LGBTQ+ Microaggressions

LGBTQ+ Microaggressions in the Workplace | Heer Shah


Microaggressions are “subtle forms of discrimination that convey hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward members of oppressed groups” (Galupo, 2016). They may be present behaviourally, verbally or through spoken and unspoken norms and policies. In recent years, attention has shifted to microaggressions experienced by members of the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace. These may be in the form of heterosexist language, enforced dress codes and behaviours that isolate sexual minority employees, leading to poor job satisfaction, productivity, self-esteem, etc. This article will review the kinds of workplace microaggressions, how they affect employees, and possible solutions to microaggressions.

Keywords: microaggressions, workplace, LGBTQ+, transgender

Microaggressions in the workplace are defined as “everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that convey hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward members of oppressed groups” (Galupo & Resnick, 2016). For the LGBTQ+ community and for those who are gender non-conforming, these microaggressions are witnessed through workplace policies, workplace climate and organizational structure, often leading to the employee experiencing poor workplace relationships and interactions (Galupo & Resnick, 2016). Microaggressions are not a minor form of discrimination, rather a more subtle, ambiguous way of expressing prejudice, though the message to the victim remains the same- “You are not accepted here” (Paludi, 2012).

Through a qualitative focus group, consisting of gay, lesbian and bisexual participants, Nadal et al. (2011) collected instances of microaggressions, with eight themes emerging from the responses- Use of heterosexist language included using derogatory terms such as “dyke” and “faggot” in comments and jokes; endorsement of heteronormative culture included being asked to embrace heteronormative styles of communication, dressing and behaviour, along with being told to hide their orientations; an assumption of universal LGB experience, i.e., heterosexual individuals making assumptions (dressing style, interests, occupation etc.) about others on the basis of their sexual orientation; exoticization, which involves being dehumanized and objectified by heterosexual individuals; experiencing discomfort or even disapproval due to one’s sexual orientation; denying the existence of heterosexist behaviours and language; assuming sexual pathology, i.e., being regarded as abnormally sexual, making connections between being gay and having HIV/AIDS, and often being viewed as sexual predators; verbal and physical threats, though not subtle, are also considered to be microaggressions that create hostile environments for members of the LGB community.

For members of the transgender community, these microaggressions are particularly difficult to deal with. Transgender individuals have to often negotiate whether or not to come out at work, due to fears of harassment and losing their job, and those who do come out, face hardships in getting co-workers, especially management, in using their chosen names and correct pronouns (Dietert & Dentice, 2009). Brewster et al. (2014) conducted qualitative interviews with 139 transgender individuals, in relation to their experience in transitioning at work. Almost all participants reported facing discrimination of varying severity, from immediately losing their job to being left out of events, being ridiculed and isolated. For some participants, the lack of legal protection led to major crises in their career, including being denied promotions and being terminated for transitioning at work. The study also revealed the problematic nature of working in gendered environments, where dress codes are enforced, leading to obstructions in their gender expression and where office space is gendered (restrooms, locker rooms), going as far as being denied entry to restrooms (Brewster et al., 2014).

What effects do these subtle discriminations have on its victims? Research shows that individuals who suffer workplace microaggressions linked to their sexual orientation experience mental health disparities, feel embarrassed and ashamed, belittled, angry and often, uncomfortable with their identity and with coming out (Nadal et al., 2011). Smith and Ingram (2004) found that a heterosexist work environment, along with unsupportive social interactions, such as minimizing experiences of heterosexism, are positively correlated to psychological distress and depression among LGB employees. Through an intersectional approach, Zurbrügg and Miner (2016) found that sexual minority women experience the highest levels of workplace incivility, in comparison to their male and heterosexual counterparts. This finding is supported by the selective incivility theory, which states that members of low-status social groups such as women, minority races, and sexual minorities, are more likely to experience uncivil behavior due to their membership in these groups (Cortina, 2008). Beyond psychological distress, Rabelo and Cortina (2014) found that higher the severity of harassment and lower the support from management, higher the job dissatisfaction, disengagement and burnout experienced by the victims.

Though it might seem that only a small percentage of the population suffers from workplace discriminatory practices, the reality is that such behavior has far reaching consequences. A World Bank report that estimates the economic costs of stigma against the LGBTQ+ community in India (Badgett, 2014) suggests that discriminatory behavior against LGBTQ+ employees leads to low productivity and output, reduced investment in human capital due to discrimination faced in education institutions and loss of output due to health outcomes of stigma such as depression. This report is supplemented by a 2011-2012 survey conducted among Indian lesbian, gay and bisexual employees working in Indian and multinational engineering, financial and software organizations, 80% of whom have reported hearing anti-gay sentiments, homophobic jokes and comments at work, and almost all of them have experienced harassment at work (MINGLE, 2011). Another survey of more than 300 Indian, white-collar LGBTQ+ employees found that 56% of these employees had experienced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation (Hewlett et al., 2013).

Researchers have investigated ways in which workplaces can be made inclusive for the queer community and non-gender conforming employees. When searching for solutions, research finds that the issue often lies with generalized statements of inclusivity that make it problematic to police specific and subtle microaggressions, such as excluding LGBTQ+ employees from social events (Galupo & Resnick, 2016). They suggest using specific language and providing examples to employees. Sawyer and Thoroughgood (2017) provide a list of practices for gender expression inclusivity in an organization, such as gender neutral dress codes and inclusive restroom policies. They also recommend greater contact between employees and the transgender community and provision of diversity training. On an organizational level, they suggest changing HR and Legal functions to make them more inclusive. An inclusive workplace is not only beneficial to the employees, but the organization as well. Research finds that in government agencies in America, LGBT employees are less likely to intend to turnover if they perceive their work environment to be inclusive, empowering and supportive (Sabharwal et al., 2019).

In India, a survey has discovered that many Indian organizations are yet to make even broad LGBTQ+ friendly policies. Of the 100 LGBTQ+ employees in the survey, working in IT, FMCG and Manufacturing and Banking and Finance industries, only 48% work at companies that have sexual orientation based non-discrimination policies and only 4% offer same-sex partner benefits. The survey recommends that organizations in India can change corporate culture though steps such as organizing Employee Resource Groups for LGBT employees and their allies, displaying visible support from senior management, sensitization training, and participation in major LGBTQ+ events, such as Pride parades, providing Corporate Social Responsibility sponsorship LGBTQ+ events and groups (MINGLE, 2016).

Microaggressions are not jokes that are misinterpreted, but serious forms of discrimination. Their subtle nature makes it easier for them to slip through the cracks, often leaving the victim wondering if an offense has actually occurred. If they do choose to respond to the microaggression, due to lack of sufficient laws protecting them, LGBTQ+ employees may suffer from retribution from colleagues, ostracization, and in severe cases, termination. On a personal level, microaggressions have a severely negative effect on the victim’s psychological well-being, and in a workplace, such effects lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and isolation, which may result in resignation from the job. Workplaces need to become more open to the diverse world we live in, if they hope to engage in and develop a productive and safe organizational environment. Engaging with and understanding the LGBTQ+ community and putting in specific legal safeguards are the first steps in making an inclusive and encouraging work environment for all employees.


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