Monthly Archives: March 2012

I love my job, I love my job!

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To come out, or not to come out? That is the question.

In fact, for many LGBTQ people, it’s a dilemma that arises every day, across various situations, over and over again. And when the stakes are high and protections are low – which is often the case in the workplace – the decision of whether or not to come out can feel like a zero-sum game. We want to be true to ourselves, and we know that staying in the closet has huge consequences. And yet, being out without any kind of legal protections can also have huge consequences.

This issue came up on my radar screen last week, when I attended and participated in our college’s first-ever LGBT conference. At this conference, the keynote speaker, who was a public school teacher and Ph.D. candidate, spoke about his painful decision to closet himself at work, despite the fact that for many years he had been openly gay in all other aspects of his life. His talk clearly touched a nerve, for throughout this past week students, faculty, and staff who attended the conference have been engaging in heated debate about this issue. And while some comments have evoked some compassion, many people I’ve talked to have reacted with criticism and hostility:

He’s setting a bad example by going back into the closet.

He’s certainly not doing the gay community any favors.

What kind of message does that send to his students – particularly his LGBT students who are struggling with acceptance?

Before we vilify or exonerate this individual for his decision, let’s take a moment to consider the landscape of the workplace. In 29 states, it is legal to fire someone simply for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In 38 states, it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender. In a recent study conducted by Harvard researcher Andras Tilcsik, when a person’s gay identity is revealed on a resume, that person is 40% less likely to get a job interview than a person who is heterosexual or who conceals his or her sexual identity. This finding was particularly true in Southern and Midwestern states – the “red” states on the map shown above – which lack any kind of workplace protections for LGBTQ employees.

Of course, there’s two sides to every story, right? While it may not be advantageous in all circumstances to be out at work, being closeted has its own set of consequences. As quoted in “The Power of Out,” a recently-published report by the Center for Work-Life Policy, “Staying in the closet has huge consequences. Those who are out flourish at work, while those who are in the closet languish or leave.” People who are not out at work are 75 percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out, and mental health professionals know that isolation is strongly correlated with depression. This finding isn’t surprising – hiding such a significant part of your identity will certainly prevent you from connecting with others. Not only do those workplace relationships promote emotional and psychological well-being, they can also help us get ahead in our careers. Knowing people and utilizing those connections helps us move up the career ladder – without those connections, closeted LGBTQs are at a serious disadvantage when those promotion decisions are made. And the data seem to back this up – “The Power of Out” reports that being in the closet can negatively affect job satisfaction and growth; compared to those who are out, closeted gay men are about 50% less satisfied with their rate of promotion, and they are 73 percent more likely to consider leaving their places of employment. 

So let’s circle back to the keynote speaker, who decided to closet himself in the workplace. Is he protecting himself so he can stay employed and remain in the good graces of his colleagues, or is he inadvertently contributing to his own job dissatisfaction? While this is a personal decision, I think it’s an issue that has deep systemic and institutional roots. If we lived in a country where the employment rights of all LGBTQ people were protected, we wouldn’t have to make these painful decisions. Blaming the victim only perpetuates the problem. Recognizing the deep taproots of homophobia and oppression and working to eliminate them puts us in the solution.  

 The Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), if approved, would extend protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice to LGBT employees across the country. It has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, and, in its most current form, it includes gender identity as well as sexual orientation protections. If we want to be in the solution, this looks like a good place to start.


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Filed under coming out, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

Who’s the bully here, anyway?

A week or so ago, I gave a noontime talk at a local college titled “Major Milestones in LGBTQ Research,” which is based on my book, Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research. In my talk (and in my book), I show how psychological research informs LGBTQ human rights policy decisions, and that, in turn, policy changes influence societal attitudes. When Evelyn Hooker, for example, conducted research in the 1950s demonstrating no differences in psychological adjustment between gay men and heterosexual men, the vast majority of people in the U.S. believed homosexuality to be a disease, a disorder, and an unconscionable sin. In 1973, had the removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM been put to a popular vote, the diagnosis probably would have remained intact. When it comes to civil rights, the populace tends to vote for the status quo. On the other hand, when policymakers enact change, public attitudes typically follow – so now, in 2012, the majority of Americans don’t believe that homosexuality should be labeled as a psychological disorder. Even though Barry Goldwater was famed for saying, “You can’t legislate morality,” the pattern regarding LGBTQ rights, interestingly, suggests otherwise.

What I didn’t point out in my talk, however, is that whenever progressive change takes place, particularly when public attitudes begin to shift, a backlash often follows. A backlash, essentially, is an angry, antagonistic, and sometimes violent reaction to a significant social or political shift. Susan Faludi’s 1991 bestselling book Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women is a powerful example of the right-wing backlash against feminist change. A backlash is an angry, fearful attempt to return to and preserve the status quo. And even though I hadn’t planned to talk about backlashes in my presentation, an opportunity presented itself to me.

Towards the end of the question-and-answer portion of my presentation, one of the organizers of the event stood up and announced that a group of individuals had come into the lecture hall, distributed pamphlets that were printed on bright pink paper, and then quickly left the scene. The pamphlet was titled, “What does the Bible REALLY say about Same-Sex Marriage?” which contained various condemnations of homosexuality. The organizer wanted to make clear that this pamphlet was not part of the talk, and that it was not endorsed or distributed by the college. Up until then, I was completely unaware of the fact that a group of interlopers snuck in, distributed the pamphlets, and then ditched the scene – “hit and run” style, delivering the message and then bailing before someone held them accountable. Several people were quite upset, not surprisingly. And several hours later, e-mails were flying throughout cyberspace, questioning how we could take action against such forms of homophobia, especially when it occurs in such a passive-aggressive way.

Instinctively, I knew that the best action to take was no action. However, I didn’t immediately connect the dots as to why – until I realized that the organization that distributed this pamphlet was using a “baiting” strategy, if you will. They wanted to get us angry, and to bring that anger out of the closet and into the open. And if that happened, how would LGBTQ activists and allies be portrayed?  

We’re angry.

We’re reactive.

We’re Christian-haters.

We’re bullies.

And we’re trying to strip away the fundamental right to free speech – and freedom of religion.

This “new backlash,” as one UK blogger puts it, is powerfully effective. Paint LGBTQ activists as the reactionaries, and you’ve got an effective silencer.

Psychoanalytic psychologists have a name for this. It’s called projective identification, and it’s commonly seen in people with borderline personality disorder.  It’s a two-person defensive process where Person A gets rid of their own intolerable feelings and conflicts by projecting them onto Person B, and then subtly manipulating the situation so that Person B actually experiences those feelings and conflicts. It’s a crazy-making experience, in that the person left holding the bag of feelings (which weren’t even theirs to begin with) often has a sense of “what just happened here?!?”  In this case, the anti-gay group committed a stealth act of bullying, probably hoping that it would incite anger and reactivity among LGBTQ people – providing a golden opportunity to cast them as the real bullies. And they’re not, really – LGBTQ people would just be carrying the bag of bully-ness that originally belonged to the anti-gay group.

Very sneaky, you might say. But incredibly powerful.

I strongly believe that taking action against all forms of homophobia is critical in order to advance LGBTQ civil rights and acceptance. And, paradoxically,  sometimes choosing not to act is the most powerful action you can possibly take.

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Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, Uncategorized

What is a family?

This weekend, I attended a conference down in beautiful, sunny Palm Springs, California. My drive from Sacramento to Palm Springs took me through most of the Central Valley, a geographic area of California well-known for its cultural conservatism and Christian fundamentalism. And, from Modesto to Lost Hills, California, all I could find to listen to on the radio were conservative talk radio call-in shows. Fun times. So I listened. The topics covered were predictable – less government, no new taxes, get green policies and sustainability off the political agenda, annihilate Obama-care, get Obama out of office by any means necessary. Nothing terribly surprising.

But one call-in show focused on this issue: Strengthening families.

What does that mean exactly, “strengthening families”? The LGBTQ community has worked very hard in their activist efforts to strengthen families. How, exactly, might you ask?

  • Same-sex marriage would strengthen families. Research studies have repeatedly shown that marriage bestows health, economic, and self-esteem benefits to couples. Being single, according to studies investigating LGBTQ aging, puts an individual at risk for depression, anxiety, physical health problems, financial challenges, and higher levels of internalized homophobia.
  • Comprehensive parental recognition policies would strengthen families. Allowing for joint adoptions by LGBTQ couples and second-parent adoptions by non-biological LGBTQ parents would give children two legal parents. That offers a sense of economic, legal, and psychological stability to children and families that predicts better outcomes.
  • Broadening the legal definition of “family” would strengthen families. Many LGBTQ people have “chosen” families either in place of or in addition to their biological families. These “chosen” families offer kinship networks that look similar to extended family and kinship ties seen in many communities of color. If an LGBTQ individual could give legal rights to someone other than a blood relative or a partner or spouse, that extends the medical and legal support available to that person.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what the talk show host and callers meant by “strengthening families.”

Instead, we’ve got people like Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman, who recently introduced a bill that labels as “child abuse” homes that are headed by single or unmarried parents. Although Grothman is specifically targeting single mothers in this bill, denouncing the “single motherhood lifestyle,” the reality is that this bill wouldn’t just affect single parents – it would impact unmarried (read: ALL, since same-sex marriage is illegal in Wisconsin) lesbian and gay couples. And their children, who could be forcibly removed from their homes if this bill gets passed, would suffer the most. How a bill like this one strengthens families is baffling to me – removing children from loving homes and placing them in foster care doesn’t sound to me like strengthening families.

Nor does it sound like “less government,” for that matter.

Unless, of course, we examine what they really mean by “strengthening families.” They’re not talking about strengthening all types of families – same-sex parent families, single parent families, extended family networks. They’re talking about strengthening the traditional, nuclear, heterosexual family, Ozzie and Harriet-style – preferably with traditional gender roles embedded within it. There’s nothing wrong with supporting heterosexual couples, of course. But there is something wrong with tearing apart other types of families, rather than establishing policies that shore them up. Clearly, privileging one type of family over another – and creating policies that marginalize alternative family structures – is a serious form of oppression that impacts children in a brutal way.

Once I got to the Grapevine in Los Angeles county, I found an NPR station. The featured guest on this NPR show was Angela Davis, which is about as far away from conservative talk radio as you can get. I love the ironies of life.

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Filed under children, human rights, LGBT families, LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized

Where’s the “L” in “LGBT”?

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius headlined the first of several White House-sponsored LGBT conferences, this one focusing on health care issues facing the community. Some of the issues that Sebelius spoke to included the following:

  • access to employment-based insurance coverage;
  • hospital visitation rights for LGBT partners; 
  • cultural competency standards for health care professionals;
  • reinvigorating domestic HIV/AIDS prevention efforts (particularly among gay men and African-Americans);
  • issues of aging;
  • transgender health;
  • and health issues among LGBT youth.

An impressive and comprehensive list, some would say.

But where are the women?

Of course, most of the items Sebelius noted in her speech are relevant to women. But none of them are specific to women. And this, I think, is an opportunity to examine what happens to people with “double minority” status – lesbian women being a good example of this. The phrase “LGBT health” often is associated with HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment – traditionally seen as a “gay men’s issue” (even though, of course, sexually active women are absolutely at risk for HIV/AIDS). The phrase “women’s health,” on the other hand, is often associated with reproductive health -the right to safe, effective, and affordable family planning options; the right to choose reproductive health care options, rather than have them be chosen for her; and the right to health care services that ensure a woman’s safety through pregnancy and childbirth. While these issues may be relevant for some lesbian and bisexual women, the reality is that this form of “women’s health” really refers to “heterosexual women’s health.” As a result, the LGBT health agenda and the women’s health agenda are two entirely separate spheres, with little overlap. And lesbians end up falling through the cracks.

Clearly, if you’re a double minority (or multiple minority), only one element of your minority status gets focused on at a time. Rarely is the intersection of both aspects of identity considered. 

So let’s shift our focus. What would a “lesbian health agenda” look like?

Heart disease would be at the top of the list. Compared to heterosexual women, lesbian and bisexual women are at a higher risk for obesity, smoking, and stress, all of which contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Add age, poor health, less education, sedentary lifestyle, and being African American or Latina, and the risk increases substantially. Of course, smoking also raises the risk of lung cancer for lesbian and bisexual women. 

Next might be breast cancer and reproductive diseases. Because lesbians are less likely than heterosexual women to have had a full-term pregnancy, they may be at higher risk for breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and ovarian cancer – largely because hormones released during pregnancy and breastfeeding are thought to protect women against these cancers. Lesbians and bisexual women are also at higher risk for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), possibly for the same reason. Lesbians and bisexual women are less likely to get routine screenings, such as a Pap test, which can prevent or detect cervical cancer. Lesbian and bisexual women are also less likely to get routine mammograms and clinical breast exams, which means that they may not detect cancer early enough for treatments to be effective. Lack of health insurance, fear of discrimination, and/or bad experiences with health care providers may be why lesbian and bisexual women aren’t seeking out these forms of preventative care.

Our lesbian health agenda wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t include mental health issues. Lesbians report higher rates of depression and anxiety than their heterosexual counterparts, and bisexual women have even higher rates than lesbians. Many factors likely contribute to this, including internalized homophobia (negative feelings about oneself due to homophobia in society, stress from hiding one’s sexual orientation), interpersonal homophobia (rejection and unfair treatment by family, friends, and/or colleagues), and institutional homophobia (lack of civil rights and protections, including health insurance). In addition, heavy alcohol and drug use is more common among lesbians than heterosexual women. Bisexual women are at a higher risk for injecting drugs, putting them at higher risk for HIV and other STIs.

And let’s not forget domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence). Obviously, domestic violence can happen within same-sex relationships, as it does in heterosexual relationships. However, lesbian victims are much more likely than heterosexual women to stay silent about the violence, in many cases because of internalized homophobia and institutional barriers (see my earlier blog post titled “Under the radar”). 

March is Women’s History Month. Let’s not forget the “L” in “LGBT.”

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Filed under health, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, mental health, transgender, Uncategorized