Last week’s historic Supreme Court decision that employers may not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a victory and it matters. But laws don’t alone make LGBTQ+ people feel safe at work. They didn’t make me feel safe enough to be out from the get-go.
During my senior year of college, most of my leadership and experience was with the LGBTQ+ community. I wondered if my rainbow resume would disqualify me. I had come out to those in my personal sphere only months before.
When I finally landed my dream first job, I kept two things close to my chest: my sexual orientation and a printed copy of my email folder of kudos. I was working in men’s professional sports in a conservative region of the state. Without succinct words to explain my experiences or identity, I knew that if I came out at work, I risked discrimination. So I kept quiet, kept a lookout and kept documentation that could prove I was a strong employee.
For my own security, I needed to have proof of my competency as an employee before I would feel comfortable coming out. Even with laws protecting me and even with privilege as a white, cis, straight-passing person, I only came out to select staff after I got my first promotion. The promotion was one more way I could prove I was performing my job duties well if I faced discrimination after coming out.
Statewide workplace protections for LGBTQ+ people in California date back to 1979, but they weren’t enough to make me feel safe at work. Legal protections mean just that. If I had faced discrimination (thankfully, I didn’t), I could have brought a lawsuit. I would have needed the financial and social resources to find an attorney. I would have needed the bandwidth to manage a lawsuit—and have had enough evidence to prove insidious discrimination that is challenging to document. If all those pieces fell into place, I could gamble my future career by bringing a case. If I were to win a discrimination lawsuit, I’d be paid for damages. If I faced retribution across the industry, I’d maybe be unable to find a future job. It would not have been much of a win.
The greatest win will be when affirming workplace cultures are the norm across the country. Laws can help move us in that direction, but at the end of the day, it’s about workplaces where LGBTQ+ people thrive and can bring their full selves to work because people in the workplace make it so.
It looks like employers who recruit and hire diverse people, value a variety of backgrounds, mentor and promote diverse employees and openly affirm people’s identities, including those who don’t use labels to define themselves. It is when it becomes a universal practice to ask for—and respect–pronouns. It is treating same-sex partnerships equally for health care, parental leave and other benefits as well as covering gender affirmation procedures in insurance packages and sick time leave.
Employers should do more than the bare minimum. They ought to go above and beyond what the law requires. Cultivating a culture of inclusion is the right thing to do, and it will benefit their bottom line and mission.
Leadership, management and staff at every level have a responsibility to do this work. Especially straight and/or cis people. It’s work that must be done actively. Intentionally. Every day.
It’s only in the past year that I’ve fully come out in my professional life. Two jobs later, I landed at an organization that actively embraced LGBTQ+ people. That culture bleeds out of our office walls and into the way I do my work externally. I knew I’d come full circle when I didn’t think twice about mentioning my girlfriend in chitchat with a partner at one of the major men’s professional sports leagues.
I’m celebrating the SCOTUS ruling because legal protections give people power to fight back when discrimination happens, and they incentivize companies to think twice before overtly discriminating.
I’ll celebrate more when all workplace cultures catch up.