By: Nick Santangelo

Navigating the workplace and developing a successful career is a challenge for everyone. For some, however, it’s harder than it is for others—and not because they lack the necessary skills, experience or education. Landing at, staying in and advancing from a job is especially difficult for LGBTQIA people just because of their sexuality. On Tuesday, author and Princeton Professor Margot Canaday explained why that’s the case to a gathering in Gladfelter Hall’s 10th-floor CHAT Lounge.

Dr. Canaday explained that while much is known about working-class cultures, very little is known about the actual workplace. Further, there has been no shortage of LGBTQIA research, yet little is known about gay and queer work. The professor believes this has resulted in a stereotype that assumes the workplace is the provenance of the straight person, whereas “the homosexual world is one of fun and promiscuity.”

The book she’s working on will seek to dispel this notion by revealing the history of gay and queer people in the workforce. She thinks the work is important not just because almost everyone relies on working to support themselves, but also because of the relationship between people’s work and their identity.

“Asking someone what they do is analogous to asking who they are,” said Dr. Canaday. As an example, she offered up the assumptions someone might make about a man who says he is a hairdresser or a woman who says she is a mechanic. It’s common for people to draw conclusions about others’ sexuality based on their gender and occupation.

The Generational Shift

Toward the end of the 20th century, there were more openings for gay and queer people in the workplace, which was a major shift from how things were earlier in the century. But that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. There are still stigmas around and barriers preventing, say, men from being dental hygienists or women from being mechanics.

To understand how badly gay and queer people in the workplace have had it and how the situation has changed, Dr. Canaday interviewed more than a hundred members of the generation born in the 1930s that entered the labor market during the 1950s. Just as this generation was exiting the workplace, diversity was starting to become a stated value for many employers.

“They set themselves apart from the generation that came before them,” said Dr. Canaday. One man even told her he felt “the men who came before them ‘were so gay it got in the way of their work.’”

There’s a moment in the 1960s era show Mad Men when the character Don Draper gives an employee he recently discovered was gay some advice: “limit your exposure.” For many gay and queer workers of that time, this was all too necessary.

The Stigmas

Dr. Canaday interviewed one former military man who was set up by police officers in a New Orleans public bathroom. Even though he never made any physical contact, he was arrested. When the Army found out, they offered him an honorable discharge in exchange for admitting he was gay. His father then told him not to bother coming home. He moved to San Francisco where he eventually found private employment by keeping his sexuality more secretive.

That particular man was able to go from being visibly gay to being invisibly so, at least in the workplace. Many queer workers aren’t so lucky. A drag queen who was interviewed for the research project spoke of how hard it was to get an office job and how it was common for drag queens to take foot messenger positions because they could dress however they liked while performing that job. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a career that pays particularly well or has a lot of advancement opportunities.

“The queer world of work was one that was characterized as downwardly mobile,” said Dr. Canaday. Employers often viewed queers as unreliable employees because of the characterization that they’d party and travel often to take part in the queer scene. Gender variance was also seen by some opportunist employers as a way to fill out their workforce with employees they could underpay, as visibly queer individuals had few options for higher-paying jobs.

“If we did the same job as a man, why is [an employer] going to get rid of us—because we’re getting less pay than what he has to pay a man?” said one lesbian who was interviewed for the project. “Some employers were happy to have butch women doing men’s jobs and pay them less money.”

Through the ‘70s, many employers were open to hiring workers who might be gay—so long as they kept that part of their life invisible. Others instructed their HR departments to look for certain telltale signs that a job candidate could be classified under the slur “HCF” or “high-class fairy.” Men who weren’t married by 30 were often presumed to be homosexuals. For lesbians, though, being unmarried in their 30s could be something employers desired. They were seen as workers who would be more dedicated to their jobs than married women with kids would be.

Dr. Canaday noted that once a gay or queer person found work, “most found it not an easy but a navigable world.” There was absolutely a boundary between straight and queer people, but it “was hardly insurmountable,” said the professor.

“Getting by in the straight work world also meant using gay networks when they were available and when it was safe,” she continued. Gays would often hire other gays, clustering them into certain lines of work or particular organizations. But there was risk both for those inside the networks and those looking for help from them. Gay and queer networking could draw attention to either or both sides and endanger their continued employment opportunities. In one example of this, Dr. Canaday spoke of a gay man who tried to hire another gay man at his financial firm. The candidate did not get the job, while the employed man was fired.

The Bargain

And even when LGBTQIA individuals were able to separate their work and personal lives and keep their sexuality invisible enough to take advantage of what was essentially a don’t ask/don’t tell “bargain,” remember that they were underpaid. Women were underpaid because they weren’t men. Men were underpaid because they weren’t breadwinners.

“Under the terms of the bargain, then, gay employees were literally a bargain,” said Dr. Canaday. “And that helps to explain why employers were reluctant to know.”

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, however, this bargain began to lose its power. The culture moved away from secrecy and into openness at the same time the economy was taking a turn for the worst. The way candidates dressed and behaved in interviews also became a less and less reliable indicator of how they would dress and behave on the job. LGBTQIA people also found the strength to begin accusing employers of discriminating not just against flamboyantly gay and queer people, but against all gay and queer people.

“The outrage here is of a social contract being broken, and that feeling would add fuel to the revolution,” explained Dr. Canady.

And while she also believes that the most vulnerable employees are still those who are the most obviously gay or queer, she thinks legislation is needed to protect all LGBTQIA workers from discrimination. The argument against such discrimination is that there is no evidence of discrimination.

“On its face, this seems a ludicrous argument that ignores the vast number of people who were fired or not hired or were paid less because they’re gay,” said Dr. Canaday.

LGBTQIA people’s workplace struggles may have changed and lessened, but they continue nonetheless.

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