarding process, and Jonah discovered there had been a thriving support group for members of the LGBT community. He became president of the group shortly afterwards, charged with fostering an inclusive environment at the workplace.

Jonah's journey in the finance industry demonstrated a shifting acceptance for gay employees. Older members of the group had witnessed times of exclusivity at the bank, which changed with the workplace culture. Although some older gay employees still hesitated to participate in the LGBT group or covertly requested to be BCC'd on mailing lists, they had found a welcoming home at the workplace for the first time.

Creating an inclusive environment meant sharing advice about coming out in the workplace, and inviting straight allies to meetings. Shortly after Jonah started the job, the LGBT group grew from as little as 30 members, to nearly 200. Without this group, Jonah says personally navigating the workplace would have been difficult. Many corporations now take responsibility for positive workplace cultures.

In other words, people shouldn't only wait on Congress to help America's gay employees. Real change from any power stature requires uncomfortable conversations and the audacity to unabashedly accept others for who they are: stubbornly driven and vulnerable people interwoven in the fabric of America's diverse workforce.