Tag Archives: Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Does football have a gay glass ceiling?

Last May, when Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, lots of people asked me, “Are you going to write a blog post about Michael Sam?”

Later, over the summer, I ran into a colleague at work. We chatted, and he asked, “When are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Last week, when I returned to work for the fall semester, another colleague said, “I love your blog. I read it every week. But when are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Why haven’t I written about Michael Sam? Because I don’t care much about football. It’s as simple as that. Baseball is much more my thing, and lately I’ve been focused on Derek Jeter’s upcoming retirement. Because I’m woefully ignorant about football, I didn’t feel especially qualified to comment on Sam.

I will say this, though. Years ago, I was talking with a friend about the lack of out LGBTQ people in professional sports, and I said, “When someone does finally come out, it’ll need to be someone like Peyton Manning or Mariano Rivera. They’ll need to be so invaluable to the team that being gay won’t matter.”

Now that Michael Sam has been cut by the Rams, I still stand by that comment. And I’ll explain why, drawing from research focusing on the broad spectrum of minority groups.

Michael Sam’s situation is a perfect example of a phenomenon called access discrimination, which takes place during the hiring or promotions process. Federal legislation prohibits many forms of access discrimination – per the Civil Rights Act, an employer can’t say that an applicant didn’t get the job because of race, or sex, or religion, or a number of other factors. (Sexual orientation and transgender status, by the way, aren’t currently included in that list. Stay tuned to see if that changes anytime soon with the passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.) Because overt employment discrimination is illegal (not to say it never happens), access discrimination often occurs in more subtle forms. And when discrimination occurs in subtle ways, it’s hard to know whether it REALLY was discrimination, or if it’s a figment of your imagination.

Michael Sam could have been the victim of access discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or he just might not have cut it in the highly competitive world of professional sports. Researchers who study marginalized groups are aware of the challenge of identifying access discrimination when it occurs subtly. As a result, a wide range of studies have zeroed in on some “clues” that can tell you whether or not access discrimination may have taken place.

Clue #1: Your employer holds stereotypical beliefs. This is probably one of the more robust research findings. For example, several studies indicate that employers are significantly less likely to hire someone who has a very African American-sounding name (like Lakisha or Jamal) compared to a White-sounding name. Older workers are likely to face access discrimination if the person who is hiring holds ageist beliefs. And gay and lesbian applicants, according to research conducted by organizational psychologist Belle Rose Ragins, are more likely to face discrimination if the workplace culture is predominantly heterosexual. If the gatekeeper to a new job opportunity has strong beliefs about who should and shouldn’t be hired, you better believe it’s going to be challenging for the shouldn’t-be-hireds to gain entry.

Clue #2: You are applying for a prestigious position. A perfect example of this is the U.S. Presidency. Only one person of color has been able to break through into that position. As of yet, no woman has been successful in securing that job. Yet women and people of color have served in lower levels of government for quite some time. This “glass ceiling,” if you will, probably occurs for a number of reasons. For one thing, researchers have noted that members of marginalized groups are likely to be “tokens” on the job – single representatives of their minority group. As a result, they may be less likely to be mentored by senior employees and groomed for more prestigious positions. If you’re not an “old boy,” so they say, it’s nearly impossible to break into the “old boys’ club.” And that club, like it or not, can make an enormous difference in whether or not a person breaks into a high-level position.

Clue #3: You are applying for a job that is considered “inappropriate” for your minority group. A study published in Sex Roles a number of years ago indicated that males and females who were applying for “sex-incongruent” jobs faced a steeper hill to climb in getting the job – and being favorably evaluated later on if they were actually hired. This is a factor that is also highly likely to intersect with Clue #1 – if an employer has stereotyped beliefs, and the applicant in question challenges the gender/race/sexual orientation/age/etc. norms of the position, it’s highly likely that access discrimination will result.

Clue #4: Your qualifications are ambiguous. Both classic and current studies indicate that ambiguous qualifications are an easy scapegoat when access discrimination is happening. For example, in a research article aptly titled “Hard Won and Easily Lost,” researchers note that, for minorities in the workplace, making small mistakes on the job can be an employment deal-breaker. Drawing from Alice Eagly’s many studies of gender discrimination in the workplace, the article states:  “Although minorities with unambiguously strong qualifications are often evaluated fairly, when qualifications are ambiguous, stereotypes strongly influence judgments . . . . Thus, a Black job candidate with a stellar record will receive high evaluations, but a Black candidate with a mixed record will face discrimination when compared with a White candidate.” If you’re a minority, and you’re not The Perfect Candidate, then you’re much less likely to get hired for the job.

Let’s bring all this back to Michael Sam. Without commenting specifically on the decision-makers within the St. Louis Rams organization, I think it’s fair to say that many people in professional sports hold “stereotypical beliefs” about gay men – and that those stereotypical beliefs might be strengthened by the fact that Michael Sam is a gay Black man. (There’s Clue #1.) I think it’s also fair to say that getting a spot on the team is a “prestigious position” (Clue #2.) Some would say that it’s “inappropriate” for a gay man to play football in a world of heterosexual teammates. (That’s Clue #3). And Michael Sam was the 249th out of 256 draft picks, making him a good player but maybe not a Great Player (Clue #4).

So was Michael Sam a victim of discrimination, or was the cut fair? Even with all those clues, I really couldn’t tell you, because there’s no way to know for sure. I hope that another team picks him up. I hope that lots of other gay professional athletes come out of the closet, so the spotlight won’t be so brightly focused on one person. And I really hope that a miracle happens and that the Yankees clinch a spot in the playoffs, so that Derek Jeter will get one more shot at a World Series ring.

 

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Filed under coming out, covert homophobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, intersectionality, psychological research, racism, sexism, stereotypes

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.

 

 

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Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia