A Closer Look at LGBT Stereotypes

Public perceptions of sexual orientation are changing. There is considerable evidence of this shift in entertainment, sports and politics. For instance, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet portray a monogamous gay couple on the television show “Modern Family.” Chris Colfer and Darren Criss are “out” on “Glee,” as are Sara Ramirez and Jessica Capshaw on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Professional basketball players Sheryl Swoopes and John Amaechi are among many well-known, self-identified gay and lesbian athletes. Dozens of politicians and public figures such as Houston Mayor Annise Parker and newsman Anderson Cooper are outwardly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

The Evolving LGBT Landscape
The LGBT platform has radically changed since Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes created a stir by playing gay friends in “Will and Grace,” and Ellen DeGeneres came out on her own show. The same stereotypes that used to be — and still are in many cases — the subject of snarky side comments and locker room humor are now portrayed openly in every corner of society.

At the same time breakthroughs are happening with regard to LGBT acceptance, the public and political discourse about sexual orientation is getting more contentious. On May 9 President Obama became the first sitting president to state his support for civil marriage for gays and lesbians.

In March, Maryland became the eighth state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to legalize equal marriage rights. The ultimate decision looms from the United States Supreme Court in the challenge presented to California’s Proposition 8 presented in Perry v. Brown. On the other hand, more than 30 states have had referendums where the same rights were denied by popular vote.

The 2012 presidential primary campaign has been rife with candidates asserting that gay rights represent the decline of Western civilization. Earlier this year Curtis Knapp, a pastor from Kansas, said that President Obama had gone too far, and it’s now time for the federal government to systematically kill gay men and lesbian women.

This discourse impacts the personal, professional and organizational life for the 5 to 10 percent of the United States population that identifies as LGBT, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. And it impacts the colleagues who work with them every day and the organizations they work in.

During the past decade, LGBT equity has become a common component of organizational diversity and inclusion. LGBT inclusion is now seen as a core component of organizational success in the workforce, workplace and marketplace. LGBT employees represent a talent pool that many organizations do not want to miss out on.

Many major companies have taken strong stands for equality; some 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and 50 percent include gender identity. LGBT employees now have more choices where to take their talents, as do LGBT consumers. According to an April Catalyst report on buying power, the total buying power of adult LGBT individuals is projected to be $790 billion. That number may be even larger when one considers the number of people who do not openly claim their LGBT identity. Smart business leaders won’t ignore these numbers.

Being LGBT on the Job
Workplace dynamics can be equally complex. Many organizations have taken non-discrimination positions. This can create internal conflict for those who feel strong religious opposition to LGBT equity. LGBT people’s rights are openly debated by many, but public opinion and greater legal protections are evolving in the United States.

The dissonance of the debate can make it challenging to identify hidden patterns of LGBT stereotypes within organizations. Marginalized groups often struggle between embracing who they believe they authentically are, and trying to fit into the dominant or mainstream culture. For African-Americans, for example, this led to generations of people attempting to “pass” by denying their racial identity, straightening their hair, lightening their skin color or simply adopting different cultural behaviors. Similarly, women learned they can be more successful by looking, acting and sounding more “like the guys.” Scores of books and programs have coached women on how to do just that by doing everything from dressing a certain way to shaking hands more firmly.

“In LGBT circles in my 20s, I internalized stereotypes that lesbians have short hair and act ‘butch.’ Now, I find that because I look ‘femme,’ straight men acquaintances and friends had a hard time believing that I am lesbian,” said Cuc Vu, chief diversity officer at HRC. “Some say things like ‘No way. You’re a lesbian? But you don’t look like a lesbian.’

“Being able to pass as straight sadly gives me more credibility with some executives. I’ve learned that the next generation is rapidly challenging the stereotypes and expectations that my generation and generations before me hold — that straight men are masculine, straight women are feminine, gay men are effeminate and lesbians prefer to be masculine. I welcome the resistance and hope it gets us closer to being able to give the greatest gift that any of us can give — accepting the people in our lives just as who they are.”

LGBT individuals belong to every race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class and political affiliation. They are not identifiable by skin color or gender. And because their personal safety can be threatened, the same person may be more or less “out” depending upon the circumstances. Even when LGBT employees are surrounded by people who support equal rights, they are still subject to the structural inequalities of the larger society and often of their employer’s organizational structure.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” Yet leaders still strive for full equality for LGBT people. Ironies abound. Until recently, LGBT soldiers were allowed to serve and die in the military, but not allowed to acknowledge their sexual orientation. An open public debate is going on now about whether LGBT people should have the same right to marry as heterosexuals, or should have a separate “civil union” classification. Less than one-third of all U.S. states have laws protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only five states prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

During the past decade a significant amount of psychological research has established the pervasiveness and power of unconscious bias and the influence it has over most talent management decisions. Without any negative intention — despite people’s most positive ones — human beings have constant reactions and make endless judgments and decisions based on irrational criteria. Growing up in a culture that in many instances has labeled different sexual orientations as sinful, sick, weird, immoral, dangerous and even contagious, it’s not unreasonable that people possess some internalized beliefs that non-straight people are abnormal.

Even well-intentioned organizations can be blind to certain forms of stereotyping. Some employers have forms that allow employees to indicate their sexual orientation, or their desire to designate their partner’s benefits. But some of those same employers also make it unclear how to designate parental status. This oversight reveals a stereotype that LGBT individuals are infrequently working parents.

Robby Gregg, associate director of equality partnerships for PFLAG National, said there is another complicated intersection between race and sexual orientation. “We never really talked about being out and black in my household. It was hard enough to be a young black man. Adding same-sex preference on top of minority status provoked worry. There were certain things that were taboo.

“Some topics just went without discussion. Others were softened in the way they were discussed. Hence my grandmother had diabetes. To her it was never that name. She just had ‘a bit of sugar.’ In my case, Robby was not gay. He just had special friends. I was never made to feel ashamed of my sexuality, but I do have friends that have internalized the shame they learned from others. They struggle daily to celebrate themselves as unique and wonderful people.”

Identifying Hidden Stereotypes
Despite having all of this in the background, most LGBT people are not looking for special treatment; they want the same protections, dignity and respect afforded to others. Not all LGBT people reveal or conceal their sexual orientation. The choice is personal and often situational. Likewise, do not assume that because people are “out” in one facet of their life that they are out in another. It is also inappropriate to assume that sexual identity is either their primary identity or the most important aspect of their being.

Organizational leaders have a special opportunity and responsibility to create environments in which all people can be included and successful. Here are 10 things diversity leaders can do to create a more inclusive environment for LGBT employees:

1. Work diligently to be aware of personal biases. Be willing to confront and challenge discomfort with other people, if and when it exists.
2. Avoid buying into stereotypes about dress, appearance, behavior or profession. LGBT people are diverse in all of these areas. LGBT people are not less religious or spiritual than anyone else.
3. Invite, but do not assume, that LGBT employees will want to participate in employee resource groups or other diversity and inclusion experiences. Some may want to contribute that way, but others may feel “tokenized” if they feel pressured to represent the LGBT voice.
4. Create a clear, unequivocal message that regardless of one’s personal opinion, the organization has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual orientation discrimination.
5. Leaders should establish themselves as allies. Engage fully in activities that advance development of an inclusive work environment for LGBT employees.
6. Avoid dysfunctional rescuing such as hiring or promoting someone less qualified simply because of his or her orientation or avoiding disciplining someone for the same reason. There are plenty of qualified LGBT people in the marketplace.
7. Provide education so people understand the dynamics that impact LGBT employees and the people they work with.
8. Create clear organizational competency practices for employees and leaders so they know what inclusive behaviors are expected of them. Some 36 percent of Fortune 500 companies now have such practices.
9. Promote an equal opportunity workplace culture by encouraging and enforcing non-discriminatory recruitment, hiring and promotion both of members of non-dominant groups and of managers and employees who behave inclusively.
10. Make a public commitment to equal rights and protection for all employees, as 46 percent of Fortune 500 companies already do.

Howard J. Ross is the founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross Inc. and author of ReInventing Diversity. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.