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Williams Institute Scholar Ilan Meyer Explains the Painful Impact of Workplace Discrimination

Williams Institute Scholar Ilan Meyer Explains the Painful Impact of Workplace Discrimination

by Karen Ocamb on March 23, 2012

Williams Institute scholar Ilan Meyer (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Editor’s note: Tico Almeida of Freedom to Work attended a Williams Institute panel discussion coordinated with the city of West Hollywood recently. He’s been strongly advocating an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which apparently been cleared by the US Departments of Labor and Justice for President Obama’s signature. This is critical while advocates LGBT advocates lobby Congress to pass the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).  I was very taken by William Institute Scholar Ilan Meyer’s presentation about how NOT have equal rights impacts LGBT people emotionally and psychologically. Below is an interview I did with him for Frontiers magazine, on the streets now. – Karen Ocamb)

 This story is cross-posted from Frontiers magazine.

By now, most Americans grasp that the legal prohibition of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples officially renders lesbians and gays second-class citizens. Apparently the Republican presidential candidates and those who support them are OK with that discrimination, based primarily on conservative religious ideas of ‘traditional’ marriage. President Obama and many in the Democratic Party apparently are “evolving” on their current acceptance of “separate but equal” civil union/domestic partnerships. For instance, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of marriage equality, recently joined the growing demand to put a marriage equality plank in the Democratic Party Platform.

And, thanks to the efforts of outspoken American Foundation for Equal Rights attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black in educating the public about the unconstitutionality of Prop. 8, many more Americans are becoming aware of the harms legal barriers to marriage equality have on same-sex couples and their families.

But the other stigma of second-class citizenship—the legal and cultural discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace—is so common and seemingly accepted, it’s basically shrugged off as a non-urgent issue. Even President Obama, who supports an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, fails to grasp the connection between calling for more jobs, jobs, jobs in this difficult economy and the outright ban on LGBT people applying for and getting jobs throughout the country.

Right now, 21 states have job protections based on sexual orientation, and 16 states include protections based on gender identity. Additionally, numerous cities and counties have nondiscrimination ordinances. But millions of LGBT people have no protections and are vulnerable to firing, harassment, shame and hate crimes, as well as the daily emotional toll it takes on their families.

Acceptance of such anti-LGBT discrimination also impacts straight people. That’s what happened to James Friso, a straight aircraft mechanic who recently agreed to a $155,000 settlement with defense contractor DynCorp after he officially complained in January to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about anti-gay epithets and harassment in the workplace. That incident spurred Tico Almeida, founder of Freedom to Work, to start a petition at Change.org that successfully pressured DynCorp into adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its workplace nondiscrimination policies. Almeida and others are now trying to pressure President Obama into signing an executive order banning workplace discrimination in federal contracts.

“Making sure taxpayer dollars don’t support companies that discriminate does not require an act of Congress. By issuing an executive order, President Obama can—and should—make nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity a requirement for doing business with the American public,” M. V. Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, wrote in an op-ed in the Feb. 6 New York Times. “An executive order banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors might also be the first step toward federal legislation outlawing the same for all employees.”

Badgett noted that anti-LGBT discrimination “is disturbingly common,” citing recent Williams Institute research that found “that 27 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual people had been harassed at work or lost a job because of their sexual orientation in the previous five years. Almost half of transgender people in a recent survey had experienced discrimination in hiring, promotion or job retention. Discrimination hits gay and bisexual men, in particular, in their paychecks: studies show that they earn less than heterosexual men with the same qualifications. And as James Friso’s case demonstrates, even heterosexual employees can experience anti-gay harassment.”

On March 14, the Washington Blade reported that there is a new push for the Senate to at least hold a hearing on ENDA, though little is expected to come of it in this Congress and climate.

“When there’s nothing else going on, it’s always good to try to get a hearing,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Blade. “It keeps the ball moving. It keeps reminding everybody that there are some issues that we all know we have to cover eventually.”

But where’s the urgency? And where’s the understanding of the harm the lack of workplace protections have on those too afraid to come out, or who’ve been fired, or are unemployed and resigned to unemployment because they won’t be allowed to train or get hired for any new jobs? How does that impact their self-esteem, their ability to take care of themselves and families, find housing, protect their health or hold onto a relationship?

Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist and a Senior Scholar for Public Policy at the Williams Institute, testified as an expert witness during the federal Prop. 8 trial in district court about the harms of such stigma and discrimination both in marriage and the workplace.

His testimony had an impact. Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs, live-blogging the trial on Jan. 15, 2010, called him “a rock star.” Young bloggers Rachel and Riese wrote, “This is pretty much our favorite topic. Honestly, I’m actually not that concerned about my right to marry. … It’s ugly and embarrassing, but the truth is that the more public and the more familiar markers of normalcy we have, the more things straight people see in us that they also see in themselves, the more they’re going to treat us like human beings. It may be that they’re incapable of seeing us as real human people who have real human relationships until we force them to give us the right of real human marriages. It looks like Meyer agrees! In slightly different words!”

The bloggers note Meyer’s testimony: “[There is a stigma,] for example, that gay people are incapable of intimate relationships, don’t desire those relationships and may be incapable of such relationships. This is what society says. Intimate relations means marriage, husband, wife, family and community. In all of those, gay people have been described as pariahs, incapable of having those relationships, maybe even undesirable citizens.”

They wrote about how “Meyer talks for a long time about how stressful and damaging it is to have to hide your sexual orientation or even just come out over and over again everyday every time you have to tell the guy at Home Depot that you’re here for a belt sander and not a flowered lampshade.”

Meyer, who was portrayed in Black’s play 8 by Anthony Edwards in New York and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in L.A., testified about how both marriage and career are goals sought after by everyone.

“Marriage is a culturally cherished goal that many people internalize. Marriage is important to people because of its symbolic meaning as a social institution. This meaning far outweighs the tangible benefits that marriage provides couples, which explains why marriage is different than domestic partnership even if the latter provides all the benefits and protections that marriage does,” Meyer told Frontiers. “Stigma about gay people has for decades painted them as unable and even undesiring of intimate relationships.”
During this testimony, he quoted a passage from the once popular book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), published in 1969, in which the author wrote:

Q: What about all the homosexuals who live together happily for years?

A: What about them? They are mighty rare birds among the homosexual flock. Moreover, the ‘happy’ part remains to be seen. The bitterest argument between husband and wife is a passionate love sonnet by comparison with a dialogue between a butch and his queen. Live together? Yes. Happily? Hardly.

“Barring gay people from marriage,” Meyer said, “reflects such stigma about gay people—that they are outside of normal social institutions and, in that, outside of normal human feelings and aspirations for intimacy and committed relationships. … In fact, as research and experience has shown, gay people do cherish and desire intimate relationships.”

Meyer’s research indicates that such stigma leads to what he calls “the process of minority stress” that impacts all areas of an LGBT person’s health and well-being.

“Laws such as Proposition 8, that bar them access to marriage, contribute to upholding the stigma that gay people are not deserving of participating in social institutions, that they are second-class citizens and that they are to be scorned,” Meyer told Frontiers. “This message, in turn, is heard loud and clear by gay people everywhere—to some extent, we learn about ourselves from what society tells us about who we are (importantly, communities also challenge and change such messages). This is what I referred to as ‘internalized homophobia.’ This is one way how stigma affects the life of gay people—it portrays what are acceptable and reasonable goals. So the message of stigma, especially when it is institutionalized and sanctioned, affects how gay people see themselves, how parents see their gay children and how people at large see gay people.

“Clearly, career, or simply having a job, is a very important goal (and of course it has very immediate ramifications as to the person’s ability to support and sustain him or herself),” Meyer continued. “Stigma plays a very important role here through various processes. First, and most obviously, stigma leads to prejudice and discrimination and therefore places gay people at risk of being fired, not being promoted or even not being hired in the first place due to an employer’s stigma about gay people. As we know, in the absence of ENDA, gay and trans people have no protection against such discrimination.

“Stigma also affects what happens at the workplace, if gay people feel stigmatized or unprotected in their job place, they are going to be less safe and less satisfied,” he continued. “Some choose to conceal their sexual orientation (not come out). Some gay people look disapprovingly and criticize other gay people who are not out, but it is important to remember that not being out is a choice people make in order to defend themselves from many harms that come from stigma. A Williams Institute study of a national probability sample showed that more than one-third of LGB respondents reported that they were not out to anyone at work, and only 25 percent were out to all of their co-workers.

“Although concealing (not being out) can serve some beneficial roles (not being fired, for one), it comes at a heavy price for the person who conceals her or his sexual orientation at work. Work being such an important part of our life, not being out is associated with many difficulties and even negative health outcomes,” Meyer said. “For example, concealing takes a lot of cognitive effort—lying about who you are in a consistent manner for a prolonged period is not easy. Concealing also robs the gay person from affiliating with other gay people, who can provide support and help.

“These conditions affect gay people at the workplace. Research has shown that LGB employees who had experienced discrimination had higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems. They also were less satisfied with their jobs and were more likely to contemplate quitting and to have higher rates of absenteeism. Conversely, supervisor, co-worker and organizational support for LGB employees had a positive impact on employees in terms of job satisfaction, life satisfaction and outness at work.”

During the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial, Meyer also talked about the private “living hell” many LGBT people experience on a daily basis. Plaintiff Kris Perry, for instance, said she gets exhausted having to decide when and where to come out to whom. “Exhaustion is one of the primary outcomes of stress in the most basic research on the biological processes related to stress,” Meyer said. “I have described stress related to stigma (or homophobia) as minority stress. Minority stress processes include prejudice events, expectations of rejection and discrimination, concealing and internalized homophobia. So homophobia can affect gay people in a variety of ways. The ‘living hell’ quote actually comes from researchers who studied the effect of concealing some information at work from boss and co-workers, and how the thinking about it can be so overwhelming because you have to make up stories that are consistent and you have to do this over a long period of time. So it is exhausting.

“In thinking about minority stress, we also differentiate between acute events, like being assaulted, and chronic stressors, like being concerned about kids or money problems,” he continues. “But stress is always about something that you have to deal with (or adapt to), and that is where the exhausting part comes—you have to continually be dealing with stuff.”

Meyer noted that there has been “significant shifts in stigma about gay people” over the past 50 years. But it appears stigma still rules the hearts and minds of many. The Williams Institute did a study to prove to President Obama that issuing the executive order prohibiting LGBT job discrimination in federal contracts protects thousands of workers—and doesn’t hurt business.

“This study provides evidence that a federal executive order that similarly barred discrimination could protect millions of workers while not overburdening federal contractors or the U.S. government,” the study’s co-author, Christy Mallory, a Legal Fellow at the Williams Institute, said in a press release. A federal executive order that prohibited such discrimination could protect up to 16.5 million workers.

Additionally, the Williams Institute reported, “[Twenty-nine] local governments in the study reported widespread compliance among contractors and very little, if any, resistance to adopting LGBT-related employment policies. Further, no locality reported that any employees had filed complaints of sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination after the policies were implemented.”

“Their responses indicate businesses were willing to adopt these policies in order to contract with cities like Raleigh and Indianapolis,” said Mallory. She continued, “This demonstrates that contractors accept the possibility of government enforcement, even when no state law imposes similar requirements.”

“Our analysis shows that concerns about these laws have not been born out,” said Brad Sears, Roberta A. Conroy Senior Scholar of Law & Policy and Williams Institute Executive Director. “The agencies reported no disruption to the contracting process as a result of passing these ordinances—for themselves or their contractors. In short, it’s business as usual after a locality has decided to add these protections for LGBT people.”

So the executive order for federal contractors and ENDA would be good public policy for the government, for business and for LGBT people. And yet, despite the calls for jobs, jobs, jobs, there is no similarly urgent call for an end to LGBT discrimination and the stigma that supports it enabling LGBT people to enjoy the fruits of full equality. And ironically, in 2010, the federal government’s own Healthy People Initiative specifically recognized the health disparities for LGBT people. That has yielded new developments from the Department of Health and Human Services, such as including information about sexual orientation in health surveys—hailed as tremendous progress in helping researchers design programs and interventions that would affect LGB people.

But how much healthier might LGBT people be, and what greater contributions might LGBT people make with the dignity of a job where they are protected from harassment and discrimination and can take care of themselves and their families as equal human beings?

Americans are beginning to understand the harms done to LGBT people and their families by the stigma of having their relationships de-legitimized. Now it’s time for Americans, including the president of the United States, to understand the urgency of getting LGBT people jobs.


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