In May, the Trades Union Congress announced the results of the first major UK survey on LGBT workplace harassment. The results revealed a hidden epidemic. Of the 1,001 LGBT people surveyed, 68 percent said that they had experienced sexual harassment at work. The TUC survey also found that 42 percent of LGBT workers had had colleagues make unwanted comments about their sex life, while 27 percent had received unwelcome sexual advances and a shocking 12 percent of queer women reported being seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work.
While these statistics make for depressing reading, they don’t necessarily come as much of a surprise for many LGBTQ employees. Unfortunately, the majority of us have had firsthand experience of harassment, discrimination or hostility in the workplace at some point in our careers, and are all too aware of the effects this has on our mental health, happiness and work performance. I asked a few LGBTQ people to share their personal experiences to demonstrate how widespread this problem is.
I was 19 and working as a waiter at a steak restaurant during university. The manager was this racist and homophobic guy, who found out I was gay and pulled me into his office to ask why I wasn’t upfront about it at my job interview because he preferred to know “what kind of person” he was employing. I asked him what his favourite colour was – I kept repeating it and eventually he said “red, why?” I told him that next time he was interviewing someone he should really tell them his favourite colour as they’d want to know what kind of person they were working for. Then I walked out of his office.
He mostly left me along after that. It was a part time waiting job that didn’t mean that much to me, so I could have just left if he’d caused any trouble. I know he made jokes about me but the tips were good so I rose above it. If it were a full-time job or a career I wanted then I would have felt differently.
I think being that brazen was the best thing I could do, but internally I freaked out because it was the first time I’d had to confront something like that. It made me reconsider all the things my provincial parents told me they worried about when I came out to them; that I’d find it difficult to get work or people would treat me differently. I was still navigating the idea of coming out multiple times, at school and then college and university. It made me question whether I should hide my sexuality completely at work.
I was a bit surprised by some of the casual homophobia and transphobia I witnessed in a job I took straight after university. I had just moved to London and was excited to be around people who’d never met me with whom I could be out from the start. Because it was a job in an art gallery in London, I assumed that it was the kind of environment where you wouldn’t encounter homophobia, not least because it turned out that over half of the men on the admin staff were openly gay.
Unfortunately my assumptions proved to be wrong. On my second day I overheard a couple of female colleagues bitching about one of our gay male colleagues and how camp he was, and making totally inappropriate comments about him and his husband’s sex life. A few weeks later when a colleague asked me if I had a boyfriend, I found myself just saying no rather than correcting her heternormative assumption.
The longer I left it, the harder it became to come out. Eventually I just resolved not to be out at work. That meant living a kind of double life, especially as I became more comfortable being out with everyone else in my life and particularly when I was dating people. The stress of having to lie and constantly duck out of questions about dating and relationships definitely made my job harder and less enjoyable.
Being closeted also meant that I saw and heard a lot of behaviour that I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d been out. The worst was when a transgender artist came to do a show and colleagues laughed about them; one asked what we called “it”. It was really shocking to hear such openly transphobic comments in a professional setting. I’d hope that their views might have changed given that awareness around trans people has come a long way in the past five or so years. Even though I’ve been out in every job I’ve had since then, I do wonder sometimes if that’s the only reason I haven’t heard similar things being said in front of me.
My first job out of university was a terrible unpaid internship doing content marketing at a startup. The whole job was awful and thankless, but particularly the boss’s casual homophobia. Whenever I brought up queerness I was told that I was “too obsessed” with identity politics, which was probably made worse by the fact that I’m Sikh and a POC. I remember bringing something up in a meeting once and it being completely dismissed by him. He said something about these things only being important to me because “obviously you have your own issues”.
In another job working in a pub I was victimised for the way I dress. There wasn’t any sort of official dress code and people dressed very casually, but one manager basically enforced a separate dress code for me. I wore ripped jeans once and he told me I had to go home and change. Other bar staff had worn ripped jeans before. I have long hair and was made to tie it up even though other guys weren’t. He also criticised me for painting my nails sometimes. I can’t really say for sure that it’s because I “looked” queer but it was all part of a general pattern of controlling behaviour and singling me out. I feel that he wouldn’t have taken a dislike to me if I wasn’t queer.
I’m a queer person using they/them pronouns and I work on the counter at a high street bakery in Northern Ireland. At work I try not to draw too much attention to myself in order to avoid abuse and harassment. I have witnessed customers harass my LGBTQ+ coworkers who are more visibly queer and have been verbally abused when standing up for my colleagues and been threatened by drunken customers. Luckily I work in a store that’s in a quiet location, but for our colleagues in the city I know that abuse goes deeper with sly digs, verbal assaults and threats of violence happening on a daily basis.
The worst incident wasn’t even an attack on the staff, but on another customer during Pride. It was a young LGBTQ+ kid who was physically threatened, verbally abused and brought to tears by another customer who had absolutely no problem letting us know that f**gots were scum and we were going to hell. We are lucky to have the counter between us and the customers, so we escaped the physical side of things.
This year I came out officially on my Instagram in a quiet post and I’m starting to assert who I am to those around me. I’ve been lucky that my team are so supportive. We only stand a chance if we stand together. I’m so proud of our community, but Northern Ireland legislation on LGBTQ+ issues is prehistoric – we have no access to equal marriage and the rampant homophobia makes many of us queer folk afraid to be authentic. We’ll get there eventually.