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Gay Employees Are Demanding Fair Play

August 1, 1995
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Featured Article
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A significant shift now under way in the American workplace is causing more human resources professionals to address gay employment issues, not because they feel they "should," but more because they have to—and that shift stems from the fact that more and more gay employees are feeling comfortable revealing their sexuality at work.

"It used to be that the more strongly a person identified himself or herself as gay, the less likely that person would be to identify himself or herself as professional," explains Judi Lansky, president of Lansky Career Consultants in Chicago. "But more of us are saying we don't have to be polarized in our lives; that we can be both gay and professional. Working terrified is no longer an option."

Evidence of this is seen on many fronts in the workplace today. To begin with, gay employees are coming out on the job in record numbers, making their presence known to both straight co-workers and management personnel. Four years ago, for example, when Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based AT&T's gay, lesbian and bisexual employee resource group hosted its first conference, only 90 employees attended. This year, nearly 500 gay workers participated in the conference, many of whom received financial assistance from the company to do so.

Another way gay employees are making their dissatisfaction with the status quo known is through their increasing willingness to file employment discrimination claims against companies that violate their civil rights. Last year in California, for example, there were 159 complaints filed with the Labor Commissioner alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, making it the third most common complaint filed.

Obviously, these cases have greater merit in the eight states and 70 municipalities where employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited. But companies operating outside of these jurisdictions may also be vulnerable to discrimination charges, albeit on different legal grounds. For example, a company that provides bereavement leave for significant others, but only if they're of the opposite sex, may face sex-discrimination charges. Why? Because if a female employee could take bereavement leave to mourn the death of her male partner, but a male employee could not, the distinguishing factor in the case is gender.

Using this platform of discrimination, gay employees also are getting louder in their demands for domestic-partner benefits, especially as more high-profile companies adopt such benefits. Stamford Connecticut-based Xerox, for example, on May 1, began to offer financial assistance to employees who wish to buy health insurance for "extended family members, including domestic partners." Although the benefit wasn't established specifically for use by gay individuals, the fact that a Fortune 50 company now provides such assistance is fueling the efforts of gay employees to acquire domestic-partner benefits in companies all across the country.

Never mind that gay people who feel comfortable revealing their true selves are probably more productive and more loyal employees. What makes homosexuality a pressing workplace issue in 1995 is that more gay people are coming out of the closet, and they, their friends and family members expect them to be treated equitably.

Personnel Journal, August 1995, Vol. 74, No. 8, p. 44.

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