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Gay and Closeted

Vivia Chen

June 27, 2011

ClosetPeoHow gay to be gay these days. On June 24, New York legalized gay marriage, making the Empire State the sixth and largest state to do so in the nation. Since this milestone, there have been almost nonstop celebrations in the LGBT community.

There might be dancing in the streets, but you probably won't see it in the workplace. According to a new report by Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 51 percent of LGBT employees surveyed hide their sexual orientation, despite the prevalence of corporate policies that prohibit discrimination. At the same time, Slate also reports that The Center for Work/Life Policy found that "48 percent of gay Americans pretend to be heterosexual at work, and that roughly a third are leading 'double lives,' meaning that they stay in the closet while at the office but are openly gay in their personal lives."

What is going on? Why are so many LGBT employees retreating to the closet at a time when corporate America seems to be welcoming them? Here are some reasons cited in the HRC report:

Two-thirds (66 percent) of LGBT employees say that their sexual orientation is "no one's business."

51 percent say they don't want coworkers to feel uncomfortable around them.

Three out of ten closeted employees fear that coworkers or managers will think that talking about sexual orientation is unprofessional.

The report was based on information compiled from over 700 LGBT employees from a wide range of sectors, covering professionals as well as blue-collar workers. Unfortunately, the report doesn't break down answers according to respondents' occupations, so it's unclear how all this affects the legal community.

So I'll venture a guess: I doubt that this high percentage of closeted gays extend to those in the big firms and the legal departments of Fortune 500 companies.

But one intriguing part of the report is that young workers are much more closeted. (The report says only 5 percent of LGBT employees ages 18 to 24 are completely open at work.) "That really surprised me," says Deena Fidas, deputy director of workplace policy at HRC. "We've been told that this is the generation that's most comfortable with LGBT people, that they don't see sexual orientation."

Young LGBT workers might be hiding their sexuality, but does this trend apply to young lawyers as well? Is it possible that everyone is much more cautious in this tight job market?

D'Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, says she doesn't think more young lawyers are closeting themselves. Quite the contrary. She says she see more "openness" in the younger ranks, especially among "the brightest" crop of recent grads--whether they are straight or gay. Many of them, she adds, wouldn't even consider going to a firm that didn't show a progressive attitude about this type of social issue.

Readers, do you agree that young LGBT lawyers in the most elite segment of the profession tend to be open about their sexual orientation? Do you think there's still a sizable percentage of closeted lawyers in the profession?


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

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I know of one transgender lawyer at a major firm in Maryland, but boy is she closeted and for good reason.

Having been discriminated against while supposedly in the closet, then while out, I can tell you that the latter is better. You have your pride, and you have recourse to means to right the wrong.

Also, I find the connection in the article and comments being made between one's sexual preference and one's sexual activities offensive.

I did not discuss what I did in bed while straight, nor do I now discuss what I do in bed with my partner. Being able to talk about my partner and our lives together is the point, and, trust me, it involves all the activities that our straight colleagues discuss without having to lie about the gender of the partner with whom they live.

Are there any transgendered lawyers at any major law firm in the country?

Regarding younger workers staying closeted at work, I'm not surprised. They may not have a problem with it, but their bosses and co-workers, who may tend to be in the older generations, might.

I'm not surprised that at least a fair number are closeted - after all, how many people go into a serious job bragging about the threesome they and their boyfriend had over the weekend with another girl?

I can see why some LGBT professionals would keep their preferences on the down low. It makes them a minority in certain aspects. And unlike accents or skin color, it isn't a visible one, so why deal with the potential discrimination if you don't have to?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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