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Half of LGBTQ workers have faced job discrimination, report finds

Nearly 1 in 10 experienced employment bias in the last year alone, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Nearly 1 in 10 LGBTQ people in the United States experienced workplace discrimination in the last year, and almost half faced employment bias at some point in their careers, according to a new survey.

The findings were published Tuesday in a report titled LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. It found that 46 percent of LGBTQ workers reported receiving unfair treatment at some point in their careers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — including being passed over for a job, harassed at work, denied a promotion or raise, excluded from company events, denied additional hours or fired. An estimated 9 percent reported being denied a job or laid off in the past 12 months because of their orientation or identity.

Researchers at the institute surveyed 935 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer adults in May 2021, more than a year into a pandemic that has disrupted so many workplaces. Their questions asked respondents about discrimination in the last year, last five years and throughout their lifetimes. Because of the pandemic, questions about the previous year only related to whether subjects had been fired or denied a job.

As many as 1 in 4 (25.9 percent) LGBTQ employees said they had been sexually harassed at work at some point, while 1 in 5 (20.8 percent) reported physical harassment — including being “punched,” “hit” and “beaten up” on the job. 

A Black queer woman in Pennsylvania told researchers that male co-workers inappropriately touched her and told her, “If you let me, I can turn you straight.” She described their behavior as “obviously very offensive and creepy.” 

Another respondent, a gay man in Ohio, recalled a boss who treated him “horribly.”

“She would call me queer at all times and slap me in the face ... it went on and on for over a year,” he reported. “It was one of the saddest moments of my entire career and life.” 

Reports of discrimination were higher among LGBTQ people of color, 29 percent of whom said they had been denied a job at some point because of their identity, compared to 18 percent of white LGBTQ employees. In addition, 36 percent of LGBTQ employees of color reported experiencing verbal harassment on the job, compared to 26 percent of white respondents.

Many respondents reported being given bad shifts or having their hours reduced, said Brad Sears, executive director at the Williams Institute and lead author of the new study.

“Shift work is a day-to-day reality for millions of Americans,” he said. “It’s harder to prove your boss is intentionally [giving you a bad schedule], but it can have a profound impact on your life.”

The report comes even as the judicial and the executive branches have been shoring up employment rights for LGBTQ workers: In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia, that Title VII’s protection against sex discrimination in employment extended to sexual orientation and gender identity

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing any federal agency with protections against discrimination based on sex to interpret those statutes to also protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

“Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes,” he said in the order.

On Friday, a federal judge in Charlotte, North Carolina, ruled a Catholic high school couldn’t fire a gay drama teacher after he announced his engagement on Facebook.

We were surprised there was such high percentages of discrimination in the last year, given the Supreme Court ruling and especially the pandemic,” Sears said. “We thought a lot of companies and workers would be coming together in a new way.”

More than half (57 percent) of LGBTQ employees who reported workplace discrimination said it was motivated by religious beliefs, while 49 percent of white LGBTQ respondents and 64 percent of LGBTQ people of color who said they experienced bias found this to be the cause. 

“I was told I was going to hell during a job interview for liking women,” a Black bisexual woman in Texas told researchers. 

Sears said religion-based bias was “out in the open,” with employers and co-workers clearly citing their religious beliefs, even in secular workplaces.

“For many, this included being quoted to from the Bible, told to pray that they weren’t LGBT, and told that they would ‘go to hell’ or were ‘an abomination,’” the study reported.

Sears is pressing for passage of the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBTQ rights bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous arenas, including employment. The measure cleared the Democratic-controlled House in late February but has a tougher fight in the Senate.

“Bostock was a general pronouncement against discrimination,” Sears said. “The Equality Act gets into the details of the statutes and will provide clear guidance that these behaviors are against the law.” 

According to an earlier Williams Institute report, there are approximately 8.1 million LGBTQ workers over the age of 16 in the U.S., almost half (3.9 million) of whom live in states without anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity.

Half of the respondents in the new survey said they weren’t out to their direct supervisor, and a quarter (26 percent) were completely closeted on the job. Many reported using “covering” behaviors to avoid harassment or discrimination, including avoiding talking about their personal lives. 

According to the report, “Some of the respondents reported engaging in these covering behaviors because their supervisors or co-workers explicitly told them to do so.”

For transgender employees, more than a third (36 percent) said they’ve altered their appearance and used a different bathroom at work to avoid discrimination and harassment.

This latest report is particularly timely as many workers return to the office after working from home during the ongoing pandemic, Sears said. 

“Maybe you spent a year or 18 months not having to hide who you are and suddenly now you’re faced with the possibility of having to go back in the closet,” he said. “It’s going to be a real eye-opener.”

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