Originally published on LinkedIn in May 2015.

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Three Ways We Can All Effect Change In The World

Imagine going to work every morning and being forced to leave part of who you are at the door. When greeted by a colleague and asked how your weekend was, all you can do is shrug the question off and turn it around on them. At your lunch break, you get a sudden pang of anxiety when everyone around you laughs at a joke you don’t find funny. And when 5:00 rolls around at long last, you join your coworkers for happy hour with the better halves – yet, your partner is, once again, unable to make it.

Is this a work environment you’d want to find yourself in?

Could you give your full self? Would you want to?

The unfortunate reality is that this is the average work day for millions across the globe. LGBT employees feel compelled to hide who they are at work, such that 62% of new LGBT graduates go back into the closet upon entering the workforce and 35% of all LGBT employees lie about their personal lives while at work.

It’s hard to blame them, too. In the United States, one of the most socially progressive countries on the planet:

  • You can still get fired for being gay in 29 states;
  • LGBTs make approximately 20% less than their heterosexual counterparts (and this number increases dramatically for the transgender and intersex communities);
  • LGBTs are 16% more likely to be unemployed; and,
  • 70% of non-LGBT workers believe it unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace – even though matters of relationships and life outside of work regularly creep into conversations throughout the average workday.

As a result, even the most progressive and cutting edge of companies are left dictated by heteronormative stereotypes (the “Old White Dude” of the C-Suite, the “Brogrammer” of the startup). Intentional or not, today’s workforce simply does not leave a lot of room for diversity.

Yet, in light of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17), the United Nations reminds us of those across the globe who are standing up for diversity and inclusivity and urges us all to follow in their footsteps. Two days ago, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg became the first EU leader to marry a same-sex partner, the world’s only openly gay prince is championing LGBT rights in India undeterred by the backlash by both his family and his community, and leading organizations everywhere are rewriting internal policies to ensure that they do not discriminate against LGBT employees.

The actions taken by those brave few mark the beginning, rather than the end, of a very long journey to equality. A journey that involves us all.

Regardless of orientation or gender identity, we all have a story to tell and a role to play in the human rights movement. Before we can decipher that role, however, we need to first understand the issues and challenge our perspectives.

The following three points are applicable to straight and LGBT alike, employee and employer alike, and provide a few very realistic things we can all start doing today to make the world a more inclusive place.

1. Coming to the understanding that inclusivity and diversity make us all better off. 

Gay rights don’t just affect 5-10 percent of the population. Empowering the LGBT community isn’t just a matter of human decency or empathy. It’s a matter of progress, and a matter of business. And it affects us all. 

Paul Reed, the Chief Executive of BP Integrated Supply and Trading, is noted as saying, “I don’t want people saving a quarter of their brain to hide who they are. I want them to apply their whole brain to their job.”

Hiding who you are takes its toll. It wears you down. It defeats you. Denying part of who you are makes it impossible to give your all. Before I came out, the slightest slip-up could put me on edge for days. My mind was always somewhere else, wondering when my two lives would meet.

By cultivating an inclusive culture, you’re freeing employees to focus on their work.

You don’t have to support a gay lifestyle to realize the benefits of empowering the LGBT community. It just makes sense.

2. Coming to the understanding that no one’s to blame. And that we’re all to blame.

As a whole, we’re a pretty accepting society, with as many as 61 percent of Americans now supporting same-sex marriage.

What can’t be measured, however, is the implicit discrimination, the product of centuries of misunderstanding and stereotypes.

The reality of the situation is that discrimination is often an automatic reaction, and it can be next to impossible to realize that your actions are discriminatory. In a study of cognitive associations, researchers have used a variation of the Implicit-Association Test (IAT) to measure associations between concepts (e.g., straight people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad). The study revealed that even though the majority of Americans now support gay rights on an explicit level, 70 percent show an implicit preference for heterosexuals over homosexuals.

Automatic associations and heuristics are integral to our decision-making. We rely on them to shape our perceptions of the outside world, yet remain oblivious to their effect – and their consequences.

Unless we’re careful, we – straight and LGBT alike – can further cement these biases without even knowing. Every time someone made the assumption that I’m straight and asked if I had a girlfriend, they’re enforcing the idea that straight is the norm. And every time I shied away from those questions, I condoned the behavior. In neither case was any bad-will exchanged. It’s simply a matter of sensitivity and the intentionality we put into our words and actions.

3. Coming to the understanding that we all have a role to play, regardless of our orientation.

In order to effect real change, we need role models. We need LGBTs to pave the way and show what we’re all capable of. We need to look out for each other, and acknowledge discrimination – implicit or otherwise. More than anything, we need the courage to stand up for what is right and live out our dreams.

Just as powerful, perhaps, is our role to spark a discussion with our straight friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Studies have shown those who have a close LGBT friend or family member are significantly more likely to be advocates in the gay rights movement, and it’s our job to humanize the movement and put a face to the label. Some of the conversations will no doubt be difficult – such as revealing the insensitivity of long-held beliefs or implicit assumptions, but every conversation helps.

Such conversations bring up the equally important role of straight allies.

The overwhelming majority of corporate leadership – those with the influence to enact real, top-down change – are heterosexual. It’s these leaders that we need to step up and lead progress. 

Companies everywhere are getting serious about diversity and creating an organizational structure conducive to inclusivity, but these efforts mean little without executive support. Companies need to take an active stance and devote themselves to their employees before they can expect their employees to devote themselves to their work.

The good news is that a lot of high-visibility leaders – from Howard Schultz to Jeff Bezos to Tim Cook – are doing just that. In time, more and more companies will follow their lead – it’s just a matter of who has the courage to take the first step.

I’ll leave you now with a few words from Fr. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), one of my personal favorite quotes:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Regardless of your orientation, regardless of your perceived influence, I challenge you to play your role in equality. Speak out.

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