Aalap Shah remembers when he didn’t feel comfortable being out at work. A decade ago, he says, LGBTQI individuals still lived in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of environment.
“Back then,” says the 37-year-old director of product management at the price-tracking app Paribus, “we had this fear that our boss would look at us differently or treat us differently. Now, it’s just so different.”
Shah says he’s changed a lot since then. But more importantly, so have the people who work alongside him.
“There’s a lot more acceptance for diversity and differences,” says Shah. “I’ve definitely evolved from being in the closet to being out, so why wouldn’t my straight colleagues evolve in the same way?”
While the majority of Americans support nondiscrimination laws in the workplace and the overall employment landscape has become far more accepting, laws haven’t necessarily caught up with public sentiment. In fact, in 28 states it’s still legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation.
According to a 2017 Workplace Equality Fact Sheet by OutandEqual.org, an organization dedicated to advocating for equality and non-discrimination policies in the workforce, one in four LGBTQI employees reported experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years. Nearly one in 10 LGBTQI employees has left a job because the environment was unwelcoming.
So what can LGBTQI individuals themselves do to work with their employers and coworkers to not only create a welcoming environment, but to also feel more confident with who they are?
“Sometimes we have our own implicit bias,” says the New Yorker, whose company was acquired by banking giant Capital One in 2016. “I live in a very progressive city and my peers, I assume, are also progressive. And I think it does look different when you work somewhere that doesn’t have the same openness. But I think we need to give more credit to our peers and our allies, just because they may not show openness in the way we expect them to—and again this is only an assumption—but they are also looking for context from us, and we have to do the heavy lifting to help bring them in.”
One piece of advice is to bring up LGBTQI issues at work — and engage allies when they ask questions.
Marie McGwier, a 27-year-old UX designer at IAC Applications, says that being out at work is important even when you’re in a supportive environment.
“Try to find the commonality with people in your workplace and have conversations,” says McGwier. “When I first started talking about my gender exploration, I first stuck my toe in the water to see if it was warm enough for me to gradually get in and then went from there.”
McGwier, who also founded a nonprofit that promotes gender self-expression called Gender Is Over, feels lucky to have a good relationship with managers and coworkers. With such support, McGwier felt comfortable enough to broach the subject of gender and become an educator of sorts throughout the process.
“I’ve been an out queer person since I started my job, but I didn’t start exploring the world of gender for a couple of years,” says McGwier. “I think because of my relationship with my manager I’ve been able to sidestep the insecurity and navigate that. But as long as I feel I can continue to be a bridge and be an educator in the workplace, and because I have the privilege of being in a workplace that is so freeing for me, it is my obligation as a person who is queer to be able to educate people.”
Even when companies embrace their LGBTQI workforce, other challenges can arise. Sometimes certain groups within the community are overlooked and need extra support. Tatenda Ngwaru is a 29-year-old refugee from Zimbabwe. She fled her country in 2016 and has since become an activist and speaker about the rights of LGBTQI refugees and intersex individuals—a group she feels is just starting to be accepted within the fold.
“Employers are focused on the LGBTQ side of things, and the ‘I’ often is left out,” says Ngwaru. “This is why I am doing what I am doing. Intersex stories are not being told, and once people see those stories, they will start asking questions, and they will start learning.”
Ngwaru says employers need to promote LGBTQI people within the company.
“Employers should embrace individuals who need to be uplifted,” says Ngwaru. “Put them in stronger and visible positions. Respect them. And give them a platform to share their stories and be themselves. Embrace them as much as you can.”
Even in companies whose employees are LGBTQI, there is still work to be done, according to 31-year-old Alex Kacala. As the senior content editor of Hornet, a gay social networking app, Kacala knows what it’s like to work in an environment that is overwhelmingly LGBTQI.
“What inspires to me to talk about my challenges or speak up is my own personal mission to stay in line with what the company is doing,” says Kacala. “I really believe that our stories are best told when we tell them ourselves.”
Kacala says it’s important to take the initiative and have the conversation with colleagues outside the LGBTQI community.
“We get scared to talk about these things when in reality having a conversation with someone who is straight is the most important thing we can do,” says Kacala. “They may not know any trans or gay people personally. And I think people will surprise you if you give them a chance to step up. I really feel that if people have the opportunity to respond, they’ll want to be an ally.”