The Hidden Nature of Discrimination

Homophobia is a word that is often used in place of or to represent what is actually discrimination. Homophobia may be condition that results in or causes some one to discriminate, but it is not, in and of itself, discrimination.  Homophobia is a fear of homosexuals or homosexuality.  That fear might exist with someone, but never result in any behavior or action that is discriminatory. Similarly, someone may discriminate against a non-heterosexual, but not be afraid of homosexuality at all.  Homophobic behavior may or may not be discriminatory in nature and an act of discrimination may or may not be motivated by homophobia.

In states with employment protection based on sexual orientation, the outright termination of someone because they identify as being other than heterosexual is not nearly as pervasive as the subtle discrimination that can occur over time.  Discrimination doesn’t have to be so blatant as something like the denial of a promotion or the outright termination from employment.  It may not even be a conscious act on the part of the person discriminating against the non-heterosexual person.  The reality is that discrimination in the work place today is often hidden.  It is often sensed and felt, but it may not be readily visible for what it really is.

In my book, “Coming Out From Behind The Badge,” I write about a situation where I was called into my supervisor’s office and asked about my sexual orientation essentially because a co-worker had expressed concern about “all of the male roommates” I had.  Specifically, my supervisor said that he needed to talk with me about my “lifestyle” and needed to know if there was any truth to what had been reported to him.  He could have just as easily said, “I need to know if you are gay.”  After complaining about this confrontation to my police chief, the chief replied, “well if you are gay, it would make it very difficult for you to be an effective leader in this organization.”  I was working in a management position at the time and what the chief was essentially saying was that if I were gay, I should leave now because I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively.  This situation is a much more blatant form of discrimination that anyone could recognize as being wrong.  My belief is that homophobia can manifest itself in a much more hidden way that creates a culture and work environment where discrimination occurs through a pattern and practice of behaviors.

Most educated and informed supervisors and managers aren’t brazen enough to openly discriminate, but they end up doing so in more hidden ways after learning that someone is gay. One popular defense is to claim something like, “well I knew this employee was gay, so I just left them alone for fear of being accused of discrimination.”  Ignoring an employee and leaving them out of conversations, decision-making, and from otherwise full participation in the work place is a form of discrimination.  An administrator who marginalizes or simply ignores a subordinate because they don’t want to create a situation where they could be perceived as discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is, in fact, discriminating against that gay employee.  Here is an example of what is could look like.

Let’s say an employee just came out as gay or that the supervisor involved just found out the employee is gay.  Maybe they even made a low-level complaint about the way they were treated by another administrator or high ranking official because of their sexual orientation.  The organization reacts and internally decides other managers need to “tread lightly” around the gay employee out of fear of adding to the problem.  The employee’s supervisor begins to ignore email communication, doesn’t include the employee is regular decision-making processes, and suddenly decides to enforce policies that to date were ignored or not entirely enforced. Communication is pleasant and there are no visible signs of homophobia, but how the gay employee is treated is markedly different since before they came out or made the complaint.  This is discrimination.  The gay employee eventually becomes an organizational outcast.  New projects are not assigned and they are no longer involved directly in more than the basic work of the individual’s position.  The culture of discrimination can escalate when the gay employee is further isolated because co-workers and peers see the individual as some kind of threat.  This happens as the gay employee is no longer invited to informal gatherings of other employees, no longer invited to participate in special committees or teams, and is no longer encouraged to promote.  Whether the fears of a complaint are warranted or not, organizations that allow this kind of isolation and marginalization to occur are setting themselves up for a lawsuit while having the conscious intent to do just the opposite.

internalized-homophobiaSupervisors, managers, administrators, and elected officials are all human beings who bring with them to the work place ignorance, discomfort, and even homophobia.  The law is clear in states with employment protection that includes sexual orientation; you cannot discriminate against an employee, regardless of how comfortable you, as the supervisor or manager, are with non-heterosexuality.  Work place cultures that allow use of anti-LGBT language or slurs to be part of the common work place vocabulary are promoting discrimination and marginalization of LGBT employees, whether anyone has suffered a loss of a job or not.  It can be as subtle as a negative or sarcastic remark by a supervisor made in a lunch room about a gay-themed TV show or an organizational leader who says that LGBT awareness training is an inappropriate subject for his office to participate in.  Some of these examples are so subtle that, looked at individually, wouldn’t appear as discrimination, but collectively create a clear picture that gay employees are being treated differently.  In fact, this kind of discrimination can be so hidden, the subjected employees may rationalize and minimize it away never recognizing the patter and practice of discriminatory behavior.

What I have witnessed happen is that over time hidden or subtle forms of discrimination can end up resulting in the creation of a hostile work environment.  The subjected employee may wonder, “how did I get to this place” where coming to work feels so bad.  How did my enthusiasm and dedication for my work become overshadowed by fears of being marginalized and further excluded from mainstream work place culture.  How did I move from being part of the “in crowd” at work to someone on the sidelines or outskirts of success.  What happened to cause me to become physically ill when driving to work and to search for reasons not to come to work.  These manifestations are all examples of the damage done by hidden discrimination.

For agency leaders and employers who want to avoid this kind of situation, I have some specific advice.  First of all, examine your own comfort and knowledge of non-heterosexuality and non-conforming gender identities.  There are more than enough resources out in the world  available to those who desire to be informed.  Take a class, read a book, or do research online to address your own homophobia.  Acknowledge that you do have LGBT employees in your work place who may or may not be “out” at some level.  Listen carefully to the language used in your organization in both formal and information communications.  For law enforcement agencies, listen carefully to how people talk in the locker room.  Do something about anti-LGBT language and slurs.  Talk to the employees you know are gay and start a dialogue that will establish trust in you.  Listen carefully and gain the perspectives of those employees about how they see their own acceptance within the organization.  Ask them if they sense discrimination at any level.  Make sure to watch how employees who were once at the center of organizational culture are not excluded or marginalized after bringing forward a complaint.

For you LGBT employees out there reading this and sensing that something isn’t right at work, your senses are likely accurate.  Don’t minimize what you are feeling and start writing everything down.  It’s important to examine events over a period of time and to examine how they are connected.  You cannot do this unless you are diligent about keeping good records.  You need to record dates, times, places, and quotes whenever possible.  I’m not suggesting that you create something that isn’t there, but don’t assume you misunderstood an interaction with a supervisor that feels like discrimination or an action motivated by homophobia.  Don’t hide and continue participating and performing at work at the level that has always brought you success.  Note the differences between how you are being treated now from how you were treated before you came out.  Remember, coming out is a continuous process that happens every time you meet a new supervisor, manager, or agency executive.  If how you are being treated changes after someone new finds out, you could be suffering from discrimination.  Starting to keep track of these changes only after you suffer a significant action, like being fired, is too late.  You need to collect and record your experiences as they happen, noting how those experiences impacted you at the time they occured.

Most states with employment protection laws have a process for receiving complaints.  State laws commonly require all complaints about discrimination or a hostile work environment to be recorded and investigating formally.  In other words, there is no such thing as an informal complaint.  While it’s true that many complaints can be resolved at a low level, the law requires that all complaints conclude with a disposition of some sort.  My belief is that any complaint brought forward to an organization should also be shared with the appropriate state or federal employment protection agency (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).  Work place discrimination can carry heft penalties when discrimination occurs.   Organizations often want to mitigate complaints quickly and this can result in matters appearing to be explained away or even swept under the carpet.  Filing complaints with state and federal agencies is one way to better insure complaints are investigated fully and in a timely manner.

It’s always felt sad to me that in a profession where we value protecting “each other’s back” so intently, that we can treat each other so poorly and in a way that is so damaging.  I’ve worked for over three decades in both law enforcement and in education, two professions that on the surface seem so different, and yet, I’ve experienced the hidden nature of discrimination in both.  Despite the differences in the work, the discrimination felt the same and was equally subtle. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to make it better is to call out the offenders for who and what they are so that the hidden discrimination can be made visible.


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