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  • Michelle Rankins

Sexual Identity and Gender Discrimination in the Workplace: Know the Facts

According to the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, “sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person's sex. Discrimination against an individual because that person is transgender is known as gender identity discrimination.” How do lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees combat these issues? I spoke with Phyllis Harris, Executive Director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center of Cleveland (LGBT), to gain insight on how LGBT employees are treated in the workplace.

In your experience, what are some classic examples of sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in the work place?

Ms. Harris said this type of discrimination can be either subtle or overt. She said, “I’m an out lesbian. I worked for an organization with a lot of 20 year olds. Part of the organizational structure was to celebrate having babies. I was VP, so they’d come to me about plans to celebrate these families. It was hereto-normative behavior.” But when Ms. Harris and her partner got pregnant, the office people were happy, but she wasn’t given a baby shower. She said, “I didn’t say anything until the next time, I pointed it out to the office, and they apologized.”

Another form of discrimination is the issue of designated public restrooms. There are activists in Cleveland pushing the city to adopt legislation to make nearly all public restrooms open to both sexes. Ms. Harris stated that “transgender individuals face the most harassment. The discrimination occurs when they’re transitioning or have transitioned. An employer can say which restroom a transgender person can use. A transwomen maybe tall or have big hands. To send a transwomen into a men’s room is dangerous. Organizational cultures are hetero-sexual normative.” *Hetero normativity is a cultural bias in favor of opposite sex relationships (man and woman) as opposite to same sex relationships.

If a LGBT employee has been discriminated against, how should one proceed? What type of support services are available at the LGBT Center of Cleveland?

Follow internal procedure for the organization. Alert human resources. Make a timeline of events leading up to the discrimination and the actual event. Document as much as possible. Read the employee handbook. Does your organization have a non-discrimination statement including sexual and gender identity? The LGBT Center would be helpful by providing active referrals. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union is one who has a LGBT group in Cleveland. Equality Ohio or Legal Aid are others.

In your opinion, how can employers make their companies more LGBT friendly?

Invest in Safe Zone Training to be an inclusive and accepting workplace climate and to get an idea of what marginalized individuals face. Once the training is complete, the organization receives a sticker or a plaque saying “Safe Zone”. Ms. Harris said, “If I see a sticker, I know it indicates to me that somebody there has gone through training and they are allies. That sticker allows me to relax and be myself.” The best thing an organization can do is get training, ask questions, and connect with other organizations who deal with LBTC issues and support it.

What professional advice do you have for LGTB college students entering the workforce?

For LGBT individuals entering the workplace, ask the organization about their discrimination policy to make sure it includes LGBT members. Check to see if the organization has an employee resource group, ERG’s. If there’s not an LGBT group, but there are others, I’d question that. Be a game changer as a young LBTC person, see what exists and talk to human resources about starting a group. Also, network with local organizations.

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