When we think about the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender variant (transgender) people in the workplace, we work with the assumption that there is a war for talent in the workplace that somewhat evens the playing field. In theory, companies can’t afford to lose the best and brightest workers because their workplace is unwelcoming. To attract and retain highly-qualified people, and to maintain a competitive edge, most companies seek to create conditions in which the diversity of their workforce is celebrated and fully tapped. That should mean that older lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are seen as having the potential to be among the company’s best and brightest employees, increasing the odds of profitability.
That said, the working conditions for LGBT employees of all ages can vary in the same company, depending upon the mentality of middle management. If the middle manager, is influenced by any number of variables such as religious beliefs, familiarity with gay and transgender people, race, and gender, and does not ascribe to his or her company’s values, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender worker is vulnerable to increased risk of harassment.
When considering hostile working conditions, we’re encouraged to allow for the possibility of the worst behavior in the workplace, such as physical and emotional abuse, but to also focus on the problems created by unconscious incompetence. Excluding examples of termination, hiring discrimination, and overt hostility, the majority of LGBT people in the workplace complain about feeling isolated because of their sexual orientation or gender variance. Fear of isolation is what keeps many LGBT people in the closet. The isolation is created by the lack of social interactions with colleagues, especially conversations on personal life.
One of the challenges in creating a clear picture of workplace issues for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender variant seniors is that the culture is changing so quickly that the picture will never be complete or reliable. For instance, marriage equality is not at this moment the law of the land, but it may be in a few months. While progress is being made in state by state passage of non-discrimination ordinances, there are now efforts to pass statewide legislation that grants religious liberty to employers and employees to discriminate on the basis of their personal beliefs. Eventually, the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will be passed, but probably not for many years. The current fear of gender variance on the part of many members of Congress keeps the legislation locked up. That will change, or the legislation will change, and it will be passed, but it will still not cover housing and public accommodation, which might have an impact on a discussion of LGBT workplace issues. If a gay senior faces discrimination in housing, is it practical for him or her to live near the workplace?
We are aware of the quickly-changing culture, which in the Western world is becoming more comfortable with the full range of sexual orientation and gender expression, and we are aware of the increase in protective legislation. But, understanding the challenges faced by senior lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers means being aware of the rapidly-paced changes in language and attitudes in those communities. When I first began work as an educator on these issues, it was about gay people. It then became about lesbian and gay people. Bisexuality was soon added to the topic. Then, transgender issues became part of the discussion. Not long ago, the organization that was originally called the National Gay Task Force changed its name to include letters in the acronym to accommodate the issues of people who identify as queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual. Further, the new preferred term for transgender people is gender variant, and the new preferred term for transitioning (the process of physically becoming one’s true self) is realignment. Sex reassignment surgery is now called sex confirmation surgery. I need to constantly update my educational resources on the topic because of these changes.
What began as a workplace concern in the United States, with my introducing the topic as a business issue in 1985, is now being discussed throughout the world because of the multi-national identity of most major corporations. Creating an office culture that is welcoming to LGBTQQIA people is not just important in New York, but in Mumbai too. Wall Street banks brought me to India, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore to train their senior managers on gay and transgender issues. That work has rapidly expanded throughout those countries, and many others. Understanding LGBT senior workplace issues requires familiarity with the cultures of those individual countries, especially as they relate to age, sexual orientation, and gender variance.
Gay and transgender discrimination has become an issue of importance to the United Nations. The Roman Catholic Church is said to be softening its approach because of the view expressed by Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” Gay issues are now part of the discussion on where the Olympics will be held. Economic sanctions are being imposed on countries that discriminate against gay people. The words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” were all used by President Obama in his State of the Union address in 2015.
Another component of the discussion is the very important shift in approaching the transgender topic. The number of people in a society who identify as transsexual or as transgender is very small, but the number of people who are discriminated against because of the variance of their gender expression is huge. Heterosexual men who are considered effeminate, and heterosexual women who are considered masculine, can experience more discrimination on the job than a masculine gay man or a feminine lesbian. And what is considered acceptable behavior or expression for males and females varies from culture to culture. Hand holding by heterosexual men is common in India but not in Great Britain.
One more thing to consider when analyzing workplace concerns for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is the differences between the individuals. Some LGBT people are highly-qualified, and are likely to be accommodated easily. People who bring in money are highly valued despite their age. If the senior gay person in question is black, Latino, female, foreign, Muslim, economically-challenged or has a disability, he or she will generally fare less well than a gay white Christian male, at least in the United States. If the transgender person in question is transsexual, and passes easily because he or she fits neatly in the male or female box, and are physically attractive, they will fare much better than the person who after realignment does not look attractive and easily identifiable as a man or woman. Cross-dressing men have a much more difficult time than cross-dressing women, partly because of sexism, and partly because they sometimes don’t pass easily as a female. If the person’s appearance is considered by others as “peculiar,” it is more likely he or she will suffer discrimination in the workplace.
Realtors tell us that the primary factor in selling a house is location, location, location. My message to companies is that the only reliable way to create a workplace that feels safe to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender variant people of all ages is education, education, education. Most people want to be supportive but don’t know how. They don’t start conversations with gay or transgender people because they fear making a mistake, so they keep quiet. The silence is interpreted as hostility or at least disapproval. Education through diversity training creates more competent and confident allies, and lowers the chances of unwelcoming behaviors. In addition to continuing education, a company that wants to diminish the chances of discriminating against LGBT seniors needs to nurture an LGBT employee resource group that will help the company stay current in properly adjusting to the changes in the culture, the rules, and the issues.
According to the State of Georgia Department of Labor, 4.7% of the workforce is 65-years-of-age or older. Pew Research speculates that by 2022, 31.9% of people 65 to 74 will still be working. In the private sector, 6.48% of those people will be LGBT seniors, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. For the foreseeable future, more people will need to work past the traditional retirement age of 65 in order to make ends meet. A significant percentage of those people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender variant.