History of LGBTQ+ Inclusion in the American Workforce | Multimedia
LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workforce goes beyond posting rainbow logos in June and PR statements about Pride Month. It begins with tenacious, local efforts that propel empathy and compassion into the world of work. The oppression of gay people in American history dates back to pre-colonial times and continues today. Efforts by outspoken activists have resulted in greater legislative and cultural shifts over the decades, but substantial progress has only had tangible results in the past two decades. Buggery was decriminalized federally in 2003, and discrimination of gay people in the workplace only became illegal federally in 2020.
Even still, several civil rights issues continue to stand in the way of equality. Queer people of color, especially those who are queer and transgender, continue to face employment discrimination, workplace harassment, and increased incidences of violence. LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to live below the poverty line, facing suppressed wages and fear of being harassed or judged for their existence in the workplace.
To better contextualize history and efforts to advance – and often also regress – the inclusion of LGBTQ+ workers in the American workforce, Kazoo analyzed points in history where the rights of workers and queer people crossed paths. In addition to drawing on information from the National Park Services series on LGBTQ+ America and a variety of other online resources, we consulted three books: “Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace” by Liz Winfeld (1995) ; “Straight Jobs, Gay Lives” by Sharon Silverstein and Annette Friskopp (1996); and “Your Rights at Work” by Sachi Barreiro (2018).
Although this compilation is exhaustive, it is not exhaustive. For decades, data and other information on LGBTQ+ worker rights has excluded bisexual, non-binary, and transgender people, focusing primarily on white, affluent, and cisgender gay and lesbian men. While strides have been made over the years to outlaw discrimination, American workers, if not under contract, remain employees at will. This means an employer can still technically fire a worker for being gay despite the 2020 Supreme Court ruling, as long as the employer’s homophobic motives are not openly expressed. Only union contracts can protect employees against dismissal without cause.
The landscape of LGBTQ+ workers continues to change amid activist efforts and a growing sense of understanding across the country. Since the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling in 2015, there has been a marked stagnation in progress on behalf of LGBTQ+ workers and workers in general in the United States. The federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, and the amount of workers protected by unions continues to decline.
But one theme remains clear for LGBTQ+ workers: overcoming fear and judgment is their best tool to fight discrimination.
As stated in “Straight Jobs, Gay Lives”: “Fear is the biggest enemy of gay professionals, we found. Those who have found the courage to stand up against discrimination have come away with both pride and their careers intact. So we believe it’s never too late to come out. Even after a discriminatory incident, coming out can be a gay professional’s best defense.