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The "coming out" challenge: African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender professionals are trying to gain more ground in corporate America, but unchecked discrimination still exists.

SINCE THE START OF HER CAREER, Rosalyn Taylor O'Neale, 59, has always been clear about what it means to be an African American, a woman, and a lesbian in corporate America, but it has never stopped her from successfully pursuing her goals. As the vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, New Jersey, she is responsible for helping her organization create a diverse and inclusive culture around the globe, focusing not only on attracting diverse candidates but on issues around retention, development, and engagement. O'Neale believes who she is as an individual is in itself a great asset to her company. "I've learned how to see the world through someone else's perspective," she explains. "I see the world through my lens of gender, race, and sexual orientation, and I know that others do that too."

O'Neale has never denied her sexual orientation, though she admits it has cost her some jobs and consulting contracts. In 2000, prior to her position with Campbell Soup, O'Neale was conducting a cultural assessment of the employees of an outside company to develop their training and diversity initiative. The CEO was not aware of her sexual orientation. "I told him some of your lesbian and gay employees are concerned that it is not comfortable for them to come out," she recalls. "He said, 'It's not, and I'm going to ask HR for those names because I'm going to fire them.' I knew as a lesbian that I couldn't work under those circumstances." O'Neale willingly walked away from the contract.

It seems, however, that corporate behavior and response toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) professionals is changing. According to the report Corporate Equality Index, published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's LGBT civil rights organization, 305 out of 590 of the nation's top 1,000 companies, received a 100% ranking for having an inclusive work environment for LGBT employees, including General Motors Corp., AT&T Inc., IBM Corp., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., and Ford Motor Co. (all of which can be found on our 40 Best Companies for Diversity list, July 2009). Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Cardinal Health are also included on the list, which was first published in 2002, when only 13 companies received a 100% ranking.


Even with these improvements, however, advocacy groups still have extensive work to do in helping to overcome discrimination practices against this population of workers. There are currently no federal laws in place to protect against discrimination or termination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Twelve states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation only. And even with the advancements made by some corporations, Donna Payne, associate director of diversity for the HRC, believes that African American LGBT employees have even more difficult challenges that are compounded by race.

"Chief diversity officers are looking to engage more African American LGBT employees, asking them to participate in LGBT groups within their corporation because they feel they don't have a wide range of diversity in the LGBT group," explains Payne. "It's mostly the white LGBT males and sometimes females that come forward," she says.

Pro-LGBT and civil rights organizations are rallying for the passing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA), a bill that will prohibit an employee from being fired, kept from being hired, or denied a promotion based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It was reintroduced last summer after failing to get signed into law in 2007. "There needs to be an honest dialogue about how LGBTs are being treated in the workplace--in most states you can be fired just because you are perceived to be LGBT," says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP'S Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. "This bill is an unfinished component of the civil rights movement to make sure all Americans, regardless of our differences, are able to work in an atmosphere without discrimination and intimidation."

On a daily basis, there are a host of barriers and subtle discrimination practices that LGBT employees face, such as being excluded from general or specific networking opportunities and/or other company events, being restricted in their contact with clients or customers, and having no LGBT role models or leaders. The glass ceiling for LGBT employees usually results from a company's lack of education and awareness on these challenges as well as LGBT issues, such as personal inhibitions about revealing their orientation.

An employee's decision to "come out"--or not to come out--lays the foundation for the level of success they can have in an organization. A survey commissioned by the HRC found that out of 761 LGBT participants, only 25% of African Americans reveal their status on the job. For those who choose not to reveal their status, it requires an immense amount of time and effort to lie about their personal lives, resulting in depression, exhaustion, avoiding certain people and events, and staying home from work.

"When employees are free to focus on their jobs, and not on changing pronouns or hiding a part of themselves, they are better able to advance professionally," comments Selisse Berry, founder and executive director of Out 6 Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization based that advocates for safe and equal workplaces for LGBTs.

For African Americans, the tribulations they have to face are not only in the workplace but in their communities as well. "The daily experience for the African American LGBT has unique challenges and often deals with additional social pressures in the workplace. We are minorities in our community because of sexual orientation. We are minorities in the workplace because of sex, race, and gender. In the LGBT community, we are minorities because of race," which O'Neale explains, results in "isolation and loneliness." Though it is recommended that LGBTs join their company's employee resource group, even this can be challenging because the employee is forced to choose between two groups that may not fully accept them.

For an organization to create an authentic and safe environment for LGBT employees, Out & Equal offers 20 steps at http://

Berry suggests that corporate recruitment efforts must be engaging in a variety of areas such as sponsoring events that target the black LGBT community, like Black Pride events, and establishing relationships with LGBT student organizations at historically black colleges and universities. To retain LGBT employees, company leaders must offer diversity training to its entire workforce and establish strictly enforced nondiscrimination policies. They should conduct surveys that allow LGBT employees to self-identify and help companies better understand the experiences of their LGBT employees.

Berry admits that LGBT diversity training can be extremely useful and is set in the context of broader diversity issues: "They often start by describing the terminology that pertains to the LGBT community, educating about the issues that affect them, sharing stories and experiences of LGBT employees, and studying business cases about offering LGBT employees equality in the workplace."

Here are some additional findings:

99% of CEI-rated employers provide employment protections based on sexual orientation.

72% provide employment protections based on gender identity or expression; this figure has increased from 5% in 2002.

94% provide domestic partner coverage, Companies that offer domestic partner benefits have found the total financial impact is less than 1%.

83% report some form of external engagement with the LGBT community, whether through marketing, advertising, or philanthropic contributions.


Out & Equal Offers These Additional Tips for Creating a More LGBT-Friendly Environment

* Be a visible role model for LGBT workplace equality in the community.

* Include LGBT images in marketing and advertising strategies.

* Communicate routinely to all employees about how the organization supports its LGBT workforce.

* Provide leadership development experiences specifically for LGBT employees.

* Recognize same-sex couples and their families with full, equal access to all company benefits.

If you find you are a victim of discrimination at work, seek out the following groups for legal advice and support:

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (

National Center of Transgender Equality (

GayLaw: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender

Attorneys of Washington (

LambdaLegal The nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS (

National Black Justice Coalition (

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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT
Author:Hutson, Brittany
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Previous Article:Michael T. Deering.
Next Article:Uplifting the next generation: three Washington, D.C., Philanthropists reach out to local youth.

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