Being queer in the workforce: Know your rights

The Queer Resource Center concluded their second annual Queer Career Week with the presentation and discussion “Know Your Rights with Student Legal Services,” on Thursday, January 28.

Craig Leets, coordinator of the QRC, explained that while Oregon has protections around discrimination against queer and transgender people, that’s not the case everywhere, making it necessary for students to understand the issues they may face in the workforce in other areas.

“We know that there is a particular need for queer and trans folks to be thoughtful as they’re engaging in their career, the application, the interview and then working,” said Leets.

For example, a student who has volunteered with an LGBTQIA organization may need to consider how that activity listed on a resume will be perceived by potential employers and the assumptions they might make.

“What’s really hard about discrimination is that it’s hard to prove because very rarely is someone so explicitly like, ‘We’re not hiring you because you’re gay,’” said Leets. “It’s often implicit and subtle.”

April Kusters, the assistant director of Portland State Student Legal Services, opened the event by reminding attendees that PSU students have access to free legal-advice consultations.

Then she explained the current laws that address discrimination. There are 10 protected classes in Oregon, but this can differ from state to state. Federally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex. Since 2012 that category has been interpreted as including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

There are different kinds of discrimination, however, from a hostile work environment to micro-aggressions, that can require different kinds of proof in order to pursue legal action. This is why documentation is crucial.

“Documentation is your friend. Especially if you have a small thing that happened that’s not as obvious as not getting a promotion,” Kusters said. “Make sure you’re going to the right person and keeping your own journal.”

Many employers have exemptions from recognizing these civil rights based on dress code and grooming that can make work especially challenging for queer and trans people. Religious organizations are also allowed to make hiring decisions with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. This is important for students to understand when they’re applying for jobs and thinking about the kind of environment they want to work in.

Jeff Sabo, who has worked in human resources at various companies for over 20 years and was the other key speaker at the event, emphasized one specific piece of advice: Always be true to yourself.

Common advice for anyone in the job market is to not include certain identifying information, such as your age, whether you have children or your specific gender identity. But according to Sabo, this can be problematic.

“Do you eliminate it and maybe start down that path of not actually being proud of your accomplishments to get your foot in the door?” Sabo asked.

Instead, he encouraged students to ask questions and seek out employers with a culture akin to their values. If that’s not possible, he suggested effective courses of advocacy action that individuals can take within companies to nudge business culture in a more progressive direction, such as pushing for better benefits and creating supportive resources, like clubs with coworkers.

Kirsten Keith is a staff member at the QRC and a masters student of Postsecondary Adult and Continuing Education who attended the event.

“It’s really important for me to know what’s going on so I can keep my students informed,” Keith said. “I thought the practical information about how to actually function and thrive in a work environment and the legal information was good to know. Knowing how to advocate in a work culture and protect yourself in case something does come up was most useful.”

Even though the event made it clear that queer and trans people face additional obstacles in the already-stressful process of looking for a satisfying job and career, Sabo described companies that are embracing new business values. One example is Vigor, a shipbuilding and repair company in Portland.

“You go on their website and look at their values, and one of their core values is love,” said Sabo. “And you’re like, ‘Really? Love? That’s awesome! I want to work for a place that values love!’”