History of LGBT: Employment and Occupations

Gerald Hunt. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

For much of the twentieth century, coming out in most workplaces as a homosexual or transgender person would have been scandalous and dangerous. In many situations, it would have resulted in immediate dismissal and loss of economic livelihood, not to mention physical violence. By the twenty-first century, more people had come out at work, and some workplaces were even welcoming sexual and gender diversity—but not everywhere and not for everyone. Variations in the environment for sexual and gender minorities persist within and between occupations, regions of the country, and organizations.

Historical Background

Before 1969

There have always been spaces where LGBT people gathered and were out, but until the late twentieth century, such spaces were often transient, dangerous, and hidden, and they rarely included the workplace. Still, in spite of the prohibitions directed at homosexuality and gender nonconformity, some occupations, workplaces, parts of the country, and historic periods were less repressive than others.

Occupational ghettos for gay men formed around activities that were stigmatized as appropriate only for women—work involving the serving of women or jobs requiring stereotypically female attributes. Workers in this category included nurses, hairdressers, makeup and haute-couture workers, restaurant waiters, figure skaters, dancers, and artists. Some LGBT people ran small businesses such as design stores, restaurants, and beauty parlors as a way to avoid repressive work environments. Lesbian job ghettos formed in characteristically male-dominated occupations such as security work, bus and truck driving, factory work, and physical education, and in some cases in female-dominated niches such as nursing.

There were a few settings and historic periods with unusual levels of LGBT acceptance or presence. Randy Shilts has described openly gay and effeminate men avoiding discharge from the U.S. military of the 1940s by entertaining the troops and catering parties for the senior officers. Leisa Meyer has documented the strong presence, despite repressive conditions, of lesbians in the U.S. military during World War II. Allan Bérubé has highlighted the presence of openly gay waiters, cooks, and attendants on the luxury liners and freighters traveling the Pacific Ocean from the 1930s to the 1950s, many of them members of the progressive Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. When these ships were superceded by air travel, many of the men dry-docked in San Francisco, helping to position that city as America’s “gay capital.”

There were also opportunities for unusual openness within the LGBT economy itself for bartenders, restaurant and hotel staff, and catering personnel. As well, some support for sexual and gender minorities existed within religious organizations offering isolated, single-sex environments for priests, nuns, and monks. There are also stories of fairly open LGBT workers in the film industry of Hollywood, Macy’s department stores, and other settings, but they are told as anomalies. Other occupational enclaves may have existed, but they have not yet been uncovered by scholars.

McCarthyism and Homophobia

During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, homosexuality and gender nonconformity were linked with security risks, and LGBT people, many of whom were viewed as potential spies and traitors, were purged from jobs and ostracized in society. Thousands of people were expelled from the military, hundreds were forced to resign from government positions, and countless others were fired from jobs on the grounds of being (or suspected as) LGBT.

The repressive environment of the 1950s and early 1960s, however, fostered increasing LGBT occupational activism. Homophile groups such as the Mattachine Society; One, Inc.; and the Daughters of Bilitis often discussed occupational and employment issues in their publications (Mattachine Review, ONE, and the Ladder) , highlighted employment discrimination issues in their public demonstrations, and supported early courts cases related to anti-LGBT employment discrimination. Frank Kameny, who had been fired from his job as a map expert with the army in 1957, formed a Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society to give advice, coordinate legal action, and organize protests for LGBT civil servants who had lost their jobs because of discrimination. Almost all of these cases, including Kameny’s, were unsuccessful, but important foundations were laid for later victories.

1969 to 1980

At the time of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, LGBT people were formally barred from employment in the military, the civil service, most government agencies, and occupations such as teaching. There were no fair employment protections for LGBT people in any jurisdiction, and workplaces could discriminate against them with impunity when making hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. Because of blatant discrimination and the serious consequences of losing a job, workplace concerns became a larger focus for activists in the post-Stonewall period.

In 1969, the Homophile Action League (HAL) of Philadelphia undertook what was probably the first formal survey of workplace discrimination. Of five hundred major East Coast employers surveyed, only twenty responded and only Bantam Books indicated that sexual orientation was irrelevant when making employment and promotion decisions. In a 1970 newsletter, HAL set the tone for activism of the period by suggesting that “homosexuals were more in need of an employment counselor than a psychiatrist” and calling on members “to break down those statutory and traditional laws and customs which deny us equal employment opportunities.” HAL called for mobilization through “meetings, pickets, boycotts, publicity, and every other means possible and necessary.”

Established in 1973, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force quickly focused on workplace discrimination, successfully lobbying the U.S. Civil Service Commission to allow homosexuals to work for government agencies. The Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC), formed in 1980, soon thereafter created WorkNet to concentrate on occupational issues.

The 1980s

Nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation, same-sex relationship recognition, and the provision of domestic partner benefits continued as key activist issues through the 1980s. Activism prospered in larger and university-based cities, local governments, the health-care sector, and the rapidly developing technology sector. Amherst, Massachusetts; Champaign, Illinois; San Francisco; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Berkeley, California; and Urbana, Illinois, were among cities that included sexual orientation in workplace nondiscrimination policies by the early 1980s. Wisconsin became the first state to pass such a law in 1982. AT&T and IBM are credited with being the first major companies to add sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies, and Lotus is credited as the first large private-sector company to offer same-sex benefits programs. The spread of legal protections from the mid-1980s onward was bolstered by the impact of AIDS. The epidemic exposed new sources of discrimination and homophobia and highlighted the necessity of obtaining employer-based health benefits.

Nevertheless, the threat of being harassed, dismissed, or having a career derailed if one came out continued in many organizations. Some people adapted by gravitating to occupations, locations, and organizations perceived as “gay-friendly.” Others adapted by compartmentalizing their work and nonwork life in a way unknown to most heterosexuals. James Woods’s engaging study The Corporate Closet highlights the tactics used by professional gay men in the late 1980s to manage their sexual identity, including the fabrication of a false identity while at work.

The 1990s

Several high-profile cases in the early 1990s solidified the workplace as a site of and for activism. The 1991 firing of a cook at a Cracker Barrel restaurant because she was a lesbian, the on-the-job “gay-bashing” of a Detroit postal worker, and the intense harassment of Ron Woods after his homosexuality became known at a Chrysler plant in Michigan all sparked national protests. Fueling activism further was the 1993 announcement by three Oklahoma congressmen that they would never hire openly LGBT people, and the military’s reassertion that the ban on gays and lesbians would continue. In 1992, for the first time in American history, sexual orientation discrimination at work erupted as a significant issue in the presidential elections. While Bill Clinton was actively courting the LGBT vote, promising to confront the military ban and enact antidiscrimination legislation, the presidential hopeful Ross Perot reaffirmed his stance that employers had the right to anti-LGBT bias.

Persistent activism related to employment discrimination yielded significant results in the 1990s, with more states and municipalities banning job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1997, San Francisco passed its historic Equal Benefits Ordinance requiring organizations doing business with the city to provide health benefits to same-sex couples. The ordinance was adamantly opposed by corporations that were based elsewhere but conducted business in San Francisco. Companies such as Federal Express and United Airlines lodged legal challenges to the ordinance on the grounds that it attempted to regulate employment norms beyond the jurisdiction of San Francisco, but all were unsuccessful.

Some of the most dramatic developments were at the federal level. Once in power, Clinton capitulated on a promise to end the military ban, but in 1995 he issued an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in the granting of security clearances, and in 1998 he signed an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation throughout the federal civil service. Equally dramatic, after years of avoiding the issue, labor unions began to bargain for same-sex benefits coverage. Labor’s support increased in 1997 with the endorsement of Pride at Work (a national association for LGBT labor) as a constituency group by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

LGBT Employment and Occupational Groups

A particularly important development that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s was the establishment of employment and occupational groups by LGBT people. These groups provided a forum for people to come out at work to a select few, network, and eventually exert pressure on employers.

Librarians and teachers were the first occupational group to organize formally around LGBT rights. The American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation, created in 1970 and still active (in 2003 as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Roundtable), stands as the nation’s first professional organization devoted to LGBT issues. In 1969, the California Federation of Teachers passed a resolution calling for an end to discrimination against gay and lesbian teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers passed a similar motion in 1970. By the mid-1970s, there were gay and lesbian teachers’ associations in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (subsequently expanded to deal with bisexual and transgender issues). As a measure of the hostility teachers faced even within their profession, the Lesbian and Gay Teachers Association of New York lobbied for three years before successfully placing an advertisement announcing the group in the New York State United Teachers Association newsletter.

College and university professors were next. A Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Modern Language Association formed by 1974 and within a decade had around two hundred fifty members. The Committee on Lesbian and Gay History formed in 1979 and gained official recognition as an affiliate of the American Historical Association in 1982. Anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists were also early organizers. These academic caucuses aimed to promote the study of sexuality in their respective fields, prevent discrimination within their professions, and facilitate broader communication among scholars. The Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Political Science Caucus of the American Political Science Association (APSA), for example, facilitated the preparation of a 1995 report on the status of lesbians and gays in the profession. The report became the basis for a series of recommendations related to increased recognition of sexual and gender diversity issues within and beyond the profession, all of which were approved by the APSA.

Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and allied health-care professionals were also early to organize pressure and support groups around LGBT concerns. Following a campaign that in 1973 convinced the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, the Caucus of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual members of the APA was established in the mid-1970s, and forced the APA to undertake a major review of its policies related to gays and lesbians in 1978. In 1985, the caucus became the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, a separate organization affiliated with the APA but not bound by its policies. The American Psychological Association established its Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns in 1980, and a year later the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights (later renamed the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association) was formed with a mandate inclusive of transgender issues.

Large Corporations and the Federal Government

The first employee-based group focusing on equal rights for LGBT workers in a private-sector workplace was established in 1987 at AT&T’s Denver operations, under the acronym LEAGUE (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender United Employees). By 1992, LEAGUE had grown to fourteen chapters, organized an AT&T-wide conference, and was incorporating bisexual and transgender issues into its agenda as well. LGBT groups were formed at IBM, Xerox, Intel, Lucent, Dupont, Chevron, Shell, and Ford, among others. Among the earliest public-sector groups was the federal government workers’ organization called GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Employees), which spawned subgroups in various federal departments and agencies.

These groups typically began informally, enlarging their membership by word of mouth and advertisements in the LGBT press. Gradually, they became more formal and more assertive with employers. They focused on nondiscrimination provisions and equitable domestic partner benefits, then pushed for LGBT issues to be included in a wider range of activities such as diversity training programs and recruiting.

Developments at a relatively traditional company such as Ford provide a good example of the impact of an LGBT group. Ford GLOBE began in 1994, becoming an officially recognized employee resource group a year later. In 1998, it convinced Ford to include sexual orientation in its equal opportunity and affirmative action statement, a first for the automobile sector. By 1999, GLOBE had moved the company far enough along that it was listed on the Gay and Lesbian Values Index (later known as the HRC Corporate Equality Index). After the Big Three automakers announced that they would provide same-sex partner health-care benefits in 2000, arguably with Ford in the lead, GLOBE pushed the company to expand this to an even wider package of benefits, including legal planning for same-sex partners. GLOBE also worked with Ford to identify business possibilities in the LGBT marketplace. A similar relationship existed between IBM’s EAGLE (Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Empowerment) and the company for which its members worked.

HRC estimated that there were 282 LGBT employee groups in 2003. Groups existed to represent sexual and gender minorities within specific organizations, sectors, industries, and occupations. Examples included Digital Queers, National Gay Pilots Association, National Gay Journalists Association, Gay and Lesbian Prison and Correction Employees, National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus.

Some groups have had more success than others. GALAXE (Gays and Lesbians at Xerox), for instance, has overseen the inclusion of gender identity in nondiscrimination policies at Xerox, whereas KOLAGE (Coca-Cola Lesbian and Gay Employees), the LGBT support group for Coca-Cola workers, remains an independent group, not endorsed by, sponsored by, or affiliated with the corporation. On its Web site in the early 2000s, KOLAGE envisioned “a global Coca-Cola system where lesbians and gays are ensured basic equal rights.” Some groups, such as the one at Intel, eschewed a political mandate. Others, such as the one at Chrysler, formed with a very specific goal (benefit coverage) and then disbanded. The large majority of these groups, however, have been officially sanctioned and work in partnership with management, and many have evolved into broader-based “straight-gay-diversity” alliances.

The Twenty-first Century

By the early twenty-first century, there had been unprecedented change. Surveys demonstrated that 75 percent of Americans believed that there should be laws to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in job opportunities, that 70 percent believed health-care benefits should be available for same-sex domestic partners, and that 59 percent believed gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military. There were openly LGBT politicians, doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, fire-fighters, police officers, secretaries, accountants, and athletes. Many occupational associations, including those for nurses, teachers, and doctors, had affirmed the right of members to be out at work and censured members who discriminated.

Sampling problems have so far precluded a reliable, large-scale survey of occupational decision-making by LGBT people. However, it is likely that when LGBT people make occupational choices, they make them not only on the basis of their skills, talents, and interests, but also by taking into account the steps that occupations and institutions have taken to ensure fair and equal treatment.

By March 2003, according to HRC, fourteen states and the District of Columbia had banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and eight additional states had bans covering only the public sector. Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New Mexico also had provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., had statutes read by courts as prohibiting discrimination against transgender people. HRC also estimated that nearly six thousand organizations offered domestic partner health benefits, pointing to Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Nike, and American Airlines as among the best.

Continuing Contradictions

In spite of advances, many contradictions remained. Fifty-five percent of LGBT persons attested to facing discrimination in applying for or keeping a job. The majority of states and many cities and organizations still did not ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Perot Systems and ExxonMobil stood out as companies that had gone so far as to discontinue domestic partner programs, while Wal-Mart fell into a group of companies that did not resist legal change but were painfully slow to take affirming actions on their own. (Wal-Mart only added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies in June 2003.) There was still no federal nondiscrimination legislation protecting Americans from being fired from their jobs for their sexual orientation or gender identity, and the military continued to discharge LGBT people for revealing that they were LGB.

The gains achieved have been largely confined to LGB people. Those who challenge gender, dress, or cosmetic norms continue to face an extremely hostile workplace environment. People living in rural locations, working for small businesses, or employed in market sectors such as retail, grocery enterprises, engineering, and construction are thought more likely to experience discrimination.

By pre-Stonewall standards, there has been a vast shift in the employment choices and occupational opportunities available to workers who want to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity. Although many workplaces now tolerate differences, this has not necessarily altered longstanding, heterosexually biased organizational cultures. There are still far too few workplaces where sexual and gender minorities benefit, thrive, and prosper on an equal footing with their heterosexual and nontransgender counterparts.