The topic of LGBT discrimination is overwhelmed by its own significance and the ease with which is it exploited. We know a majority of Americans oppose discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. A recent study found 70 percent agree with this position.
The data, however, reveals significant disparities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a 4.3 percent accuracy rate among reported anti-LGBT discrimination cases, while multiple self-reporting studies indicate between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 LGBT Americans experience discrimination in the workplace annually. Of major companies, 91 percent have policies protecting LGBT employees. In all of this, perhaps there’s an opportunity to better understand how reporting works and what it means to face discrimination.
It is important to challenge what we think of as “discrimination.” I always expected the concept to involve direct and intentional unfair treatment toward otherwise qualified workers based solely on their characteristics or associations.
The left, on the other hand, tends to focus on what minority individuals believe they experienced at work. For example, a widely cited Center for American Progress report, which concluded 1 in 5 LGBT Americans had faced discrimination in the workplace, reported the following incident: David M., a gay man, works at a Fortune 500 company with a formal, written nondiscrimination policy. “I couldn’t be fired for being gay,” he said. But David then explained, “When partners at the firm invite straight men to squash or drinks, they don’t invite the women or gay men. I’m being passed over for opportunities that could lead to being promoted.”
The more reasonable of us tilt our heads with skepticism and conclude that no actual discrimination is occurring that the law could affect, and we dismiss the basis of the leftist argument. But what other ways can a person face unfair treatment based solely on who they are that could affect their work and career progress?
Until the past few months, I would likely have dismissed such a question. After 20 years of being gainfully employed, neither my sexuality nor my religious identity had ever negatively affected my working experience. But that changed dramatically in the most unexpected of ways.
Talking About Me But Not To Me
A few months ago, I was sitting in a committee meeting surrounded by more than a dozen other leaders, including several department directors, to discuss improving diversity within the hospital where we worked. One of those areas of improvement involved LGBT community inclusiveness, engagement, and safety.
As the only open LGBT member of leadership in the organization, I found myself the sole voice on much of the conversation. During one of these meetings, the issue of community outreach came up due to the organization’s low score on a coveted LGBT equality measure headed by the Human Rights Campaign.
For more than a year, I had been championing the idea that the hospital should be a central resource for HIV testing, treatment, and support for a community devastated by the opioid epidemic. Since I am open about my HIV experience, this was not a new or shocking statement to most of the people in the room, but one member, a director, still strongly objected.
She expressed concern that more HIV awareness and visible LGBT-inclusive messaging from the hospital would send many patients away for fear they might be infected by the disease. Using a remarkably dismissive and judgmental tone, she declared she would be uncomfortable if knowing she was in a hospital room where “people like that” had recently been.
I suppressed my desire to loudly say she was sitting in a room with a “person like that” right now, but my professionalism was betrayed by the shaking of my hands as I pretended to take notes and the deep reddish shade of my skin as I tried to hide my disgust, humiliation, and anger. Another influential leader interrupted by arguing he had not chosen to join the committee to discuss “this stuff” and would simply leave if we did not move on to more relevant topics.
I was, to put it as politely as possible, floored by the experience. Everyone in the room knew the comments were targeting me, and not a single one spoke up, including the director of human resources, who was leading the meeting.
I spoke about this to my direct supervisor, who advised me simply to let it go, and my co-workers advised the same. I considered simply resigning from the committee to avoid further hostility. I felt that even with my brand of conservative moderation in approaching this particular topic, it was still far too controversial to discuss openly.
For the first time in three years of working at the hospital, I felt intimidated, and desired simply to blend in rather than to be a prominent voice. I avoided committee members and I noticed, with growing frustration, that no one on the HR team attempted to reach out to me to follow up on the experience — despite my prior email communications offering resources and literature on LGBT policy in health care and my offer to run an employee LGBT meeting to address concerns. More noticeably, the other committee members openly avoided me as well.
I Tried To Take Action
The stress of the experience affected my health, and I realized the weight of what I had experienced was heavier than I wanted to admit. As a person who prides himself on tolerance and being particularly resistant to what others consider offensive, I was embarrassed and humiliated.
I finally chose to report the incident. That typically involves discussing the issue with a supervisor, which I had done, then reporting it to human resources. Considering the HR director was a witness in the incident and had done nothing, that option was not available to me. My position aligned with senior leadership, so I chose to reach out directly to the CEO of the organization, who promptly launched an investigation.
The investigation took two weeks, during which my anxiety skyrocketed. As people were interviewed, their tension toward me became more noticeable, and I found myself unable to engage in my normal professional duties. The last step in the process was an “insight” meeting, in which lawyers and my VP were expected to clarify any questions. Instead, it became a discussion about how my own sensitivity was creating a hostile work environment.
I left the meeting feeling embarrassed, defeated, and wishing I had never said anything. While the individuals were kind and empathetic, it became clear nothing was going to come of the process and even more clear that my career in that organization had dropped sharply. Personal circumstances related to my mother’s health offered me an opportunity to resign with dignity, but the realization of what I had brought upon myself was staggering.
The next logical step, as many advised, was to file a lawsuit. To do so, I had to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 90 days of the incident. I was already at the 60-day mark.
The federal commission offers several options to report different types of incidents, and my experience fell within two of them. West Virginia does not have laws protecting LGBT status in employment, but the Americans with Disabilities Act does protect, nationwide, people living with HIV. The process to report discrimination for HIV involved writing a letter, and the process for LGBT discrimination involved submitting a form. I chose the form.
We Need a New LGBT Discrimination Conversation
It was difficult to summarize what I had experienced in less than 1,000 characters, but I managed and submitted my claim. This first step was a screening. I must attend an interview before being permitted to file a complaint. The closest office for that was six hours away from me in Pittsburgh, and the soonest the people there could see me was mid-October.
Their assumption that I would continue working in the environment until a screening interview three months away was absurd and distressing. Knowing my employer would be immediately informed of the complaint once the interview was approved was even more so. The process made me feel vulnerable and very much alone.
I could not help but imagine what it must feel like for someone in a frontline position within the organization. Here I was, someone with direct access to the CEO, and I walked away feeling humiliated and overwhelmed. The closest resource was months away. So I chose to walk away and start over.
As I have found repeatedly in my life, the conservative community stepped up to help me, offering generosity and compassion. Raising money to buy my necessary medications and rebuild my life gave me hope and a way forward. Following the rules, guidelines, and legal processes had only disabled me and conditioned me never to speak up again if I found myself in a similar situation.
Although abuses and exploitation of discrimination policy is a very real concern, and legal efforts to nationalize protections may or may not be effective in helping people such as myself who experience genuine workplace discomfort, there is an important conversation here. What should be done when people are reduced to their characteristics in their own workplace?
What purpose do expansive anti-discrimination policies serve if they have no reasonable enforcement? What is the line between an experience such as my own and religious freedom and autonomy? The offender in my situation cited the rights of Christians in her opposition, for example.
The issue is more complicated than simply comparing studies and policies. The personal, social, and even physical effects on individuals, as I realized, is even more devastating. What is the point of further government programs designed to fight this very issue, paid by the taxpayers, if this is the painstaking process that results? After this experience, I believe we must have a much larger conversation across all sides of the issue, and a fresh approach to addressing it.