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It’s not a simple as you may think

By Colin Druhan


When some people think about the process of coming out they imagine the well-worn tropes of their favourite movies and TV shows.

The scene is classic: A person sits down with their parents, friends or coworkers to disclose that they are bi, gay, trans or any other identity under the gender and sexual minority umbrella. It’s all very dramatic and set to beautiful piano music.

The truth is that while disclosing one’s true gender identity or sexual orientation for the first time can be a landmark moment, the practice of coming out doesn’t stop after that one special conversation. Gender and sexual minorities come out in small ways every day.

Coming out can be a lesbian woman sending back legal documents that say “and husband” for correction because she, in fact, has a wife. Coming out for someone who is trans might be explaining to a prospective employer that their degree and transcripts show a different name than the one on their resume. Coming out for someone who identifies as non-binary can be correcting a person who addresses them as “he” by stating that they use the pronoun “they.”

Whether by formal announcement, or in these small conversational ways, people should not have to worry about coming out at work in Canada, but they do. Despite the fact that people working in Canada enjoy employment protections on the grounds of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation at every jurisdictional level, the global consulting firm Out Now found that over half of people who identify as bi, gay or trans in Canada aren’t out to everyone they work with. Some people don’t disclose their identity because they worry about being stereotyped. Many people stay in the closet to protect their physical safety while on the job. Big or small, these fears don’t come out of nowhere. They are developed over a lifetime of exposure to biphobic, homophobic and transphobic behaviour and violence both inside the workplace and in daily life.

The Canadian Mental Health Association has found that gay, lesbian and bi people are at double the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder than straight people and that almost half of trans respondents to an Ontario-based survey had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. These facts are reflective of broader systemic challenges faced by the community that include significant barriers to employment. A quarter of Canada’s homeless population identify as a gender or sexual minority, either due to disconnection from their families at a young age, barriers to education, unequal access to employment or a host of other factors, depending on their specific identity.

An increasing number of employers are becoming vocal about their support for this community, which has been a welcome development. The recent and marked increased in Pride-themed advertising campaigns certainly shows a willingness to engage with queer and trans folks as consumers and an intention to be more inclusive.

However, when it comes to creating an inclusive environment for employees, it’s not as simple as flying a Rainbow Flag. Many employers misstep by starting with visible signs of support before making efforts to determine where there may be gaps in their inclusion strategy that leave out the specific needs of gender and sexual minorities. Rainbow cupcakes in the lunchroom during Pride season certainly are delicious. However, without an appropriate policy framework and an action plan to address biphobic, homophobic and transphobic behaviour, those treats can leave a bad taste in the mouths of some community members.

These signs of support, although enthusiastic, can be seen as disingenuous if they don’t relate to how a company tackles issues facing gender and sexual minorities on a daily basis. A Pride at Work Canada survey found that 66 per cent of gender and sexual minority job seekers would be more likely to apply for a position with an employer that was transparent about their policies on gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation. Only half as many said they would be motivated to apply based simply on a company’s participation in a Pride parade.

Similarly, employers need to stay conscious of the broad diversity of the gender and sexual minority community. The challenges faced by people who are trans differ vastly from cisgender employees who are marginalized because of their sexual orientation. Biphobic attitudes from both straight people and people who identify as gay and lesbian leave many bi and pansexual people out of inclusion efforts entirely. Add in that many community members must also deal with racism, sexism, ableism and other types of discrimination and you will start to see how nuanced solutions must be to be truly effective.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to truly inclusive environments. Institutional and cultural change takes time and focused effort from people who are willing to look outside of their own experience and listen to the needs of others. Queer and trans people who are out to everyone they work with often attribute their decision to a strong network of allies. Being a good ally is not just about wearing a button or posting something on Instagram. It involves establishing trust, which doesn’t come overnight.

An ally is not simply someone who, in theory, believes in equal rights for people who are different from them as an abstract concept. A true ally is someone who confronts discrimination every time they see it, whether it directly impacts them or not, anytime it is safe for them to do so. When employers give their staff teams the tools they need to enact cultural change in this way, they begin to see meaningful results. Then it’s time to break out those rainbow cupcakes.

Colin Druhan is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada. Attend Druhan’s presentation, “Allyship in Action: Supporting LGBTQ2+ Employees at Work,” on Jan. 30 at 3 p.m.



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