The Lesbian Employment Gap: Why It’s Still Hard To Be Queer In The Workplace

Last year marked a historic moment for queer people across the United States, as the Supreme Court gave same-sex couples the right to marry on the federal level in a landmark 5-4 decision. But while love might have won in 2015, LGBT Americans still have not: Queer people continue to face high rates of employment discrimination across the United States. There’s an old saying on this issue that you can get married on Saturday and get fired for having a photo of your partner on your desk on Monday. But recent research shows that many LGBT people aren’t getting hired at all.

A study from New York University found that queer women were less likely to get a call back for a job interview than their straight female counterparts. Researchers found that “LGBT indicators” on an application made female applicants 30 percent less likely to get a phone call from interested employers. The report, published last week in the Socius, came to this conclusion after sending out 1,600 resumés to 800 workplaces. Researcher Emma Mishel said that this is a constant concern for her during the hiring process: “When you look at my work history, it’s a lot of LGBT organizations, so it’s pretty obvious that I’m queer,” she told Fusion.

These findings buck conventional wisdom about lesbians in the workplace. According to a 2010 study from Industrial Relations, queer women actually earn 6 percent more than the straight women with whom they might share a cubicle. Last year, a report from Gender and Society found that the pay bump for lesbians was even higher—with lesbians outearning heterosexual women by eight percent. However, they still took home less pay than gay men, who in turn earned less than heterosexual male employees.

The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker offers some fairly compelling reasons why that might be the case. “The gay-straight wage gap is reflective of a larger trend that favors masculinity in the workplace,” Pinsker wrote. “Gay men are still out-earning straight women, and lesbians, who may be… ‘perceived as less feminine and closer to the unencumbered male ideal.’” Additional speculation suggests that queer women’s pay may benefit from higher levels of education, as well as the types of jobs they might hold. According to economist Joe Clark, lesbians are “overrepresented in male-dominated professions that pay better than female-dominated professions.”

All that might be cosmetically accurate, but it doesn’t change a greater truth: Queer women continue to be disadvantaged in an environment that often doesn’t even let them in the door. Even lesbians who might make more money than straight women are more likely to subjected to on-the-job harassment or discrimination because of their sexual orientation. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, between seven and 41 percent of LGBT employees said that they’d been “verbally or physically abused or had their workplace vandalized.” Around 1 in 6 reported being let go or denied career advancement because of their orientation.

The Advocate reported on a particularly compelling case of overt discrimination last November, after Elizabeth Koke filed a wrongful termination suit against her former employer, a feminist publishing company. Koke alleges that three years ago, she and two other-lesbian identified employees were let go from the company, which is affiliated with the City University of New York. The reason? According to the Advocate’s Elizabeth Daley, executive director Jennifer Baumgardner “took the helm of the press in 2013 and decided along with the board of directors that it was ‘too lesbian.’”

Unfortunately, these practices are perfectly legal in a majority of U.S. states. Although 22 states—as well as the District of Columbia—have laws on the books that prevent LGBT workers from being fired on the basis of their identity, that leaves workers in the other 28 states at risk for workplace discrimination. These include states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and Missouri. Even relatively “progressive” states like New Hampshire and New York only offer protection on the basis of sexual orientation, meaning trans employees aren’t covered.

To fight the widespread discrimination that LGBT workers face, the federal government must extend these benefits to all Americans. Since the legislation was introduced in 1994, activists have been fighting for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would do exactly that. Although ENDA has repeatedly stalled in Congress—despite being passed by the Senate as late as 2013—a new piece of legislation is gaining bipartisan support. Congressional Republicans Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) have offered to co-sponsor the Equality Act. The Washington Blade reports the bill “would amend the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in all areas of federal civil rights law.”

By fighting for a fairer workplace, the Equality Act stands to have an enormous impact on the LGBT community, one that will be particularly felt by transgender and queer women. Although trans women experience the country’s highest poverty rates—four times as likely as the average American to have a household income under $10,000—queer women are likewise at risk. According to the Williams Institute, 7.6 percent of lesbian couples live below the poverty line, as opposed to the 5.7 percent of heterosexual couples in poverty.

These are the exact couples that—according to the “lesbian pay bump” myth—are alleged to bringing home some serious bacon. However, queer women will continue to be disadvantaged by a society that forces them to the margins, even while they’re supposed to be getting ahead.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.