This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2023

Occupational Hazard

Coming out at work is still a major challenge for queers across the country

Ben Burnett

When Sarah MacLeod started working for a software company in Charlottetown, P.E.I., they weren’t sure if they wanted to come out to their colleagues. As a member of a small team, they mostly worked independently, and felt comfortable keeping their queerness relatively private. At that point, about 10 years ago, the company wasn’t focused on diversity and inclusion initiatives. The workplace culture was likely familiar to anyone who’s worked for a smaller company: the managers loved to refer to employees as part of the family.

“I used to be a lot more quiet and shy than I am today,” MacLeod says. “So I was happy to isolate a little bit and not have to worry about that stuff.”

After receiving a promotion, MacLeod started to buy into the “family” culture. As people got to know them better, they felt more comfortable coming out. While opening up to their colleagues felt good, it also had drawbacks.

MacLeod noticed their colleagues coming to them more and more to discuss queer issues, or to ask them about the 2SLGBTQ+ community. For a maritimer, the experience of coworkers or acquaintances being in your business isn’t particularly uncommon, and MacLeod didn’t always detest the attention, or the opportunity to get to know their coworkers.

However, at times, being the de facto queer resource would turn MacLeod’s workspace into a makeshift water cooler. If a discussion relating to queerness arose in the office, MacLeod noticed their colleagues would sometimes gather around their desk to hear what they had to say.

“You become more interesting in a way that can be both good and bad,” MacLeod says. “You can feel like you’re in a fish tank. But it also makes you a little cooler, as long as people aren’t outright homophobes, right? For better or for worse, it felt like kind of a social currency.”

In the summer of 2020, as social justice movements spurred by Black Lives Matter protests went global, the company began developing a diversity and inclusion policy. It wasn’t long before MacLeod’s managers looked to them as a resource to help develop its initiatives.

MacLeod felt a sense of obligation to help their team as a representative voice. But that soon led to uncomfortable situations. At one point near the end of their employment, despite not being Indigenous, MacLeod’s bosses asked them for advice on how the company could approach two-spirit issues.

“Once you come out as queer generally, you are now the spokesperson for every part of [the community],” they say. Not only was MacLeod being looked to as a voice for all marginalized identities, they were performing work outside of their job description. But they also felt a responsibility to speak up for other members of the queer community, even if they didn’t always know what to say.

Eventually, MacLeod chose to leave that job, and came to see clearly just how toxic the family dynamic can be when it leads employees to put the companies they work for above their own mental health.

Their experience in the software industry typifies just one of the many ways that 2SLGBTQ+ community members are made to feel othered at work, or asked to go above and beyond their assigned role compared to straight employees.

For many queer workers in Canada, coming out creates additional barriers to employment, career advancement, and access to benefits and healthcare. These potential pitfalls often cause anxiety about whether to publicly identify as queer at all.

The challenges for Queer employees are multi-faceted. Egale Canada found in 2019 that despite Canada’s perception as a progressive country and a shift in workplace inclusion, their colleagues regularly discriminate against 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians, particularly trans and non- binary people. Ultimately, Canada’s workplace and human rights frameworks are failing the community.

Meg MacKay, a queer comedian and television writer, says they feel more welcome in writers’ rooms than in previous jobs they’ve held in the service industry. But, when they divulge their queer identity at work, they report being put in situations like MacLeod’s, where they are often asked to speak for all queer people. In addition to being asked to take on queer assignments, MacKay says there are also moments when their queerness makes them feel othered socially.

“If I’m talking about people I’m seeing, if I’m seeing a guy, [those] conversations don’t make people stiffen, but if I’m talking about an ex-girlfriend or an ex partner who is a non- binary person, you can see people’s body language changes a bit,” they say.

Jade Pichette is the director of programs for Pride at Work Canada. The organization works with Canadian employers to promote inclusivity in the workplace and build safer spaces for employees with diverse gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations. Pichette says they have heard from queer employees who were asked questions that would be inappropriate in any work environment, including questions about their sex lives or even their genitalia.

“I’ve heard people talk about how they were asked to remove a photo of their partner from their desk, or [being told] even talking about their partner is somehow talking about sex in the workplace, while their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts are not experiencing the same thing,” Pichette says.

This causes queer employees to shy away from networking opportunities and shelter their personal lives from their colleagues, putting them at a disadvantage when meeting new people, trying to make friends with coworkers, or competing for promotion and advancement against their straight colleagues.

Tom Barker is a gay man who performs drag as Birthday Girl and owns Salutè, a cocktail bar in Okotoks, Alberta. Prior to working full-time in the entertainment and service industry, he worked a number of jobs in retail, media, and corporate spaces. Barker felt the pressure varied across each industry.

It was in media where Barker was othered the most. Working as a radio personality, a manager once asked him to be “less flowery” on the air. On another occasion, a manager was circulating the office shaking hands with all of the employees, before offering Barker, the only visibly queer person in the room, a fist bump.

As a queer person in a small, rural town, Barker says he’s often approached by younger members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community for advice on how to navigate their workplaces. He says he typically encourages younger queers to be true to themselves when deciding whether being out in the workplace is the right decision for them.

“To put it simply: it’s a pivotal thing that you have to figure out where you stand,” he says.

This conversation matters not only in relation to people’s emotional well-being at work, but also because queer and trans people are chronically underpaid and underemployed. In 2022, the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation reported that the average heterosexual man in Canada makes almost $56,000 annually, while heterosexual women average around $40,000. Meanwhile, bisexual men and women average around $32,000 and $25,000 respectively. The average incomes for queer- identified people who are also racialized, disabled, or come from non-traditional backgrounds are even lower.

In 2019, Trans Pulse Canada conducted a survey and found that nearly half of trans people in Canada over the age of 25 make under $30,000 per year, making them roughly three times more likely to be low-income than the general population. For non-binary people, that number rises to 54 percent.

Across many Canadian industries, queer employees report generally better working conditions and improved acceptance over time. But navigating people’s responses to their queer identities means these workers are still in the challenging position of having to constantly worry about whether they are safe to come out, furthering a systemic divide between cisgender and heterosexual Canadians and their queer colleagues. Data from the Williams Institute out of the University of California, Los Angeles school of law released in 2021 found that employees of all orientations, across all sectors of the workforce, reported high levels of discrimination and harassment of 2SLGBTQ+ employees in the workplace.

While we’re beginning to have more data about life for queer employees in Canada, Mathias Memmel, president of Start Proud, a nonprofit organization that helps queer students and young professionals with networking and transitioning into the workforce, says there are limitations to the conclusions we can draw from the available research. Because of his work with Start Proud, Memmel says he regularly hears from young queer workers who opt out of chasing after their preferred profession, or decide not to pursue further education, because of a lack of queer representation at higher levels.

“It’s very difficult to quantify how many queer students are themselves opting out of recruitment processes,” he says. “Even in law school or med school, do [queer youth] see themselves reflected in that position?”

“At many different ages, we’ve heard from students actually self-selecting out of the process, where they have said no before a potential employer has. That’s really heart-breaking.” Companies may value the expertise queer employees bring them—or they may want to appear that way—but that doesn’t mean they know how to value their employees. Not only are queer workers often asked to speak on behalf of the entire community, they also regularly face barriers to accessing their companies’ health-care and benefits packages. Critical medications, including gender-affirming hormone therapy, are often unavailable through generic health plans.

Memmel says that he’s heard from queer employees who have to specifically request their hormone therapy medication be added to the approved prescription list, leaving some trans folks with no choice but to out themselves to their employers against their will. “It diminishes and takes away from people’s presence in the workforce,” Memmel says. “That’s a loss to both the individual and the organization.”

“You should be able to be queer and not be out in order to access care or your employment plan. Employers need to have policies and plans in place that give agency to trans folks, so by default they don’t have to seek it out themselves.”

Job-seeking students have told Memmel that when choosing where they want to work, they’re looking for accommodations that, for some reason, remain controversial to some: gender- neutral washrooms, universal parental leave for parents of all genders, trans and queer-inclusive healthcare coverage, and therapy and mental health coverage.

Start Proud advocates for all companies to make simple, smaller changes like normalizing pronoun identification in email signatures, using gender-inclusive language like “partner,” and offering diversity and inclusion training for all employees. Memmel also advocates for low-barrier health plans for queer people in the workplace, including integrating benefits so queer couples receive the same type of support as hetero couples when, for example, they are looking to adopt a child.

“Each of these barriers stack over time, and that leads to people exiting the workforce. It leads to them feeling unwelcome and [feeling] anxiety. That’s part of why we see the rates of mental health concerns among queer folks being so much higher than the average for the rest of the population.”

Statistics Canada found that the rate of people who identify as a sexual minority and report having “poor or fair” mental health is nearly three times higher than it is for heterosexuals. Queer Canadians are similarly more likely to have considered suicide during their lifetimes (40 percent versus 15 percent of heterosexual Canadians), and the ratio of those diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder is nearly the same. These issues can be compounded for queer people who are also racialized, have disabilities, or are from immigrant families.

Despite the anxiety and uncertainty that can be felt due to the pressure of coming out, there are plenty of positives that come from it, too. Being out means people can stop working to hide their orientation or gender identity, and sharing about their lives at work can bring them closer to colleagues. It also creates role models for others. The Harvard Business Review found that queer workers who are out stood a better chance at advancement, and were more likely to remain with the company.

So where is it safest to be “out”?

Both Start Proud and Pride at Work Canada report working with companies that are keen to improve circumstances for their queer employees. From what they’ve seen, larger employers, including banks and law firms, have historically tended to exhibit more queer-friendly working conditions. Memmel says there has definitely been a shift across Bay Street over the last 25 to 30 years. But he also sees industries with unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” cultures.

Pichette credits organizing by 2SLGBTQ+ employee- resource groups in banking, telecoms, and the legal industry in the early 2000s for creating more equitable environments for employees in those fields. (Pride At Work Canada was founded in 2008 by 12 organizations, including CIBC, Deloitte, Scotiabank, and TD.)

“Because the organizations are so large, there is a significant number of people that are able to come together, work together, and really affect change in their industries,” Pichette says.

While the corporatization of Pride regularly meets with due criticism for not supporting the community’s most marginalized members, these larger employers are often able to offer more comprehensive benefit plans and have the advantage of legal and training departments to draft more progressive policies. They also tend to be more compliant with labour laws. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone within these often conservative industries is going to be on board.

That’s also true of small and medium-sized employers, where most people in Canada work. These companies face higher barriers to making their cultures queer-friendly, largely due to a lack of both comparable resources and time available to work on these issues.

One sector that is particularly important to the Canadian economy and continues to struggle with retaining and helping marginalized employees feel safe is skilled trades. “The trades in Canada will only continue to grow in importance, and yet, it is the industry that is having some serious challenges in terms of labour and access to labour,” Pichette says. “Part of that is because they have historically not been inclusive environments for anybody who, frankly, is not a white man.”

Memmel cites retention as one of the core pieces that creates inequality between queer employees and their colleagues. He says queer youth are often unsure whether they’ll actually be able to build a career when starting at a new job, as they wonder whether employees from diverse backgrounds will be protected, or if companies are more interested in recruiting them in order to attain a better public image.

For many in the community, particularly trans people, the uncertainty and anxieties surrounding the decision of whether it’s safe to come out may sound more like a luxury than their reality. Not everybody has the ability to make this choice, Pichette says.

“Whether we’re public or not, we get read as queer or trans, and we still experience those forms of discrimination as a result without even being formally ‘out’ out…One could argue many of us come out repeatedly, many times in our lives, because people make assumptions without knowledge of our actual identities.”

With a rise in alt-right politics, protests against queerness are growing, too. Anti-trans legislation is ramping up in parts of the United States, with restrictions on gender-affirming care and bans on drag shows. The New York Times came under fire this winter for what advocates called its repeated anti-trans coverage, and there has also been a rise in anti-trans protests outside drag events across Canada and the U.S.

Barker, who often works in trans spaces, says his trans colleagues feel increasingly unsafe. He says he regularly hears from drag performers who fear that just getting on the stage could be a matter of life or death.

The biggest fear among drag performers is the possibility of a massacre like the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, when a 29 year-old man killed 49 people and injured 53 more in 2016. At Club Q in Colorado Springs, another five people were killed in November 2022.

“Drag right now is an extremely volatile place to be based on the rise of hate,” Barker says. “I was talking to a trans friend last weekend who told me, ‘we just don’t want to be here right now, because we don’t want to be the one on stage when it happens here.’”

One positive that Barker notes amid the increased protests against drag performances is an increase in allyship and counter-protests. “Allyship in Canada seems to really be rocketing,” he says, citing a recent protest in Calgary where a handful of anti-drag protesters were greatly outnumbered by queer folks and allies. “It doesn’t mean the work is done, and there’s still a lot more to do. Drag and love and trans communities will prevail inevitably… But it’s a question of how bad is it going to get?”

MacKay says they feel grateful for how much better things have gotten for them as a queer person, even in the past 10 years.

“I came out as bi in high school and lost a huge chunk of my friends,” says MacKay, who grew up in Cornwall, P.E.I. “I’m old now and I live in Toronto, and I have nothing to fear here.”

“One year I worked for a queer film festival and the only thing I had to worry about there was having hooked up with too many people that worked there.”

MacLeod left their job at the software firm a few years ago, and now spends their days taking care of a family member. They’ve been offered lucrative opportunities to return to their former industry, but are not tempted to give up the freedom to present how they feel most comfortable.

While being out in their last job wasn’t a universally positive experience, they credit their learned experience for helping them become more self-assured.

“I am no longer this quiet, demure queer person that’s palatable,” they say. “And I think that is the major thing: that I don’t even know that corporations would want me anymore, because I am going to push back on stuff.”

Ben Burnett (they/he) is a freelance writer and publicist based in Menahqesk/Saint John, where they previously worked in radio and community journalism. As a lifelong maritimer, they proudly mispronounce the word bagel. Their writing focuses on queer issues and sex.

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