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Mothers, Ashtrays, and Haircuts: The Cost of Coming Out at Work

"I wouldn't steal that ashtray over there because I know it's wrong," said my mother, a heavy smoker, on Thanksgiving right after I came out as being gay to my family. I had been privately dating my first girlfriend for seven years; we were breaking up, and she was moving out of our college apartment. I felt like I had to tell my family and explain why my "friend" was leaving abruptly. My family expressed their love for me; however, my parents really struggled with their own religious beliefs versus my gayness. Our conversations grew sparse as it took my parents a few years to bounce back from the news. My biggest fear in coming out was not being able to see my young nieces and nephews at the time because of the untrue stereotype that somehow being gay was contagious or equated to being a pedophile. It was 2003. Luckily, my family didn't disown me or keep me from their children, but they did ask me to limit my public displays of affection with my partner in front of their children. I struggled with that as I recall watching each of them make out with their boyfriends/girlfriends when I was my nieces' and nephews' ages. Why were the standards different for me? Despite being the same person I always was, their knowledge of me changed, and arguably, so did their treatment of me—microaggressions, you might call them. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, my coming out story was a success. I graduated college, went on to graduate school, and used my own experience to shape my dissertation work on perceptions of lesbians and gays in the workplace—more on that in a bit. I still had a family, a partner, friends, an education, and a job. Others are not so lucky.

Did you know? According to The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth:

  • LGB youth contemplate suicide at almost 3x the rate of heterosexual youth;

  • 40% of transgender adults reported that they've attempted suicide, most of the attempts being before the age of 25;

  • When families reject LGB youth, they are 8.4x more likely to attempt suicide than LGB youth whose families have embraced them.

Hiring Discrimination Unfortunately, while LGBTQ youth experience hardship, situations do not necessarily improve as LGBTQ individuals age and enter the workforce.

A few years after coming out to my family, when I was nearly finished with graduate school, my mother suggested that I grow out my short hair to appear more feminine to my future employer. I told her that I'd rather starve than change who I am or how I look. Then I made her notion about gender expression the basis for my dissertation work. In my study, 304 participants reviewed job applications and social media profiles and then rated candidates on how hirable, how successful, and how favorable they felt toward the candidate. The social media profile varied the target's gender (male v. female), gender expression (masculine v. feminine), and sexual orientation (gay v. straight). Candidates (male and female) who displayed "appropriate" gender norms were deemed more hirable and successful than their gender nonconforming counterparts, but sexual orientation did not significantly predict how hirable a candidate might be (Cerrentano, 2013). Mom was right.

Others have addressed sexual orientation and gender expression in their research as well. Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) used video interviews with candidates who behaved in gender-incongruent ways (e.g., men expressing sadness) and found those candidates to be judged more harshly (less liked, deemed less competent, given lower salaries) than those who behaved according to traditional gender norms. Tilcsik (2011) sent out 1769 pairs of fake resumes to organizations while varying the job applicants' sexual orientation and found that the openly gay applicants were 40% less like to be offered an interview than the straight candidates. Tilcsik also found that employers who emphasized stereotypical masculine traits in the wording of the job ad (e.g., aggressive, assertive) were more likely to discriminate against openly gay applicants.

When candidates are already out, it may be difficult for them to get the job in the first place. But what about those who get the job? Workplace Discrimination Studies show that 63% of LGBTQ Americans report experiencing discrimination in their everyday lives, half of whom have experienced discrimination in the workplace GQR Poll (2015). The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) conducted a 2018 study called A Workplace Divided, which included a sample of 804 LGBTQ individuals. They found that:

  • 46% of LGBTQ workers are closeted at work and 28% are totally closeted and not open to anyone in their lives;

  • 31% felt unhappy or depressed at work;

  • 53% of LGBTQ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay individuals;

  • 18% reported that coworkers made sexually inappropriate comments to them because their coworker thought their sexual orientation or gender identity made it okay;

  • And, the main reason LGBTQ employees do not go to human resources or a supervisor about negative comments is because they don't believe any action will be taken, and they don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with their coworkers.

Even though LGBTQ individuals may face discrimination, are they legally protected? LGBTQ individuals are apt to face discrimination in their home and work lives, and unfortunately, only 21 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Check out HRC's interactive map to see if your state is one of them. Mine isn't. You might also be interested in following the recent Supreme Court hearings on legal protections for gay and transgender employees.

Interventions and Resources So, what can we do to support LGBTQ individuals, especially during LGBT History Month? There are many things we can do to be more inclusive. Explore your own implicit bias and work to avoid microaggressions. Before saying something to an LGBTQ work colleague, ask yourself how the question would sound if you were asked. For example, a really well-meaning co-worker asked me my gender pronouns without offering her own—implying that I am the one who is different. Even the most well-intended question could cause harm. If you are in a leadership position, review the Society for Human Resource Management's six steps for building an inclusive workplace. Ask your HR department what protections exist for LGBTQ individuals and review the inclusiveness of your workplace policies. Does your employer offer equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families? Do your HR forms reference a gender binary (he/she; female/male) rather than the inclusive, "they?" On the national front, the House of Representatives passed a major bill earlier this year—H.R.5-Equality Act, which revised civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity in an effort to protect LGBTQ individuals in employment, housing, credit, and educational settings. HRC offers six things you can do right now to help update the Civil Rights Act and pass this bill in the Senate. Comprehensive resource lists exist for information on LGBTQ legislation, bisexuality, youth topics, military, transgender, aging, and legal sources from GLAAD and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixteen years later… Earlier this year, I was telling Ashley, my fiancé, my coming out story from 2003. It took me many years to realize that my gayness wasn't wrong, ungodly, unlovable, or deviant. Stealing the ashtray would have been wrong as in my mother's untimely analogy, but to the contrary, my gayness was normal, lovable, and decidedly typical of many people. As I recalled the story to Ashley, a much older memory popped into my head. My parents celebrated their honeymoon in Las Vegas where they ran out of money very quickly and then spent the rest of their honeymoon stealing ashtrays from casinos. Growing up, we had an entire kitchen drawer dedicated to these Vegas ashtrays. Perhaps we should reassess our notions of what is wrong and right. About the author

Dr. Cindy Cerrentano resides in Kansas City with her partner and two children. She is starting a Master of Industrial-Organizational Psychology program online at Park University in Parkville, Missouri, which will specifically focus on social justice issues in the workplace.


Brescoll, V. & Uhlmann, E. L . (2008). Can angry women get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and workplace emotion expression. Psychological Science, 19, 268-275. Cerrentano, C. (2013). Is that a rainbow in your pocket? Heterosexual perceptions of gays and lesbians in the workplace. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, IL. Tilcsik, A. (2011). Pride and prejudice: Employment discrimination against openly gay men in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 117, 586-626.

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