Kaiba Lithicum sits across from me, smiling as he talks, clearly at ease in his workplace. But that hasn’t always been the case. He’s often struggled with how he’s been treated at work as a trans person of color. “Being misgendered and deadnamed several times in a shift became emotionally really, really hard,” he says of one job that left him exhausted at the end of each day. “I was just so tense.”
Lithicum, a social work student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, now works at the LGBTQ Student Resource Center, where he can bring his whole self. “It feels more authentic. I feel like I can work better. I don’t need to show up and pretend to be someone I’m not,” Lithicum says.
Unfortunately, he’s not alone in his experiences with prior employers. 9% of LGBTQ employees have left a job because the environment was unwelcoming, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). In a Harvard survey of LGBTQ folks, 20% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination when applying for positions.
LGBTQ workplace discrimination is a real problem that must be addressed, but it’s largely out of your hands as an everyday job seeker. The question then becomes, how do you find an affirming employer?
We’ve gathered wisdom from queer folks and employment advocates to help you navigate your job search and find a workplace that’ll be truly inclusive.
Research a Company’s Attitude Toward LGBTQ Employees Ahead of Time
Before you start applying, take the time to research the field and companies you’re considering. Kyla Hines, assistant director of the LGBTQ Student Resource Center at the Auraria Campus in Denver, recommends starting by reviewing local LGBTQ chamber of commerce websites to see which companies in your area have chosen to align themselves with LGBTQ communities and employees.
Michal Duffy, education and program manager at Out Boulder County, also recommends reviewing the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which is “the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices” that relate to LGBTQ employees. “Definitely do the homework,” says Duffy, who coordinates Out Boulder County’s Trans Employment Series, a program geared at helping trans job seekers with employment.
From there, or if you already know what company you’re interested in, review companies’ websites, publications, and social media, as well as any articles thoroughly. Pay keen attention to initiatives focused on diversity, including any value statements, non-discrimination clauses, sponsorships of programs and events, and general diversity initiatives.
You may find that a company marches in Pride every year, but rather than highlighting that fact, it might simply have Pride on the event calendar, which could mean that your potential employer considers LGBTQ inclusion to be part of the fabric of their organization, rather than something exceptional or noteworthy. On the other hand, many companies have non-discrimination clauses on their websites, but they could simply be slapping that on their site for legal reasons, so that alone isn’t a guarantee that an employer is genuinely affirming.
Don’t just review the usual pages on their website. Dig deep by clicking on every link you can find. Make note of any programs and events you see that seem queer-friendly—and if you see none, certainly note that—and be ready to follow up with questions during an interview.
Tap Into Your Queer Network
Informational interviews and networking are particularly important for queer people, according to Hines. Try to find someone with your particular LGBTQ identity in your field of interest to speak with. If no one comes to mind, start with your network of queer professionals and ask around to find someone in your field.
Hines, who has recent experience with her own job search as a disabled, bisexual woman, recommends asking yourself, “Who do I know who’s out at work? Who’s doing the things I care about? Who could I ask about how they navigate those systems and how to show up?” You may have to have a few conversations before finding the right person, but you can learn valuable information along the way.
“It’s really helpful to have those conversations with professionals in the workforce, first, so you can get answers and, second, so you can start networking, meeting people, and getting yourself out there,” says Hines. Strategic networking allows you to become familiar with LGBTQ-affirming employers—and it allows them to get to know you so that the next time a role opens up, you’re top of mind.
Dana Piccoli credits her employment at Bella Media Channel to her “ferocious” networking. She’d established a presence online as a queer writer and often interacted with Bella Books on social media. When she posted about leaving her prior position, they reached out to discuss an opportunity and shortly thereafter, Piccoli was hired to write and edit the publisher’s blog. “It’s important as LGBTQ people that we put ourselves out there and network within our community,” says Piccoli. “It’s a very solid way to find who’s hiring and find places that are LGBTQ affirming directly from the source.”
Reach out to your local LGBTQ-serving organizations to find out about networking events. For instance, in Colorado, we have Queer Business Alliance, which provides queer networking opportunities. In addition, Meetup hosts professional networking opportunities for LGBTQ folks across the U.S. and internationally.
If you’ve already found an exciting role to apply to, you can also reach out to LGBTQ people who work for your potential employer. Use your queer network, both in person and online, to identify someone who can speak to the specific climate at their company. You’re likely only a few degrees of separation from the right person. Ask questions like: “Did you feel comfortable being out at work? Why or why not?” or “What should I know about being queer at this company?”
Use Your Application to Test the Waters
You get to choose how open you want to be in your written materials. There’s no expectation that you disclose your sexual or gender identity in an application, but you may want to. “Our marginalized identities can be an asset. Depending on the organization, they might know that,” says Duffy. Coding or outing yourself as queer also means that if they’re excited to call you in for an interview after reading your materials, there’s a good chance they’re LGBTQ-affirming.
However, Duffy wants job seekers to be aware that workplace discrimination, particularly against trans people, is still a real problem. “Err on the conservative side of not outing yourself unless you’re very confident, know your situation, have a strong resume to stand on, and could walk away from a job without any problems,” they say.
Remember the Interview Goes Both Ways
Josie Nixon became involved with Out Boulder County’s Trans Employment Series because of the discrimination she faced during her recent job search. “I went through a dozen serious interview processes, most of which had more than one interview,” says Nixon. “Every single one discriminated against me in some capacity.” Nixon describes experiences ranging from being misgendered to being told it’s not hard to be trans to being asked questions aimed at getting Nixon to discuss her gender identity, so employers could “find out if I was going to be upset when customers misgendered me.”
Today, Nixon works as the people coordinator for a small tech company. Her friend had transitioned while employed there and encouraged Nixon to apply for an opening. The interview process was refreshingly different. “It was the first interview I went through where I didn’t feel like I was discriminated against in any way. Immediately, I realized how messed up some of those interviews were.”
An in-person interview is a chance for you to learn more about your potential employer and their attitudes, not only through what is said, but through what you observe. Think of yourself as a reporter in the field: Keep your eyes open for telling information and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
While you’re on site, observe your surroundings for queer-friendly cues.
- Are there single stall, gender-neutral restrooms?
- Are there any fliers about diversity or LGBTQ causes/initiatives on the bulletin board?
- How are people dressed? Is there a strict dress code?
- In general, do you notice diversity in the office? You won’t be able to see every employee, of course, but who you do see during your visit can be telling. When you’re there, is there only one person of color or only one woman? While these questions are not directly about identifying a queer-friendly company, the answers can tell you a lot about an employer’s approach to diversity more generally.
During the interview itself, pay careful attention to the people you’re meeting with, how they comport themselves, and how questions are phrased.
- Are there assumptions about certain groups of people, such as “We don’t have poor clients”?
- Do they use “guys” and “dudes” or otherwise stray from gender-inclusive language when referring to groups at work?
- Is there an assumption that some genders do some types of work and not others? For instance, are all the software engineers men and all the HR staff women?
- Who’s interviewing you? Does one kind of person speak up more than another?
- Do they ask you questions that could be about your sexual or gender identity? For instance, do they ask you how you handle being misgendered?
Of course, none of these items alone can encapsulate a company’s attitude toward LGBTQ folks, but together, they can paint a picture. Depending on what else you’ve observed or experienced, the answers to these questions might be illuminating.
Most interviews include time for the interviewee to ask questions, so make sure you’re prepared with a list that will help you gauge the climate at that company. These might include: “How would you describe the company culture?” “What does it feel like to work here?”
If you’re comfortable potentially being perceived as queer, you can ask more direct questions like: How is your office investing in diversity? How does identity play into work here? This is also the time to ask questions derived from your research, networking, informational interviewing, and observations.
“If you’re being discriminated against in your interview, it’s going to happen during employment,” Nixon says. “You will either spend a lot of time educating people or you can take the hint and not work there.”
Evaluate Health and Family Benefits
For trans folks in particular, it’s important to review the health plan provided by an employer. Duffy recommends asking your potential employer’s human resources department to provide you with health plan information, so you can call the health plan directly and ask questions as a prospective member. “You definitely need to look at the exclusions policy,” said Duffy. Some health plans exclude trans people and that probably says something about the company’s attitude toward trans employees.
And if you’re interested in parenting in the near future, you may want to review the parental leave policy at your potential employer. Some companies provide equitable benefits to all families with a new child, while others have shorter leave available to adoptive and other non-birth parents.
Put It All Together
You’ve researched, conducted informational interviews, networked, submitted your application, and had an interview. Hopefully, you now have a lot of evidence about a given employer to weigh, but how do you know if your employer is really going to walk the walk?
Look at the whole picture and ask yourself if you really believe you’ll be able to thrive in the environment you see. If you want to be out or can be out, is this a place that will accept and affirm you? If you don’t want to be out or can’t be, is this a place where you won’t experience discrimination? You’re the only person who can answer those questions because they’re deeply personal.
No matter what you decide, Duffy wants LGBTQ job seekers to remember that “you don’t have to be apologetic for your identity. Own it. Be confident. And recognize it as an asset, whether or not you’re out at work.”
Sometimes and in some fields, “it’s harder to find a truly LGBTQ affirming workplace than we might hope,” says Tiffany Curtis, a queer minister who recently completed her job search.
She only applied for her current job—a hybrid role that combines community organizing and pastoral work at the First Christian Church of Santa Fe—after being invited and re-invited to apply. “Working as the lead pastor of a church is a very public-facing role where I represent the church,” says Curtis, who felt ready to discuss her queerness in her second interview. “It felt super important that we be on the same page.”
The church wasn’t just open to the idea of a queer minister, they were excited about the opportunity. And the impact of Curtis’s presence and prominence as a pastor has been remarkable. Not only has she had a magnetic effect, attracting other queer people to her congregation, but she’s also seen a change in herself. “My level of creativity and leadership in this role feels really heightened by the fact that I feel very comfortable just being myself.”