Anti-LGBT workplace harassment

How a homophobic micro-aggression affected me in the workplace

It was a small incident – one that I shouldn’t have been too upset about.

I was standing with a group of men in an old job and had just had my photo taken. One of the men made a joke about the photo and said I could use it as my Tinder profile picture if I wanted to.

“Better not be Grindr!” one of the other men said. Everyone had a good laugh. I tried my best not to look perturbed and tried to laugh along too.

It was a small incident, I told myself afterwards. It didn’t really matter. But if it was so small, why couldn’t I get it out of my head? For days afterwards, it kept coming back to me. To those men, even just the mention of a gay dating app was funny. The problem? I am gay, and at the time, I was working in a job where nobody knew about my sexuality.

Staying in the closet at work wasn’t a choice, but sort of happened by accident. Nobody asked, so I didn’t bring it up. Better not to rock the boat, I thought. Anyway, I figured people would probably pick up the clues along the way.

But they didn’t pick up the clues, which was in part what led to that moment, standing with a group of men, laughing at the notion that I could be on Grindr.

Today, I have the vocabulary to call that incident what it was: a micro-aggression. A small incident that didn’t necessarily mean I had to leave my job immediately or seek help from others, but nonetheless, made me feel small and ashamed. I never told anyone in that job that I was gay and left just months later. It didn’t feel like a safe or welcoming environment for me.

A 2014 study found that one third of Irish LGBTQ+ people had experienced harassment at work, with 10 per cent having quit a job due to discrimination.

Several years have passed since that incident occurred and I still think about it today. Not for my own sake – I am more open about my identity than ever before, and focus on LGBTQ+ issues in my work as a journalist – so it’s not exactly a secret. But I can’t help but wonder how often similar incidents occur in workplaces across the world. How often do bosses use homophobic or transphobic slurs? How often do LGBTQ+ workers have their identities used as the butt of jokes in the workplace? And how many people remain in the closet in their workplace, too afraid to come clean about who they really are?

While we have seen significant changes in recent years – both in Ireland and across the world – in how LGBTQ+ people are treated, there is still so much more to be done. People in management roles in particular must show that they are going above and beyond to make their organisations safe, healthy and happy places for their LGBTQ+ employees. Statistics suggest that this is not yet the case in many workplaces. A 2014 study found that one third of Irish LGBTQ+ people had experienced harassment at work, with 10 per cent having quit a job due to discrimination. In a study released last year, 78 per cent of Irish LGBTQ+ people said they had hidden their identity at work at some stage.

I believe the solution to this is not as complicated as many managers might suspect. I believe more organisations need to start implementing LGBTQ+ sensitivity training for all employees. Get members of the community in to speak to staff about their experiences of workplace harassment and discrimination. Teach employees how to respect a trans or non-binary person’s pronouns. Talk through the sad prevalence of anti-LGBTQ+ slurs (you know the ones – I won’t repeat them here). Tell employees of the harm they do. Tell them about the statistics. Help them learn.

LGBTQ+ people are best placed to communicate how these incidents affect us, and managers should be cognisant of this. If there is nobody within your organisation who can speak to staff, look at the outside world. There are LGBTQ+ people everywhere, many of whom would be happy to go into organisations and speak out about the various challenges they have faced in their working lives as a result of their sexual or gender identity.

In short, organisations need to start listening more carefully to the experiences of LGBTQ+ people – and must start working harder to ensure their workplaces feel safe and secure for everyone.

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