Between Zoom Meetings, Coffee Breaks, and Prejudice – A look into the experience of LGBTI+ people at the workplace

By Hendrik Fischer

Images from The Gender Spectrum Collection & Unsplash

While the theme of this issue of HeartCore is sustainability, I wanted to tackle this subject  through a different approach. Away from sustainability’s more common interpretations of fighting global warming towards something personal. At its core, the word sustain means “to provide what is needed for someone to exist.” But, how often do I have to sustain myself in various situations while living on this planet? How often am I not able to exist because basic needs are not being provided? And how is the experience of other members of the LGBTI+ community?

The workplace seems to be a place where the lines between personal, private, and professional are blurred. It can be a place full of behavioral confusion, often stemming from normative assumptions or miscommunications. So when I get an invitation to my company’sssummer party whichsays to bring my girlfriend, I find that rather difficult to do as a gay man.

In this article, I have talked to LGBTI+ individuals from different walks of life in order to explore their personal experiences with being exactly who they are at their workplace. A place that, some would argue, is ruled by heteronormative norms.

Did you come out to your coworkers at your workplace? 

Yes, I insisted on that. When I was hired at my current workplace, I told my boss: “I want you to know that I am gay and I want you to tell everybody.” I told her that I don’t want any suspicions about anything. I don’t want to be asked if I am married and to whom I am married.

I don’t want this to be an issue at work, and I don’t want anybody wondering whether I am straight or gay. It’s important to me that if I have a partner, and we have any social events where spouses and partners are invited, that I can invite him and know there are not going to be any issues.

Were there any times where it was not as easy as it is now when you look back on your career?

I practiced law in the United States for almost 20 years before I came to Denmark 9 years ago. There was a time when I worked for a large American law firm where it was not okay to be gay.

There was a time where I could never have truly been myself, but so much has changed in the last 10-15 years and I am not going to compromise who I am anymore.

Have you encountered any challenges with being gay in the workspace throughout your career?

I was asked by the seniors to be Santa Claus at the Christmas party. The Christmas party was the type where families were invited, so I was expected to bring my significant other. When I did have one, the issue was that I was not out of the closet. So, I simply said I was single and left it at that. I ended up being Santa Claus for all the other people and their children, and it sucked. However, I subconsciously knew back then, things were going to get better. A lot of things have happened since the late 90s and my thinking has changed about almost everything around me.

You gotta find your path, and at the end of the day you will have to do what is morally right. If you are pursuing that path, you will have no regrets.

Maik (name has been changed)

Age: 51

Identifies as: Gay man

Field of work: Law

Occupation: American certified lawyer in the field of sanctions

Place of work: A large Danish shipping company

You are a gender studies researcher, which makes me expect that your workplace is very accepting and open towards LGBTI+ employees. Was it always easy for you to be your most authentic self at work?

Since I chose to work in a field of studies where I could focus on questions of gender identity and sexuality, my colleagues are also into these topics. In this way, I have made sure to mostly be at workplaces where I feel recognized and can be myself, and I have rarely had to come out at the workplace.

For me, it has always been really important to be open about who I am, and what I stand for. Although I’ve had different kinds of lovers and partners, most of my relationships have commonly been read by others as heterosexual. This happened outside of the workplace, but also sometimes in the workplace. During the past 10 years, I have shown my gender fluidity more publicly. I oscillate a lot between different masculine, feminine, and more in-between gender expressions. When I look more feminine, I am often read as a heterosexual cisgender woman, while when I look more masculine, people tend to think I am a butch lesbian. I am neither, and I often find it tricky to become visible if people don’t know me. So, I’ve also started to talk more about my nonbinary way of life and experience of myself now.

Has this changed over time and during your career?

One milieu where I felt that I couldn’t be out was when I was teaching research ethics at the university. My colleagues and I all had a degree in philosophy, and apart from me, everyone else was a white cisgender man. They did not know of gender studies, and this work is the only one where I have experienced classic sexism because I was read as a woman in that job and was not out as a nonbinary person. That was very uncomfortable for me.

What would be your ultimate goal for where we have to get as a society?

The perfect starting point would be that any person in the workplace does not just assume anyone else’s gender identity, sexuality, and experiences. You cannot, just from looking at a person, know what kind of experiences they have, how they see themselves, and how they want to be treated. It requires a lot of openness to not  make assumptions based on looks. You have to listen in to what the person tells you about themself, and with time, you’ll get to understand who they are and how they like to be treated. But in a lot of contexts, this doesn’t happen. People quickly label you, and you find yourself faced with a lot of expectations based on that. People are different, so it would be great if everyone started expecting diversity instead of uniformity.

Do you think that it is still very important for the public to discuss this topic?

Definitely! But most of all, the management at workplaces should take the responsibility for having this conversation with all the employees, and for developing inclusive policies. And not just in theory, but also in everyday practice. Management and administrators have a great responsibility here for making diversity visible and creating an inclusive space so that it is not left to LGBTI+ employees to make a space for themselves.

Sølve Storm

Age: 44

Identifies as: Nonbinary / genderqueer / pansexual

Field of work: Gender, trans and intersex studies researcher

Occupation: Independent researcher, former senior lecturer

Place of work: Self-employed and various universities

“The perfect starting point would be that any person in the workplace does not just assume anyone else’s gender identity, sexuality, and experiences. You cannot, just from looking at a person, know what kind of experiences they have, how they see themselves, and how they want to be treated.”

– Sølve, researcher

You are from Denmark but you live and work in Los Angeles, California. How did this happen?

I grew up in rural Denmark. I moved to Copenhagen quite early and worked there for several years. At one point I got a contract in France, and then I got a job with a large international consultancy company called Thoughtworks that has a lot of highly specialized IT people.They contacted me and asked if I wanted to work with them in London. Later on, Brexit came to happen, and by that time I  had an American girlfriend, so we decided to move to San Francisco.

You have worked in a lot of different places throughout your career. How were your experiences?

It has been different with different places. I have been out for 10 years now and in the beginning, when I worked in Denmark, it was quite different (…). When you transition, there is a phase for several years where you are quite obvious. I worked at the same place through my early transition so they noticed it. When I was interviewed for my current company in London, I told them so there was no issue at all.

Have there been challenges throughout your career?

When I was between contracts, one place wanted to hire me and I got to the second phase of the interview. The CEO then said the quiet part out loud. He said that he did not dare to hire me, since he was not sure if the cis-male office I would be working for would not end up with a discrimination lawsuit. I have also had other interviews where I have been told that because I am trans, I am asking for too much money. I refuse to work for less than my male counterparts since I have more than 20 years of experience and a lot of accomplishments.

There is a shift towards more equality in our society. Would you say this is also noticeable in the workplace?

There has been a movement over the last decade towards inclusivity in the workplace. This is  especially true in the IT industry. This might be because computers do not talk back. If I play a computer game and I select my character to be female, the computer treats me as such. You can transition online before you transition in real life and when you do that, you build a community and you can experiment a lot. I also learned a lot about computers, and for me, it was quite straight-forward to get a computer science degree.

Do you think there should be more space to discuss these issues in the public discourse?

A bunch of companies are just starting to realize that trans people exist and that we are a valuable resource, but they do not know how to have a conversation about us existing. My advice to companies is to have this conversation upfront. There are young trans people that are not out yet, so having the conversation early on and making it a safe workplace for them is important. A lot of  people at IT companies are a little frightened by how to have these conversations. There are not a lot of resources they can turn to and as such they do not know what the proper procedures are.

What change would you like to see within society in regards to trans visibility?

We know that we have gotten complete equality when the entire parliament is made of trans people and nobody questions why they are trans. Why should they all be trans? Well, for a hundred years they have all been white cisgender men and nobody questioned that. We have to get to a place where we agree and disagree on politics, not gender.


Identifies as: Transgender woman

Field of work: IT

Occupation: IT Consultant

Place of Work: Thoughtworks, California

“A bunch of companies are just starting to realize that trans people exist and that we are a valuable resource, but they do not know how to have a conversation about us existing.”

– Tanya, IT consultant

Through all these conversations it shines through that the expectation of the workplace as an equal space does differ from the lived experiences of people whose existence depends on it. The existence to be purely themselves, as it is granted to every heterosexual cisgender person without the blink of an eye. Moreover, this provision should not be put on the shoulders of LGBTI+ people. The mere acceptance of different expressions of gender and sexuality has to come from every workplace throughout every stage of the hierarchy. To create a place to exist for everyone in an equal manner is the responsibility of the CEO, the management, and the co-workers. It requires openness and curiosity but most importantly the ability to overcome bias. Conversation and diversity are key and even though we have come a long way already, there is still a long way to go until the place of work is truly equal for everybody.

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