Monday, May 11, 2015

The Lavender Graduating Class of 2015 Lacks Legal Protection Moving Into The Workplace

College graduation season is finally here.  Students have taken their last finals, physically moving out of dorms, and transitioning mentally from being a student on campus to a professional in the workplace.  For most, this transition began months ago by attending career fairs, emailing out resumes, and interviewing.   

While this is an exciting time, it can also be an extremely stressful one.  For the thousands of graduating seniors that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), there can be an additional level of anxiety.  If they have had the good fortune of attending a college that provided a safe environment that supported being their authentic selves and exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity, then they may be at a level of personal integration on the Coleman model of queer identity formation.  In addition, they may have had the opportunity to develop as a leader on campus by holding a position within the LGBTQ campus group. 

However, the academic experience can present a false reality of LGBTQ acceptance outside of the campus environment.  Discrimination in the workplace based on an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity can materialize in various ways – from crude slurs to being overlooked for projects-- and most of the time it’s perfectly legal. 

Contrary to what many people believe, especially students, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, the predominant federal statute that prohibits discrimination in the workplace, does not make a provision to protect individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Therefore, it has been left up to municipal and state legislatures to do so.  The result has been a piece-meal approach where an individual who identifies as LGBTQ can be openly denied job opportunities, fired or otherwise discriminated against for being or suspected of being lesbian, gay, or bisexual in 29 states. 

There is a solution.  And that solution has been present for just about the same amount of time this freshly graduated job seekers have been alive.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a comprehensive piece of legislation that would prohibit employment non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all 50 states.  First presented to congress in 1994, ENDA is finally gaining traction.  In early November 2013the U.S. Senate voted 64 to 32 to pass the ENDA. All Senate Democrats joined 10 Senate Republicans to approve the bill. It then went to the House of Representatives where Speaker of the House John Boehner came out against the measure. In all likelihood, ENDA will remain stagnant in the House for some time. While the fate of ENDA is in legislative purgatory, the professional lives of graduating seniors who identify as LGBTQ cannot sit idly by. 

The responsibility falls back onto the LGBTQ job seeker.  The process of gathering information and making smart decisions based on such information will benefit the individual in the short, median, and long term.  Knowing the challenges an LGBTQ employee may face in the workplace, self-assessing the influence one’s sexual orientation and gender identity has on career decisions, going about finding LGBTQ- inclusive employers, being familiar with the geographical landscape as it pertains to where state and municipal laws against employment discrimination exist, listing LGBTQ community related affiliations on a resume, whether or not to come out at work, and what to do if discrimination occurs on the job are just a few of the areas these recent graduates need to investigate.

At this time of year many schools are supporting their LGBTQ populations by planning supplemental graduation celebrations referred to as Lavender Graduations, a tradition that is nearing its 20th year and happening at more than 60 LGBTQ-friendly campuses throughout the country. This is an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of the LGBTQ class of 2015.  It is also a time to provide tools and resources to assist these students to make smarter career decisions.  Until the legislation catches up with the public and business support for equality in the workplace no matter an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, this is the reality for the LGBTQ job seeker.

Riley Folds III is the author of Your Queer Career:  The Ultimate Career Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Job Seekers (RAB/Magnus), the only book on coming out and staying out in the workplace. Folds has more than a decade of experience in working with LGBTQ college students.  He is the founder of OUT for Work, the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating, preparing and empowering LGBTQ college students and their allies for the transition from academia to the workplace.

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