Coming out still bad for a career

Emerging homophobia issues include treatment of transgender people
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/16/2006

For three years, coming to work was a nightmare for Jorge, a gay Toronto resident working in inside sales. On a routine basis, he had to endure jokes and derisive comments from the people he worked with, including things like, “Gays belong in hell.”

The workplace culture at that electrical distributor was rather macho, said Jorge, who didn’t want his last name revealed. That’s why he felt it was useless to try to change his colleagues’ minds about homosexuals.

And there was no point in asking people to stop the comments. His manager not only tolerated the talk, he would sometimes join in. The company’s HR department in Montreal seemed a distant entity, offering Jorge no protection and no recourse. As a new immigrant, Jorge remembered how difficult it was for him to land a job and he feared that any harassment complaint he made would only follow him and harm his career.

“At times I was really close to saying ‘eff it.’ It was really too much. There were even times I almost cried — the comments that were made against me,” he said.

Jorge’s experience is not uncommon. A recent survey by Léger Marketing for Montreal-based Fondation Emergence, a lobby group that advocates for homosexuals, and Gai Ecoute, a telephone hotline for gays and lesbians, found more than 60 per cent of 1,500 Canadians surveyed believe that if gays or lesbians reveal their sexual orientation it would be harmful to their careers.

It also found that more than half think it’s difficult for someone who’s out at work to gain acceptance by management. An equal number think it’s difficult for someone who’s out to find acceptance by business clients.

For Laurent McCutcheon, president of Fondation Emergence and Gai Ecoute, the most important finding was the perception among Canadians that being out as a homosexual can compromise one’s career.

One positive finding, he noted, was a significant majority said a boss who’s gay has no less credibility than a boss who’s straight. McCutcheon said this latter question is important in that it asked people directly what they thought of a gay person. In contrast, the questions about difficulty in coming out reflected what people imagined the experience would be for a gay person.

The survey also found more than a quarter of respondents said they had witnessed hostile behaviour directed toward someone who’s gay, while 68 per cent said they had never witnessed such hostility. The highest share of respondents who had never witnessed hostile behaviour were found in Alberta and the Prairies, where the largest percentages also said it’s difficult for a gay person to come out.

In certain workplaces, whether to come out is still an issue fraught with difficulty. Recently, when the Halifax Regional School Board sent out a workforce identification survey asking employees to identify themselves as homosexual, disabled, Aboriginal or “racially visible,” the Nova Scotia Teachers Union warned its 8,000 members not to comply. Among the reasons cited was the recent case in which gay physical education teacher Lindsay Willow was wrongfully accused of sexually molesting a student. At the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission last month, chairman Walter Thompson ruled that homophobia played a factor.

“The construction of (events) as indicative of a sexual assault demonstrates, in my view, an element of discrimination played a role in (fellow teacher John) Orlando’s motivation for making an allegation against Willow.”

Still, things have improved compared to 10 years ago, said barbara findlay, a Vancouver lawyer specializing in gay and lesbian issues. Back then, the fears that clients had were whether they would lose their jobs when their employers found out they were gay.

“Ten years ago, I had a lot of people come to me and either their employers told them they were not allowed to come out, or they outed them without the workers’ permission,” said findlay. “It’s not obvious what was worse, actually. But that’s completely gone away.”

Still, people do have reasons to fear coming out will hurt their career, said findlay. She added that there are some workplace issues that remain contentious. At the top of that list is the treatment of transgender people in the workplace, said findlay. If a worker is going through a sex change, some of the issues that employers will have to grapple with include what leave provisions to offer for the sex reassignment surgery and which washroom facilities are appropriate.

“As with any employee who’s faced discrimination in the world, the first thing HR needs to do is figure out what the issues are. Because unless we’ve spent some time thinking about it, we don’t know. It’s not obvious,” said findlay. “The employee will probably feel some degree of anxiety, confusion, disapproval — pick one.”

The other issue she sees coming to the surface are sexual harassment complaints that are built upon a complainant’s homophobia, similar to what teacher Willow said she went through.

“The complainant says, ‘This person came on to me,’ and all of a sudden there’s a sexual harassment complaint. I had one such complaint where the union representative agreed with the employer that my client was appropriately fired,” said findlay. “And there was literally no evidence of her having done anything bad. It was a very clear case of homophobia overtaking a harassment complaint.”

For Jorge, the years of putting up with abuse are now behind him. After three years at that electrical distributor, he found a similar job at a lighting design company. It was like night and day. His current colleagues know he’s gay and they’re respectful about it. When he brought his partner to social events, they welcomed him. “It was like a dream,” he said. “It’s the best thing that has happened to me.”

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