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date: 27 June 2022

LGBTQ+ Workersfree

LGBTQ+ Workersfree

  • Elizabeth K. Eger, Elizabeth K. EgerDepartment of Communication Studies, Texas State University
  • Morgan L. Litrenta, Morgan L. LitrentaDepartment of Communication Studies, Texas State University
  • Sierra R. KaneSierra R. KaneDepartment of Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  •  and Lace D. SenegalLace D. SenegalDepartment of Communication Studies, Texas State University

Summary

LGBTQ+ people face unique organizational communication dilemmas at work. In the United States, LGBTQ+ workers communicate their gender, sexuality, and other intersecting identities and experiences through complex interactions with coworkers, supervisors, customers, publics, organizations, and institutions. They also utilize specific communication strategies to navigate exclusionary policies and practices and organize for intersectional justice. Five central research themes for LGBTQ+ workers in the current literature include (a) workplace discrimination, (b) disclosure at work, (c) navigating interpersonal relationships at work, (d) inclusive and exclusive policies, and (e) intersectional work experiences and organizing.

First, the lived experiences of discrimination, exclusion, and violence in organizations, including from coworkers, managers, and customers, present a plethora of challenges from organizational entry to exit. LGBTQ+ workers face high levels of unemployment and underemployment and experience frequent microaggressions. Queer, trans, and intersex workers also experience prevalent workplace discrimination, uncertainty, and systemic barriers when attempting to use fluctuating national and state laws for workplace protections. Second, such discrimination creates unique risks that LGBTQ+ workers must navigate when it comes to disclosing their identities at work. The complexities of workplace disclosure of LGBTQ+ identities and experiences become apparent through closeting, passing, and outing communication. These three communication strategies for queer, trans, and intersex survival are often read as secretive or deceptive by heterosexual or cisgender coworkers and managers. Closeting communication may also involve concealing information about personal and family relationships at work and other identity intersections. Third, LGBTQ+ people must navigate workplace relationships, particularly with heterosexual and/or cisgender coworkers and managers and in organizations that assume cisheteronormativity. Fourth, policies structure LGBTQ+ workers’ lives, including both the positive impacts of inclusive policies and discrimination and violence via exclusionary policies. Fifth and finally, intersectionality is crucial to theorize when examining LGBTQ+ workers’ communication. It is not enough to just investigate sexuality or gender identity, as they are interwoven with race, class, disability, religion, nationality, age, and more. Important exemplars also showcase how intersectional organizing can create transformative and empowering experiences for LGBTQ+ people. By centering LGBTQ+ workers, this article examines their unique and complex organizational communication needs and proposes future research.

Subjects

  • Communication and Social Change
  • Critical/Cultural Studies
  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
  • Interpersonal Communication
  • Organizational Communication

Introduction

Communication studies and affiliated disciplines investigate the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ workers.1 As Compton (2016) has theorized, “Managing sexual identities is inherently a communicative process” (p. 416), and this article connects extensive research on communicating sexuality, gender identity, and intersectionality at work. It reviews how communication at and about work impacts identification, socialization, relationships, work-life, organizing, and health for LGBTQ+ workers. Organizations are structured on discrimination and normativity often invisible to cisgender and/or heterosexual people. This article surfaces, critiques, and resists heteronormativity, transphobia, and cissexism in organizations and their intersections with racism, ableism, colonialism, and capitalism.

McKenna-Buchanan and Baker (2016) defined heteronormativity at work as “organizations’ structures and processes [that] uphold heterosexuality as the norm, the presumed sexual orientation of their workers” (p. 309). Heteronormativity impacts organizational communication, culture, and structure. Workers who attempt to surface heteronormativity may be met with silence and dismissal, especially if coworkers and supervisors’ own communication is called into question. Calafell (2017) explained such silencing within academia as follows: “My critique of heteronormativity causes discomfort. Perhaps it hits too close to home? I sit in the silence as we move on quickly to the next agenda item” (p. 6). Heteronormativity is rendered invisible to those not experiencing its material impacts. It is “engrained” with an “overwhelming presence [that] is frequently interpreted as absence” (Fox, 2013, p. 59).

We use LeMaster’s (2017) definition of cissexism as “the systemic privileging of cisgender and cissexual— nontrans—bodies, identities, and subjectivities” (p. 129). Cissexism also structures transphobia, where violence is enacted on trans and nonbinary people. While some organizational members are learning to challenge heteronormativity, transphobia “can still be a matter of practice” (McKenna-Buchanan & Baker, 2016, p. 315). The violence of the gender binary is perpetuated in organizations that institutionalize cissexism. For example, organizations enforce “the male/female binary includ[ing] gendered restrooms, he/she pronoun usage on forms and paperwork, and the usage of legal name on office documentation such as e-mail addresses and nametags” (Resnick & Galupo, 2019, p. 1383).

Cissexism and heteronormativity coalesce together. Because of these inseparable entanglements, scholars employ the term cisheteronormativity to communicate their interconnections (see LeMaster, 2017), how they are shaped by difference (i.e., race, class, size), and the potential of the “processual unlearning of cisheteronormativity across time and space in our relational context” (LeMaster et al., 2019, p. 2).

This article investigates the structures and cultures of cisheteronormativity at work, its constraints, and resistance to its violence. It examines LGBTQ+ workers’ organizational communication and experiences by reviewing five central areas of literature: (a) workplace discrimination, (b) disclosure at work, (c) navigating interpersonal relationships at work, (d) inclusive and exclusive policies, and (e) intersectional work experiences and organizing. It ends with envisioning futures for queer, trans, and intersex workers and recommends future communication studies scholarship.

Workplace Discrimination

In the United States, “[w]orkplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) employees is commonplace” (Resnick & Galupo, 2019, p. 1380). Communication studies and related fields examine discrimination that LGBTQ+ workers face in their organizational communication. In a review of the literature, four themes emerged: (a) microaggressions, (b) worker protection laws, (c) material consequences, and (d) actions for change.

Microaggressions

There is robust interdisciplinary inquiry into microaggressions, largely in psychology and education, which predominantly focuses on racial microaggressions. Yep and Lescure (2019) reviewed microaggression research historically and in communication studies, and they proposed intersectional microaggression analyses. Interdisciplinary scholarship further examines microaggressions that LGBTQ+ people encounter at work (Galupo & Resnick, 2016; McKenna-Buchanan & Baker, 2016; Resnik & Galupo, 2019).

Galupo and Resnick (2016) theorized three forms of LGBTQ+ workplace microaggressions, including “microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations” (p. 272) following Sue et al.’s (2007) classification of microaggressions. Galupo and Resnick situated microassaults as “most closely aligned with ‘traditional’ forms of heterosexism. Referring to a colleague as a ‘fag,’ ‘dyke,’ or ‘tranny’ are examples of microassaults” (p. 272). Microinsults would be “communications that convey rudeness or insensitivity and demean a person’s identity” (p. 272), like a supervisor continuing to dismiss their queer employees’ ideas. Microinvalidations “negate or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of the marginalized group” (p. 272), such as saying “You don’t sound gay” to a coworker.

Galupo and Resnick (2016) identified these three forms of microaggressions with 100 LGBTQ+ participants through open-ended questionnaires. Their participants revealed three common organizational challenges: workplace climate, organizational structure, and workplace policy (Galupo & Resnick, 2016, p. 277). For workplace climate, participants reported communication such as purposeful misgendering, exclusion, and feeling unsafe to be out at work. Workers that were out also faced microaggressions directed at them specifically, such as one social service worker with almost an entirely queer staff serving LGBTQ+ people where others called them “the fag group” (p. 279). Similarly, employees experienced isolation and being called “gross” when coworkers found out about their queer relationships (p. 279). Here, microaggressions shaped organizational culture and communication whether or not workers shared their LGBTQ+ identities at work.

Second, Galupo and Resnick’s (2016) participants focused on organizational structure that “reflected the power dynamic inherent to the employees’ position … [and was] often experienced within an employee-supervisor or employee-client relationship” (pp. 279–280). For example, when an educator served on an LGBT commission for their university, their chancellor would say “you people” when describing queer and trans employees. When the employee complained to their diversity vice-chancellor, they suggested “we just be more understanding of the chancellor’s age and background as a wealthy white heterosexual male” (Galupo & Resnick, 2016, p. 280). This example illustrated how LGBTQ+ workers are expected to cater and submit to those emboldened by white, upper-class heteronormativity, especially in queer, trans, and intersex service roles that can be tokenizing.

Third, Galupo and Resnick (2016) identified workplace policies as a central space where microaggressions are communicated. Importantly policy absence also enabled LGBTQ+ microaggressions (Galupo & Resnick, 2016, p. 281). Stories from these participants included binary-gendered dress codes, disclosing trans surgery history in violation of HIPAA in front of coworkers, and domestic partnerships from another state not being recognized by their employer. One participant critiqued the structural barriers of name changes; when they took their required documentation to IT to change their email, the cisgender IT worker “told me that he wouldn’t be allowed to change his name to Batman (a fictional cartoon character), so I shouldn’t expect him to change my legal name to my real name” (p. 282). Here, even when policies were in place, other employees communicated microaggressions and violated inclusive policies (see also Patterson and Hsu’s [2020] discussion of digital personhood). Even with so-called inclusive policies, LGBTQ+ people risk workplace discrimination, especially when microaggressions “may not be covered under conventional non-discrimination policies” (Galupo & Resnick, 2016, p. 273). Policies will be examined in more depth below in the section “Inclusive and Exclusive Policies.”

In communication studies, McKenna-Buchanan and Baker (2016) theorized “how four LGB/TQ-based microaggressions (endorsement, heterosexism, exoticization, and denial) are communicated in the workplace” (p. 307) using vignettes. First, they identified endorsement when employees conformed to cisgender normativity for their own safety (p. 308). Because of past cissexist violence, trans and nonbinary people may use endorsement to try to stay safer at work. Second, heterosexism occurred when people use language that demeans LGBTQ+ workers’ experiences. In this vignette, co-workers discussed the use of homophobic language on their softball team including “sissy,” “that’s so gay,” and “no homo” (p. 310). McKenna-Buchanan and Baker addressed how such language was dismissed as “unintentional.” Yet:

Even if it is not intended, heterosexist language still communicates the message that “heterosexuality is normal” and that it is okay to talk negatively about LGB/TQ sexualities. Heterosexist language is a difficult microaggression to combat because sexual orientation/identity is not always readily apparent, it is (in)visible. (p. 311)

The third microaggression was exoticization, and the vignette introduced a supervisor dismissing an employee’s bisexuality, sexualizing her by taking her to a strip club, and calling bisexuality “a phase.” Fourth, McKenna-Buchanan and Baker presented denial where employees’ identities were silenced or ignored in practices and policies. The vignette focused on a narrative of a trans man who was pregnant and how the company had “inclusive” policies about sexuality but nothing about gender identity to support the man’s experiences. Because of this, he experienced “a denial of both societal and individual transphobia … gender identity is absent from the conversation. This denial communicates transphobia through the absence of recognition” (McKenna-Buchanan & Baker, 2016, p. 315).

While the literature labels such communication as microaggressions, Calafell argued that queer people of color face them as, “Micro attacks. Macro assaults” (2017, p. 6). Similarly, Yep and Lescure’s (2019) thick intersectional (TI) microaggression communication theory connects the micro and macro. They explained the importance of TI to “confront relations of power in a culture. Microaggressions not only create and maintain social inequalities but such inequalities continue to fuel microaggressions in a seemingly endless feedback loop” (p. 122). As researchers study microaggressions, they should address how communication framed as “micro” has continuous, systemic violent impacts on queer, trans, and intersex workers, especially workers experiencing attacks from intersections of race, ethnicity, disability, class, and more. Treating any microaggressions as only focused on one category of identity misses overlapping discrimination (Yep & Lescure, 2019). Yep and Lescure (2019) also cautioned researchers from creating a new violence of the “homogenization of identities and symbolic erasure of individual experiences—while attempting to understand and mitigate their effects” (pp. 115–116). In other words, essentializing and grouping shared identity experiences can create new violence. Like everyday microaggressions, workplace discrimination is also structured through worker protection laws and their inconsistent enactment.

Worker Protection Laws

Complicated state and federal worker protection laws continue to permit discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ workers. While some states offer protections around sexual orientation and/or gender identity, many allow for the firing of and discrimination against queer, trans, and intersex workers. When no policy exists at state or organizational levels, “the choice to report discrimination to a supervisor or to Human Resources becomes a difficult and uncertain one. The organization could dismiss the claims entirely or they could choose to fire the employee because of the conflict the employee’s claims articulated, both of which would be legal” (Resnick & Galupo, 2019, p. 1382).

The role of federal protections continues to be precarious and at the whim of politics and new rulings, elections, and administrators. Resnick and Galupo (2019) reviewed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruling during Obama’s administration for the illegality of sexual orientation discrimination. Then, Trump reversed this ruling where:

In addition to placing LGBT employees in a vulnerable position within the workplace, the message from the [Trump] administration is one that implies that LGBT people do not deserve the same protections as other Americans and are valued less than heterosexual and cisgender employees. (p. 1382)

Since the publication of Resnick and Galupo’s (2019) essay, two primary national impacts on employee protections were reversed again with a Supreme Court ruling and President Biden’s executive order. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court announced their ruling on R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to protect transgender and queer employees from discriminatory firing. The plaintiff, Aimee Stephens, was fired from R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes after disclosing she was a transgender woman (ACLU, 2020). “In March of 2018, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Aimee was unlawfully fired and that federal sex discrimination laws protect transgender people” (ACLU, 2020). Tragically, Aimee died before her case was won from kidney failure after losing her health insurance. Firing workers for their LGBTQ+ identities was deemed unlawful with the Supreme Court ruling.

Additionally, in an executive order signed the first day of his presidency, Biden reversed Trump’s reversal of the EEOC ruling under Obama’s inclusion of sexuality and gender identity in workplace protections. Biden’s order (Exec. Order No. 13988, 2021) stated, “Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.” His executive order also addressed intersections of discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face, including a specific section on violence against Black transgender people. The order pledged:

It is the policy of my Administration to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and to fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. It is also the policy of my Administration to address overlapping forms of discrimination.

How the Supreme Court ruling and the Biden executive order will be enforced in practice—especially in states, regions, and organizations that are writing bills to attack queer, trans, and intersex people—remains to be seen and is an important need area for scholarship and activism. Protections for LGBTQ+ workers remain precarious and at the whim of politicians’ decision-making, organizational practices, and societal injustice. Reports such as the Movement Advancement Project and peer organizations’ A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color (2013) (hereafter A Broken Bargain) presented recommendations for federal and state policy, especially for LGBTQ+ workers of color and immigrant workers (A further discussion is provided in section “Material Consequences”).

Additionally, utilizing workplace discrimination laws creates enormous burdens on LGBTQ+ people to prove discrimination for organizations and courts alike, which is costly and assumes educational, class, and citizenship privilege to navigate legal proceedings. This is complicated by unequal understandings of workplace discrimination when it is enacted in organizations, creating departing narratives of “what happened.” For example, new research from the Williams Institute illustrates how cisgender and heterosexual employees perceive LGBTQ+ discrimination differently than LGBTQ+ employees across public and private sectors (Sears et al., 2021). Sears et al. (2021) surveyed over 2200 people across states and sectors in 2019 and found that “LGBT employees (53%) are twice as likely to feel that LGBTQ people are treated worse across the nation than non-LGBT employees (23%)” (p. 2). This is despite the fact that more than “45% of all employees (both LGBT and non-LGBT) report hearing anti-LGBT remarks in the workplace across employer types” (p. 2). Religious institutions can also buttress dangerous rhetoric, as “27.3% of Americans believe that employers should have the right to fire an LGBTQ employee based on a religious objection” (Sears et al., 2021, p. 8). Such laws, difficulties tracking and proving injustice, and uncertain legal futures are just one piece of the material impacts LGBTQ+ workers face.

Material Consequences

LGBTQ+ workers face employment discrimination and violence from job searching to hiring to promotion to exit. This results in material consequences impacting people’s lives including unemployment, underemployment, discrimination, firing, violence, housing, and healthcare. Trans and nonbinary workers face disparate material consequences of discrimination (Eger, 2018; James et al., 2016; LeMaster, 2015).

McFadden and Crowley-Henry (2016) reviewed 30 articles on literature about trans people’s organizational experiences in Western countries (25 in the United States) across the work timeline. They identified challenges of job searching for transgender workers to “fully show their experience and skills built up during their career, a person may have to disclose their trans* status to the potential employer, running the risk of discrimination and stigma, and ruling out the possibility of a completely fresh start in their new gender expression” (McFadden & Crowley-Henry, 2016, pp. 14–15). Eger (2018) examined job-seeking communication of trans and nonbinary workers in the southwestern United States. Participant “Brooks (a White transman in his 40s) explained, ‘We see people look for jobs for 3–4 years, and they tell us that they’ve seen people throw out their application when they leave because they are trans people of color’” (p. 278). Similarly, LeMaster wrote about their partner (a transgender woman’s) job application process with zero interview call backs:

(1)

Approach the counter

(2)

Ask for a manager

(3)

Submit job application to the manager

(4)

Exude confidence as the manager and employees giggle and point

(5)

Perform poise as the manager:

a)

Throws the application, and your labor, away

b)

Tears the job application up, and/or

c)

Claims to file the application in a filing cabinet (that doesn’t exist)

d)

Repeat. (2015, p. 85)

Unemployment and underemployment becomes normative for many trans and nonbinary workers facing immediate transphobia and violent erasure in hiring.

The most comprehensive research on trans, Two-Spirit, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming workers comes from the National Center for Transgender Equity’s U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), a nationally representative survey of over 27,000 respondents (James et al., 2016). The USTS documents immense intersectional injustice against trans and nonbinary workers, especially workers of color, workers with disabilities, and immigrant workers. The unemployment rate for USTS respondents was:

15%, three times the U.S. unemployment rate at the time of the survey (5%). Nearly one-half (49%) of undocumented residents were unemployed. The unemployment rate was also higher among people with disabilities (24%) and people of color, with Middle Eastern (35%), American Indian (23%), multiracial (22%), Latino/a (21%), and Black (20%) respondents being more likely to be unemployed.

In addition to disproportionately high unemployment, trans and nonbinary (sometimes referred to as enby) workers experienced firing, discrimination, and violence when employed. “One in six (16%) respondents who have been employed reported that they had lost a job because of their gender identity or expression” (James et al., 2016, p. 149). This was complicated by race and other intersections, as “American Indian (21%), multiracial (18%), and Black (17%) respondents were more likely than the overall sample to have lost a job because of their gender identity or expression” (p. 150).

Additionally, 30% of participants reported mistreatment, discrimination, and violence at work in the last year (p. 148), including 15% experiencing verbal, physical, or sexual assault at work due to “gender identity or expression” (p. 148). Because of this incredible violence, “more than three-quarters (77%) of respondents who had a job in the past year took steps to avoid mistreatment in the workplace, such as hiding or delaying their gender transition or quitting their job” (James et al., 2016, p. 148). Systemic unemployment, underemployment, and discrimination compounds for trans and nonbinary people impacting their access to safe housing, healthcare, and other social services tied to employment.

Relatedly, A Broken Bargain (Movement Advancement Project et al., 2013) presented the overlapping systemic barriers that United States LGBTQ+ workers of color face. The report identified core problems of: (a) educational barriers, (b) hiring bias and on-the-job discrimination, and (c) unequal pay, benefits, and taxation (p. 7). They reviewed extensive literature and public reports across national studies and surveys. They combined multiple studies that showed “between 75–82% of API LGBT people said they had been discriminated against at work because of their sexual orientation. Surveys of Black LGBT people put rates of employment discrimination closer to 50%” (p. 29; see A Broken Bargain references for more statistics). Such discrimination heightened poverty, especially as people of color in same-sex relationships experienced disproportionate poverty. For example, “Black men in same-sex couples are more than six times more likely to be poor than white men in same-sex couples (19% vs. 3%); and black women in same-sex couples are more than three times more likely to be poor than white women in same-sex couples (18% vs. 6%)” (p. 5).

A Broken Bargain also presented the experiences of undocumented LGBTQ+ people, many of whom are people of color. They explained:

Many undocumented workers have few options aside from minimum-wage jobs and jobs that do not provide any benefits. They may be afraid to speak up when they see or experience legal violations, such as unsafe working conditions or unfair wages, out of fear of being deported. (p. 37)

In summary, workers living at the intersections of undocumented, immigrant, queer, and trans identities encounter immense, material systemic violence.

Actions for Change

Because of the violence of microaggressions, legal complexities, and material consequences, scholars have recommended some actions for change to combat workplace discrimination. After examining LGBTQ+ microaggressions, McKenna-Buchanan and Baker (2016) offered four practices to enact immediate change, which can be linked to other researchers’ practical recommendations. First, because of cisheteronormativity and cissexism at work, organizations need to rethink the roles and purposes of dress codes. As Resnick and Galupo (2019) explained that “adhering to a formal or informal dress code according to assigned sex is an example of behavior that is supported by the dominant group and endorses cisnormative behavior” (p. 1382). McKenna-Buchanan and Baker suggest that both leaders and human resource (HR) professionals should open dress codes to “give employees space to dress in the ways that are most comfortable to them” (2016, p. 316). The openness of dress codes should be written in policy, enacted in practice, and supported in casual conversations from supervisors and mentors. They recommended that employees “look at the current dress code and create recommendations for how it can be amended to create a more affirming and comfortable workplace. Gather the support of your peers (e.g., petition, survey, etc.) and present your recommendations to the leadership” (McKenna-Buchanan & Baker, 2016, p. 316).

In addition to occupations with specific dress codes, many occupations use binary norms of “professionalism” and “professional dress” to limit queer, trans, and nonbinary workers’ dress and embodiment. This shows up in “dress for success” discourses where Leslie (2020) argued, “the weight of it falls most heavily on bodies deemed by race, size, gender, and gender expression to be Other” (2020, p. 133). Similarly, Patterson and Hsu’s (2020) exemplars visualized how nonbinary workers are disciplined through professionalism in job-seeking and at work. They suggested using “undressing” as heuristic to strip “away the language of decorum and respectability in which discriminatory patterns are often enshrouded” (Patterson & Hsu, 2020, pp. 108–109). Thus, in addition to specific dress code changes, disrupting professionalism communication and professional dress norms is integral for LGBTQ+ people to experience comfort in their bodies at work.

Returning to McKenna-Buchanan and Baker (2016), their second recommendation is to create awareness and corrections for “heterosexist and transphobic terminology” in microaggressions, which included avoiding derogatory language like “that’s so gay” and also using inclusive language like “partner” when referring to all romantic relationships or using “they” pronouns. Implementing language changes and training on inclusive communication can therefore disrupt cisheteronormative microaggressions. Their third recommendation is to avoid asking “prying questions” of LGBTQ+ workers (p. 316) and avoiding assuming someone’s sexuality. As an example, bisexual, pansexual, aromantic, asexual, or queer employees may be presumed heterosexual because of their current romantic or sexual relationship(s) and/or not being in relationship(s). Thus, avoiding assumptions and invasive questioning are integral communication practices for preventing workplace discrimination. Fourth, McKenna-Buchanan and Baker remind us we cannot deny structures of exclusion, as:

We live in a society that privileges heterosexuality and cisgender identities. It is up to us to be aware of these structures and, through our communicative actions, seek to tear down these divisions and create the policies and practices that provide space for diverse sexualities and genders in the workplace and in society. (2016, p. 317).

Therefore, even in organizations that attempt to avoid LGBTQ+ discrimination in their structures and cultures, there is always work to do to sustain inclusion.

Other research identified further best practices of honoring personal pasts and privacy (McFadden & Crowley-Henry, 2016) and gathering data for change (Resnick & Galupo, 2019). For trans and nonbinary workers, HR professionals play an important role in recognizing workers’ personal pasts and protecting them from disclosure if they do not choose to communicate about their gender identity at work. McFadden and Crowley-Henry (2016) called for HR professionals to understand how trans workers’ resumes and references may use former names, and for them to use gender affirming dialogue with trans workers. For example, in checking references, HR professionals should ask “the candidate if their referees know them by a different name, in case they inadvertently ‘out’ them, harming interpersonal relations and the candidate’s career capital” (p. 20).

Moreover, to combat workplace discrimination, organizations should gather data to understand LGBTQ+ workers’ experiences. While organizations may claim to be inclusive, workers’ actual experiences must be collected and understood. Resnick and Galupo (2019) created scales to measure three common microaggressions against LGBTQ+ workers: (a) workplace values (or how the culture impacted their experiences), (b) heteronormative assumptions (such as asking workers to speak on behalf of all queer or trans people), and (c) cisnormative culture (Resnick & Galupo, 2019, pp. 1394–1395). They argue that “assessing microaggressions will allow employers to develop targeted trainings and interventions to increase productivity and job satisfaction in relation to workplace values, heteronormative assumptions, and cisnormative culture” (p. 1397). Taking time to gather employees’ experiences, is only a first step toward increasing inclusion. Organizations should then implement regular microaggressions trainings, like sexual harassment trainings. They also encourage missions, values, and visions that include “pluralistic, trans, and genderfluid identities” (p. 1397) and everyone using pronouns in emails and on nametags (p. 1398). Given the extensive experiences of workplace discrimination, this creates communication challenges for workers considering disclosing sexuality and/or gender identities at work.

Disclosure at Work

Communication studies researchers address the complexities of workplace disclosure of LGBTQ+ identities, including through closeting, passing, and outing communication. Workplace identity disclosures are challenging and uncertain to navigate. Compton and Dougherty (2017) showcased how sexuality norms and normativity impact being silenced or silencing oneself as organizational communication processes (p. 890). As scholars theorize communication disclosure at work, they must be careful to avoid blaming individuals for how or if they communicate their identities but instead critique “systems and institutions that performatively discipline all bodies, identities, and subjectivities to acquiesce to normative formations” (LeMaster, 2017, p. 129). Thus, LGBTQ+ workers engage in potential disclosure(s) that inform others of their sexuality and gender identities via communication through: (a) closeting, (b) passing, (c) outing, and (d) navigating disclosure complexities at work.

Closeting

Queer and trans research uses the closet metaphor to communicate about concealing LGBTQ+ identities, thus avoiding identity disclosure. This metaphor visualizes the process of workers navigating safety from potential physical violence, discrimination, and/or stigma associated with communicating their queer, trans, and intersex identities, experiences, and politics. Closeting is sometimes seen by organizational members as intentionally deceptive and negative, potentially originating from the Western phrase of shameful or embarrassing “skeletons in the closet” and connecting back to historical events of gay rights organizing using such phrases (Cox, 2019). The closet has been expanded as a metaphor to examine other intersections of difference and disclosure in organizational communication (Dixon, 2018; Eger, 2018; Ferguson, 2018; Harris & McDonald, 2018; McDonald et al., 2020).

Cox theorizes a “working closet” to understand LGBTQ+ workers’ closeting communication. Working closets function when workers “either by choice or by situational exigency, conceal or volunteer (even partially) their sexual orientation, thereby remaining disjointed and fractured in their identities … [W]orking closets enable LGBT professionals to negotiate, challenge, and disrupt dominant discourses” (Cox, 2019, p. 4). Their fragmentation ties to working closets as articulations because “closets might be needed one moment and not be needed (in nearly identical situations) later” (Cox, 2019, p. 5). The closet at work is therefore theorized as complex and ongoing identity management rather than a one-time occurrence (see Dixon, 2013; Eger, 2018). Eger frames closeting communication at work as “an ongoing communication process where individuals continuously navigate potential disclosures of their identities” (2018, p. 276). Closeting for LGBTQ+ workers, then, is always ongoing and navigated differently in new relationships, organizations, and conversations.

Closeting communication may also involve concealing information about personal and family relationships at work. In past organizational communication research, Hoffman and Cowan (2008) examined how work–life balance operates within corporate settings to privilege nuclear families. The authors concluded that a core theme heavily emphasized “life means family,” and “work is the most important element of life” (Hoffman & Cowan, 2008, p. 233). The symbolic representation of a nuclear family at work is a key component for workers to connect and identify with others and work itself. Additionally, Dixon (2018) explained that employees navigate the recognizability of their family in their organizational cultures unfamiliar with families beyond “straight couple with children;” here closeting may be preferred to the processes where “one is not simply attempting to communicate family into being, but arguing that said family is just as worthy of regard as any more widely recognizable family structure” (p. 273). The lack of a visible family can exclude all single and nonnormative family dynamics, especially for those LGBTQ+ individuals that are not comprised of two heterosexual partners. Therefore, the closet is both a space and process for LGBTQ+ workers navigating their disclosure(s) and protecting themselves, which can require hyper-awareness and hyper-vigilance. Other workers may also pass as cisgender and/or heterosexual at work.

Passing

Passing is one of the earliest LGBTQ+ organizational communication practices researched in communication studies. Passing is best understood as “how one conceals normal information about oneself to preserve, sustain, and encourage others’ predisposed assumptions about one’s identity … [with] emphasis … [on] the word normal” (Spradlin, 1998, p. 598). Spradlin’s (1998) essay was also one of the first to examine lesbian workers’ organizational communication. She emphasized how the labor of passing forces “suppression of normal exchanges of information … [and] is an oppressive task that requires constant and careful attention by self-monitoring conversations and behaviors” (pp. 598–599). Her analysis linked passing to United States institutional reinforcement of “don’t ask, don’t tell policies in civilian work environments” (Spradlin, 1998, p. 598). Spradlin presented six passing strategies: distancing (avoiding personal information routinely during informal everyday conversations), dodging (shifting and avoiding topics to prevent identity disclosure), dissociating (rejecting queer associations and attempting to present as heterosexual), distracting (using ambiguous messages that confuse the determination of sexual identity), denial (utilizing ambiguous lack of confirmation), and deceiving (intentionally presenting as heteronormative). Similar to closeting, passing can also be perceived as a deceptive tactic by others at work.

Internationally, Mitra and Doctor (2016) more recently examined passing in corporations through experiences of 14 gay men in India. They utilized a constant comparative approach that found distanciation (distancing oneself from work culture and socialization), concealment (performing within heteronormative expectations), reframing (emphasizing their other attributes that cannot be stigmatized to quiet questions about their queer sexuality), appropriating lesser stigmas (using other aspects of life to remove or minimize discussions of queerness and explain behavior), and partitioning (strategically communicating queer identity to certain groups) as passing strategies used by gay men in India.

Additionally, closeting and passing complicate the politics of visibility, questions who gets to be (or wants to be) visible at work, and the safety of that visibility. The ideas of closeting and passing are framed in whiteness and can erase experiences of some queer and trans people of color (QTPOC), such as Black men who have sex with men on the DL, or “down-low,” who sustain public heterosexual relationships (McCune, 2014). While LGBTQ+ workers navigate closeting and passing, some choose to disclose their LGBTQ+ identities by “coming out” at work. Others face forced disclosure when another organizational member “outs” them.

Outing

Outing traditionally refers to the consensual or nonconsensual identity disclosure from oneself or others. Outing makes LGBTQ+ identities readily visible when workers are “out of the closet” when considering the working closet metaphor. Like closeting and passing, outing is navigated across organizational contexts, times, and relationships. Outing is never finished as a process for LGBTQ+ employees.

Coming out at work involves strategic organizational communication. McKenna-Buchanan et al. (2015) investigated how lesbian, gay, and queer teachers strategically navigated complex interworking between “cultural, gender, contextual, risk-benefit, and motivational criteria to decide whether to reveal or conceal their sexual orientation” (p. 294). Their research theorized coming out via communication privacy management theory. Furthermore, faculty may make decisions about being out in the classroom in relationship to students’ perceptions. Boren and McPherson (2018) replicated a previous 2002 study where students perceived lower credibility and reported learning less from gay teachers. In contrast, Boren and McPherson’s (2018) research conducted at a new location 15 years later no longer matched these original findings. Instead “students rated the gay instructor as higher in the credibility dimension of goodwill/caring than the straight instructor” (p. 247), and there were no cognitive or affective learning differences. The authors suggest these changes as likely connected to activism and legal protective rights for queer people within the United States, such as legalized gay marriage, especially as their study was based in a more progressive region. Thus, understanding the politics of being out in the classroom and LGBTQ+ teachers’ strategic communication with students should be researched in the future across regions and institutional types and include other intersecting identities.

Furthermore, queer workers use delicate maneuvering when outing themselves (or not) with other organizational members. Cox (2019) presented code-switching as a tactic for managing how “the working closet exists in myriad moments, places, and situations” (p. 6). Through code-switching, LGBTQ+ workers can intentionally disclose or hide their identities with others. Additionally, Greene’s (2009) disclosure-decision-making model theorized the intersection of disclosure and nondisclosure specifically regarding medical diagnoses typically associated with stigma. Greene’s research points to how queer, trans, and intersex workers may contemplate disclosure or nondisclosure and the effects on personal relationships.

Finally, people may be out in some contexts but not others in their lives and work. For example, Capous-Desyllas and Loy’s (2020) trans sex worker participants navigated if they were out about their trans identities in their sex work and also if they were out about their sex work in their personal lives. Outing can also include intentional disclosure from others about queer, trans, or intersex workers’ identities without their consent. Such nonconsensual outing forcibly removes working closet protections. Thus, as Eger (2018) argued, “we need additional inquiry into closeting communication, consent, and outing” (p. 280). Consent is just one example of navigating disclosure complexities.

Navigating Disclosure Complexities

Overall, LGBTQ+ individuals experience diverse challenges with identity navigation at work amidst cisheteronormative organizational expectations. Researchers suggest that the strategies that workers utilize will alter depending on context and identity perceptions. For example, lesbians navigated their identities differently through passing strategies that typically led to negative organizational and individual impacts by their rejecting heteronormativity and suffering from patriarchal expectations (Spradlin, 1998). Horan and Chory (2013) showed that gay men involved in work relationships are seen as more competent and caring compared to their female counterparts. Despite this, gay men still must engage in identity management. By rejecting hegemonic masculinity by not dating women, gay men may be constructed by others at work to be effeminate, including by other gay men. Eguchi (2009) referred to this as sissyphobia, where gay men find “non-masculine” men unattractive, in response to aiming to achieve ideal hegemonic masculinity and to shield their queer identities. Specifically, gay men were sometimes “not considered masculine enough because they break the boundary of heteronormativity-heterosexuality as normal. Thus, society pressures gay men to negotiate who they are according to hegemonic masculinity to compensate for their same-sex preference” (Eguchi, 2009, p. 194). Because of the ways hegemonic masculinity is rewarded in all institutions, gay, queer, bisexual, and trans men may face exclusion as they consider disclosing identities and for how they perform masculinity at work.

Bisexual individuals navigate their sexuality differently compared to lesbian and gay workers, despite sharing experiences of workplace discrimination. Some research showed lower rates of tolerance and stability perceived for bisexual workers compared to gay or lesbian workers (Arena & Jones, 2017). Arena and Jones (2017) identified bisexual identity disclosure as a unique process because “bisexual employees are less open about their sexual orientation at work and are less likely to disclose their sexual orientation at work as compared to gay or lesbian employees” (p. 94). They theorized that this difference occurred in response to potential bisexual stigma and/or discrimination. Additionally, job applicants who disclosed their bisexual identity were given lower entry salary rates compared to gay applicants (Arena & Jones, 2017). Bisexual women also faced unique challenges as they communicated nuanced and indirect identity disclosures (Helens-Hart, 2017).

Transgender and nonbinary workers encountered compounding oppressions with disclosure at work, especially trans and nonbinary people of color, trans sex workers, and those who were outed by others (Eger, 2018). As theorized with workplace discrimination above, many trans and nonbinary people choose to closet their trans identities at work for their safety (James et al., 2016). Stealth is a unique “transgender vernacular term sometimes used to signify not disclosing transition” (Eger, 2018, p. 277) that allows transgender workers to navigate the potential policies, practices, and communication that can target them. Like closeting, living stealth can include the possibility of nonconsensual outings by managers or coworkers. Eger’s ethnographic research revealed how trans and nonbinary people:

frequently processed job-seeking ambiguity and retrospectively questioned their closeting communication challenges, especially through possible “outing” of their identities without their consent, including potential employers reading their bodies and/or speech in interviews, background checks revealing former names, and having inconsistent gender markers on identification documents. (2018, p. 278)

Participants in Eger’s research surfaced issues of consent when it came to closeting, passing, and outing, and how texts, work histories, and others outed jobseekers’ gender identity without their knowledge or permission. Additionally, the USTS surveyed trans and nonbinary workers who concealed their genders to protect themselves from discrimination, especially across intersectional identities for respondents “who were living in poverty (82%), non-binary respondents (81%), and people with disabilities (81%) were more likely to take … steps to avoid discrimination” (James et al., 2016, p. 154), such as delaying gender transition and avoiding asking for their pronouns to be used.

Communication studies scholarship has rarely, and in some cases never, specifically researched queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromantic, demisexual, polyamorous, pansexual, Two-Spirit, and other identity disclosures at work. Further research is needed to examine both the breadth and depth of LGBTQ+ work disclosures. All LGBTQ+ workers have unique experiences not only within but also across their identities. Intersectionality impacts disclosure complexities, and one worker’s disclosure communication is not a blanket experience for all queer, trans, or intersex workers.

Disclosure and privacy are complicated by how identities and experiences are compounding and inseparable for workers. For example, “transgender jobseekers’ closeting communication involves multiple identities interacting” (Eger, 2018, p. 279), such as people sharing their trans identities at work but closeting their incarceration histories or homelessness. Closeting communication as theorized by Eger is transformed from a “container for simply concealing gender identity into an intersectional process where individuals navigate communication of their diverse, overlapping identities” (p. 280). Also, queer women may avoid coming out because of their “minority sexual identities” as both women and queer (Helens-Hart, 2017); thus, queer women utilized indirect messages and strategic ambiguity because of the intersections of their gender and sexuality. Research illustrates that workers with compounding experiences of marginalization face more risks with their identity (non)disclosure(s). Because closeting and disclosure are intersectional processes, workers’ unique, overlapping experiences of privilege and oppression may shape their willingness to share themselves at work, including in workplace relationships.

Navigating Interpersonal Relationships at Work

Scholars examine how LGBTQ+ people negotiate workplace relationships, in particular with heterosexual and/or cisgender coworkers and managers and in organizations that assume cisheteronormativity. Looking at micro discourses and relationships among coworkers, supervisors, and workplace romantic relationships between employees is important because microaggressions are co-created through discourses that highlight homophobia and anti-queer ideologies (Chevrette & Eguchi, 2020, p. 56). Dixon (2013) theorized the challenges and uncertainty LGBTQ+ workers face where “determining relationships can be a daunting task” (p. 69). This section illustrates how (a) cisheteronormativity structures work relationships and (b) how workers communicate their LGBTQ+ identities in interpersonal work relationships.

Cisheteronormativity Structures Work Relationships

Chevrette and Eguchi (2020) outlined how heteronormativity functions as a “structural force” that “continues to organize the ideological, institutional and everyday interaction and relational contexts in which LGBTQ people are positioned” (p. 55). They described the insidious nature of heteronormativity through a logic of colorblindness that allows individuals to “not see LGBTQ differences,” which inherently reproduces cisheteronormativity in relationships (Chevrette & Eguchi, 2020, p. 55). Furthermore, McKenna-Buchanan (2017) theorized organizations as visible sites saturated with gendered and sexualized scripts, such as expecting cisgender, heterosexual, and monogamous partnerships.

Communicating about family and romantic relationships can both build workplace relationships and reinscribe cisheteronormativity. Dixon’s (2013, 2015, 2018) extensive research illustrates how communication about work-life and family is a primary organizational socialization experience shaped by sexuality, gender identity, and heteronormativity. This included communicating diverse family structures (Dixon, 2018) and how work-family policy is organized “around the compulsory traditional family” (Dixon & Dougherty, 2014, p. 11). Dixon and Dougherty (2014) interviewed 60 participants to understand how family policies are communicated and implemented in organizations to reinforce heteronormative familial structures and make queer workers invisible. This mirrors Hoffman and Cowan’s (2008) earlier research that found strong correlations between the concept of life and family. When work and family are seen as one, the lack of the latter—a traditional heterosexual family—can lead to the closeting techniques (discussed in the “Closeting” section) that protect LGBTQ+ individuals from negative perceptions and discrimination by their coworkers, superiors, and organizations. Organizational cisheteronormativity, then, is structured into policies and practices that in turn shape workplace interpersonal relationships.

Communicating LGBTQ+ Identities in Interpersonal Work Relationships

Although LGBTQ+ workers navigate disclosure frequently during working hours (as reviewed in the “Closeting” section), managing disclosure often occurs in other spaces, such as mandatory work events and socializing outside of work (Dixon, 2013). Communication can comprise partner identification, relationship status, and normative conceptions of what to communicate in social functions with colleagues (Dixon, 2013). For example, coworkers commonly communicate about marriage at work. Although legally LGBTQ+ people can marry in the United States since 2015, “this does not undo the cissexist and heterosexist values the institution upholds” (Chevrette & Eguchi, 2020, p. 56). Communicating informally to build personal relationships at work, then, may require navigating not only decision-making about disclosure but also coworkers’ or supervisors’ judgments.

If coworkers and superiors disclose queer or trans identities, other LGBTQ+ workers may feel more inclined to be out as well (Dixon & Dougherty, 2014). Additionally, coworker conversations impact experiences of LGBTQ+ inclusion and exclusion (Compton, 2016) and interpersonal relational risk upon disclosing sexuality and gender identity (Helens-Hart, 2017). Compton (2016) utilized the communication theory of identity (CTI) to analyze how micro discourses, such as communication with coworkers and supervisors, impacted the construction of sexuality in organizations. In 20 interviews with gay or lesbian people, Compton’s (2016) participants framed coworker conversations as spaces where workers could feel comfortable with their sexuality at work. Dixon (2013) found that while all LGBTQ+ workers with same-sex partners experienced anxiety, there were also participants who brought their partners to social events after “seeing one or more coworkers or boss communicate sexual orientation without (negative) consequence” (p. 67).

Just as coworkers can build inclusive workplaces, they can create exclusionary cultures. Galupo and Resnick’s (2016) participants:

described their coworkers and supervisors misgendering them, tokenizing/exoticizing their identities, using derogatory language when referring to members of LGBT communities in general, not acknowledging the relationships and families of LGBT employees, and excluding LGBT employees from the social environment within the workplace. (pp. 277–278)

Similarly, a USTS trans respondent shared the devastating impact of coworker communication where “coworkers felt they had the right to disrespect me because the owners set the tone. I became a spectacle in my own workplace” (James et al., 2016, p. 151). Because of discrimination and violence in organizational communication, 42% of trans and nonbinary respondents did not tell their coworkers about their gender identity, and 49% did not tell their supervisors (p. 51).

Likewise, Jones (2020) discussed how trans workers often face hostile communication from coworkers and supervisors after disclosing their gender identity. Trans participants also noted that if they more frequently interacted with coworkers or customers due to their occupation, their “risk of being misgendered or otherwise discriminated against are exponential and the consequences are infinite” (Jones, 2020, p. 267). Colleagues’ unwillingness to respect them impacted not only possible personal relationships but also professional interactions. For example, participant Lana shared that “when two co-workers refused to call her by her name, she was quick to act: ‘I told you my name has changed … If you don’t have the common decency to respect that, then don’t talk to me.’ After that, she said, ‘they didn’t mess with me anymore’” (Jones, 2020, p. 262). Coworkers and supervisors can thus influence whether queer and trans workers build or avoid personal workplace relationships.

Through organizational communication, workers also build relationships as colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. Rumens’ (2008) qualitative analysis on gay men’s workplace friendships highlighted the importance of intimacy and friendship as emotional support in the workplace. Heteronormative workplaces functioned as a site of anxiety for gay men’s friendships, especially with straight men; thus, participants in Rumens’ (2008) study revealed creative ways gay men sustain work friendships.

While work friends may discuss sex or sexuality with their colleagues, when dating or sexuality is discussed in organizations, there is an underlying assumption that employees are in (or should be in) heterosexual and monogamous relationships (Compton, 2016). Rothblum et al. (2019) interviewed 27 asexual individuals, three who identified as nonbinary, about their organizational experiences. The majority of the asexual participants said that sex and sexuality were not a common talking point at work. However, those who experienced discussions of relationships and sex in their organization felt left out, anxious, or different (Rothblum et al., 2019, p. 92), as they are often “judged by their own sexual attractiveness, and asked about their romantic interests” (p. 92). The authors highlight how heteronormativity also functions to silence or render those who are asexual as different by not being able to contribute to conversations regarding dating and relationships.

Moreover, Horan and Chory (2013) examined how employees in same sex work relationships were deemed as less competent to coworkers than those in opposite sex relationships. They analyzed perceptions of same sex work relationships through five variables: trust, deception, competence, caring, and character. They surveyed 147 participants on their perceptions of same sex office relationships versus opposite sex relationships, and their findings indicated that those who are in same sex relationships were perceived as less trustworthy. The lack of trust and perception of deception came from an assumption that same sex partnerships between superiors and employees were derived less from mutual liking and more so to maintain an organizational position. However, Horan and Chory (2013) also found that coworkers are more likely to view gay and lesbian peers as more caring and of higher character than those in workplace heterosexual relationships (p. 180). More recently, Horan et al. (2021) noted further complexities of communicating personal workplace relationships, including same sex coworker relationships being read as platonic that may be romantic and/or sexual because a coworker’s bisexuality is not known. Horan et al. (2021) also suggested that coworkers may perceive workplace romances as infidelity because they are unaware of their coworkers’ polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships. Thus, some LGBTQ+ personal workplace relationships remain understudied, such as polyamorous, bisexual, and pansexual workers’ experiences.

Communication about sexuality at work in interpersonal relationships may also be viewed as unprofessional, thus influencing queer workers to silence themselves and creating an overarching assumption of heteronormativity. Compton’s (2020) Midwest study found that participants often point to religion in performing heterosexuality at work, which she argued can be expanded to other U.S. states and regions. Discussing any queer sexuality display was considered against the moral code set, with workers fearing potentially being fired if they communicated their LGBTQ+ identities (Compton, 2020). Similarly, Fox (2013) detailed his experience as an assistant professor preparing to go up for tenure when a colleague asked him to take down where he referred to himself as a bottom on social media so no “students will be exposed to it” (p. 67). He argued:

Implicit in my well-intended colleague’s request is the notion that my sexual and social identity might expose students in our department to contaminative sexual knowledge … [and] is a disciplinary exercise in gay containment and erasure. Heterosexual sex is not subject to the same scope of corrective measures. (p. 68)

Dixon (2013) similarly surfaced heterosexist expectations of bringing only opposite sex partners to work events (See also Helens-Hart, 2017 on professionalism).

Overall, LGBTQ+ workers often are pressured to conform to cisheteronormativity to fit in and be accepted by coworkers and supervisors, or they risk stigma or exclusion for challenging normativities. Thus, LGBTQ+ individuals are forced to choose between themselves and their relationships versus the collective organizational culture (Dixon, 2013). In contrast, Ragins et al. (2007) evidenced that organizations with gay-friendly workplace cultures are more successful at reducing perceived workplace discrimination than state-level legislation barring discrimination against LGB employees. In other words, cultures that center LGBTQ+ people as a part of the organization and invite them to have authentic relationships may make a difference in not only interpersonal communication but also disrupting discrimination and violence. McKenna-Buchanan (2017) furthered this notion by recognizing that sharing stories about cisheteronormativity allows coworkers and supervisors to “learn from the discursive struggle embedded within these narratives and others” (p. 25) in a transformative manner. Otherwise, cisheteronormativity will be (re)produced and (co)constructed differently in explicit and/or nuanced practices (McKenna-Buchanan, 2017) that influence LGBTQ+ workers and their professional and professional workplace relationships. Another space for dismantling such structures occurs via policies.

Inclusive and Exclusive Policies

Policies within organizations, institutions, and online spaces impact LGBTQ+ workers both positively and negatively, sometimes simultaneously. Creating inclusive policies can have lasting influences such as low turnover rates and employee comfortability with disclosing their sexuality and/or gender identity. Furthermore, much like specific policies impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, work-life policies overall can limit employees’ discretion for how they define both “life” and “family” (Hoffman & Cowan, 2008). Organizational work-life policies further hinder LGBTQ+ workers because of the heteronormative definitions that constitute family within these policies (Compton, 2016).

Organizations can counteract workplace discrimination, turbulent laws, and microaggression communication with their own policies. Resnick and Galupo (2019) explained:

Even if an organization is located within a state without workplace protections for LGBT people, the organization can be autonomous and push back against the broader norms in the state by enforcing policies that protect LGBT employees. While policies may not cover all workplace microaggressions, the inclusion of a policy and a verbalized message of inclusivity as an espoused value signifies to employees the type of behavior that is expected in the organization—that is, the cultural norms are established. (p. 1397)

Thus, organizational policies and practices have incredible impacts for inclusion when embraced. However, the literature reflects that institutional, organizational, and media policies often violently reinforce cisheteronormativity, thereby excluding and harming LGBTQ+ workers. This reveals tensions between (a) inclusive policies and positive impacts and (b) exclusive policies and negative impacts.

Inclusive Policies and Positive Impacts

Implementing inclusive policies creates organizational benefits for both LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations. Scholarship primarily focuses on LGB-inclusive policies, showcasing a need for other queer, trans, and intersex identities and affirming policies to be researched. Huffman et al. (2008) defined LGB-supportive organizations as rejecting heterosexist policies and instituting gay-supportive policies that welcome sexual orientation diversity. Gay-supportive policies may include same-sex partner benefits, nondiscrimination policies, and zero tolerance for heterosexist acts (Huffman et al., 2008, p. 247). Queer-friendly policies can positively impact not only work but also health, as studies show that LGB employees who fear workplace discrimination report adverse health outcomes (Ragins et al., 2007), and policies are one pragmatic way organizations can become more inclusive (Badgett et al., 2013), thereby reducing discrimination and impacting the health of LGBTQ+ workers as whole people.

Research investigates how supportive and inclusive policies relate to LGB employees’ job satisfaction and result in fewer discrimination reports (Button, 2001; Ragins & Cornwell, 2001). Badgett et al.’s (2013) literature synthesis of 36 studies of LGBT-supportive policies analyzed how policies and workplace climates impact business outcomes. They showcased positive links between LBGT supportive work policies and climates that benefit employers. Badgett et al.’s (2013) most significant finding was that LGBT-supportive policies and organizational climates were most strongly linked to openness to being LGBT. Inclusive policies thus created feelings of safety for LGBTQ+ workers to be out. Furthermore, numerous studies illustrated that LGB people are more likely to disclose their sexual orientation when their employer has an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy and/or a domestic partner benefits policy (Button, 2001; Ragins & Cornwell, 2001; Rostosky & Riggle, 2002; Tejada, 2006). In contrast, employees who have to hide their sexuality within their workplace are more likely to feel uncomfortable or exit the organization (Badgett et al., 2013).

Therefore, gay-friendly policies directly impact turnover within organizations, indicating that such policies not only include LGBTQ+ employees but also help organizations retain them. Using a national survey of 534 gay and lesbian employees, Ragins and Cornwell (2001) discussed how supportive workplace policies directly affected their turnover intentions and cultivated workers’ substantially higher commitment to their employers and careers. These employees were also less likely to report that they planned to leave their jobs than those not covered by an LGBT-supportive policy (Ragins & Cornwell, 2001). Sabharwal et al.’s more recent review (2019) echoes Ragins and Cornwell’s (2001) findings by looking at how policies impact federal agency practices. Sabharwal et al. (2019) surveyed over 400,000 employees from 82 federal agencies; while only 3% of this population identified as LGBT, this study reflects how policies impact LGBT workers within federal organizations. When federal agencies have LGBT inclusive policies and practices, LGBT employees were significantly more likely to stay. However, regardless of whether policies were implemented, LGBT employees were likely to experience higher turnover than non-LGBT employees, indicating that policies are just one step in the process of creating inclusive workplaces (Sabhwaral et al., 2019).

Scholars also emphasize how incorporating training and inclusive language with implementation of LGBTQ+ policies can foster positive change. Dixon and Dougherty (2014) recommended that organizations should consider changing their trainings to provide a better link between policy and member discourse about that policy. As theorized previously, the word “family” can function as a means to discipline those who do not have normative families or who are single workers. Using “family” in policies can privilege those with children over other nonnormative definitions of family (Hoffman & Cowan, 2008; Kirby et al., 2003). Therefore, organizations should create inclusive meanings to account for all notions of family and ensure all employees are included in work-life discourses.

For gender identity, Elias et al.’s (2018) findings demonstrated that every agency should create and implement a transgender policy to support trans employees. Their study suggested that an inclusive transgender policy should include the following: a detailed transition process, inclusive language throughout the policy that prohibits harassment and discrimination, and explicit restroom and locker room use guidance (p. 72). Galupo and Resnick (2016) also recommended frequent language evaluations in policies and practices. They wrote, “For instance, sex assigned at birth, gender identity, and gender expression have different implications for individuals and thus, each should be addressed in written policy and practice” (p. 284). Then, updating language frequently in consultation with LGBTQ+ experts will help organizations progress as sexuality and gender identity communication evolves.

Exclusive Policies and Negative Impacts

Despite the potential for inclusion, queer and trans friendly policies may also simultaneously reproduce cisheteronormativity, constitute what we understand as family and relationships, and impact the material experiences of LGBTQ+ workers. Policies can create and sustain insidious impacts in federal institutions, organizations, and media.

Just because an organization has a policy does not mean that workers feel protected and supported. Organizations must move beyond policy creation to disseminating policies and ensuring their enactment and enforcement (Galupo & Resnick, 2016). Lloren and Parini (2017) surveyed 1065 Swiss participants to analyze inclusive policies impacting LGB workers. Results indicated that even though 65% of companies enacted LGB-supportive policies, only 5% of participants believed these policies were internally communicated. Participants viewed policies as rhetorical and as a means of public relations. Performative LGBTQ+ policies highlight Tejeda’s (2006) findings wherein workers covered by an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy still rated their employers as significantly more hostile than workers not covered by a policy. Thus, further scholarship on performative policies is needed.

Past communication research also reveals how “gay-friendly” workplace policies often use mixed messages (Compton, 2016) and how written policies are not implemented in practice (Kirby & Krone, 2002). Compton (2016) interviewed gay and lesbian employees in organizations to analyze how gay-friendly workplace policies influenced employee’s work disclosures of sexual identity. Compton (2016) built upon Gusmano’s (2008) and Kirby and Krone’s (2002) theorizations of how the existence of policies does not mean that workers can actually use or feel protected by these policies. Compton (2016) discussed the need for coworkers, and especially supervisors, to support these policies. Furthermore, Boren and Johnson (2013) examined how interpersonal relationships and tensions impact work-life policy use in organizations. Their findings indicated that peer resentment messages, guilt, and job burnout were associated with whether or not workers perceived that they could use work-life policies. In other words, the organizational communication practices matter as much as “inclusive” policies so that policies are actually enacted, supported, and affirmed.

Relatedly, Elias et al. (2018) studied how agencies that did include policies discussing repercussions of harassment and discipline of LGBT workers often lack clear and inclusive language. Lack of examples of harassment and discipline led to uncertainty for behaviors; thus, failing to identify harassment can create manipulations and misinterpretations. Galupo and Resnick (2016) also argued that broad definitions, inconsistencies, grey areas, and disconnects “leave discrimination up for interpretation depending on the reader” (p. 283), making clear, inclusive, and actionable language in policies to be of the utmost importance.

Policies can also alienate queer, trans, and intersex employees through the reinforcement of cisheteronormativity. Policies that benefit families and try to exhibit a healthier work-life negotiation for employees may alienate LGBTQ+ employees (Dixon & Dougherty, 2014). Elias et al.’s (2018) qualitative content analysis on nine transgender policies from federal agencies focused on the potential material consequences for trans employees. Despite trans-friendly policies being implemented in federal agencies, many of these policies harmed transgender employees. They showcased how so-called “trans-inclusive” policies actually can reinforce a gender binary without including individuals who may be nonbinary, gender-neutral, agender, genderqueer, or other gender nonconforming people (p. 73).

Policies also have the power to reinforce and enact normativity that can have violent consequences for workers whose sexuality and gender identities are deemed nonnormative. Through policy institutionalization, queer, trans, and intersex bodies are rendered as suspect and predatory. Examples include the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) (Rich et al., 2012), and social media and organizational policies that surveil and dismiss the “realness” of queer and trans identities (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). MacAulay and Moldes (2016) frame Facebook’s real names policy as a queer and trans issue, as users marked as not providing a “real” name—that is within the confines of a normative cisgender name—to Facebook were locked out of their accounts. Drag queens and other gender nonconforming names were deemed inauthentic or “illegal” names and accounts. MacAulay and Moldes (2016) argued that restricting names to individuals’ legal ID or being “authentic” reinforced how state and market actors use technology and policy to uphold normativity. Similarly, Beauchamp (2009) investigated how problematic national and state policies like U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory letters, the Real ID Act, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) no-match letters frame the biomedically-managed trans citizen as safe while positioning other nonnormative identities as suspicious, risky, and threatening (p. 360). These kinds of policies have the power to require employees to submit gender classification to the SSA to verify employment (Beauchamp, 2009, p. 632), which invades the privacy of trans, queer, and intersex people.

Lack of policies also have the power to enforce normativity. Rich et al. (2012) looked at the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) and the Department of Defense’s recommending this policy’s repeal. Their argument centered on the rhetoric used for support of a DADT repeal and how the policy framed gay soldiers as predatory in the hypermasculine military culture. The policy repeal suggested that queer folks should and will continue to refrain from disclosure because of fear of negative repercussions from hegemonic and toxic masculine military cultures (Rich et al., 2012). Numerous anti-LGBTQ+ military policies, including the DADT policy, were reinstated by Trump; however, Biden rolled back these discriminatory military policies including for trans and nonbinary people (National Center of Transgender Equality, 2021). In closing, then, policies can impact workers across their organizations and interactions with broader institutions, which are exacerbated by overlapping experiences of oppression.

Intersectional Work Experiences and Organizing

Although the previous sections have included intersectional experiences that LGBTQ+ workers face, this section specifically reviews literature addressing how gender identity and sexuality are interwoven with race, class, disability, nation, age, and more, and how such intersections shape the lived experiences of oppression, violence, and/or privilege for LGBTQ+ workers and organizations. Intersectionality shapes work experiences including: the complexities of nation and citizenship (Chávez, 2010, 2017), queer brown bodies in the academy (Calafell, 2017), familial histories of working class and immigrant labor impacting queer and trans people (LeMaster, 2017), and closeting intersectional identities (Eger, 2018).

Importantly, research also examines how LGBTQ+ intersectional organizing responds to work and organizational tensions, including immigrant and LGBTQ+ belonging (Chávez, 2010), outreach organizing in conservative rural/urban areas (e.g., urban areas with larger surrounding rural communities) (Drumheller & McQuay, 2010), and nonprofits advancing “chosen family” identities (Eger, 2021). Theorizing queer and trans justice in organizing and work requires critiques of not only cisheteronormativity but also classism, racism, ableism, xenophobia, capitalism, colonization, sexism, and other structures of injustice (see LeMaster et al., 2019; Patterson & Hsu, 2020; Yep & Lescure, 2019). The following subsections examine: (a) LGBTQ+ workers and intersectionality and (b) intersectional LGBTQ+ organizing.

LGBTQ+ Workers and Intersectionality

Scholars theorizing intersectionality may examine how identities coalesce and inform one other and/or how intersections are experienced beyond identity categories. Importantly, theorizing intersectionality should not falsely group shared experiences as universal or use additive approaches. This is why some queer studies scholarship utilizes an anticategorical intersectional approach (McDonald, 2015). Yep and Lescure (2019) argued that researchers cannot look at microaggressions as additive and should avoid the tendency to “homogenize individuals inhabiting similar intersections” as this erases “their unique subjectivities and experiences” (p. 115). Using Yep’s thick intersectionalities, they push for scholarship that “works against simply listing identity categories—the roster-like approach to intersectionality … Instead, it attends to the messiness, multidimensionality, and voluptuousness of identities as they are lived, expressed, and embodied” (p. 116). This section focuses on research about the multidimensionality across LGBTQ+ workers’ lives including experiences of racism, transphobia, undocumented work, sex work, age, immigration, homelessness, and more.

Theorizing LGBTQ+ workers must include not only white-collar or blue-collar organizations with formal policies but also undocumented work, street survival work, and sex work. Capous-Desyllas and Loy (2020) used an interview timeline approach to understand the complexities of sex work for trans and nonbinary sex workers. Their participants pushed against narratives of sex work as only forced or for survival, and they addressed interlacing experiences of empowerment, violence, toxic masculinity, fetishizing, bodily control, agency, and affirmation. They argued:

For many trans and gender-fluid people, the sex trade can offer greater autonomy, control, agency, a sense of empowerment, and financial stability, in comparison with other forms of employment, as well as fewer barriers to entry and engagement. However, one’s intersecting identities can play a role in their experiences in the sex trade, especially for poor trans women of color. (p. 365)

Communication studies scholarship should further contribute to understanding sex work as work, organizational communication and sex work, and how LGBTQ+ people may find both violence and empowerment in sex work. For example, Capous-Desyllas and Loy (2020) wrote that “the importance of having control over one’s own body, especially within a culture that polices trans bodies, was a commonly expressed among the participants” from their study of trans and nonbinary people who have or are engaging in sex work (p. 357). Participants also shared differing experiences of safety and fear as shaped by their other intersectional identities like being undocumented, people of color, or women. Eger’s research (2018) worked with trans people who experienced unemployment and reported turning to sex work for income when they faced occupational segregation, such as one participant, Aron, who was turned away by employers as an indigenous trans woman. Other participants discussed engaging in sex work only for survival and the loneliness of what participant Alyce (who was also an indigenous trans woman) called “making money for a living” (Eger, 2021, p. 265).

LeMaster (2015) addressed how those who do not consider sex and underground economy work as labor do so from locations of cisgender, class, racial, and other privilege. She wrote:

I am not privileged enough to think labor does not matter or that labor fixes everything. The material reality is also this: we, like so many others, are coerced into taking the work that we can find: Legitimate work. Questionable work. Il/legal work. Union work. Scab work. (p. 86)

LeMaster’s poetic autoethnography traced the intersectional violence and possibilities of labor, including complexities of union strikes with poverty, job seeking experiences of her trans partner, and immigrant and family work and health needs.

In theorizing migration for queer and trans workers, Karma Chávez’s research is instrumental for understanding workers’ intersectional experiences in society, organizations, rhetoric, and relationships. Chávez (2010) carefully traced how LGBT organizations utilized immigrant queers only to embolden homonationalism narratives and then quickly forgot and erased their needs. She argued that “large, national and mainstream LGBT, immigrant and human rights organizations enact a particular kind of cultural citizenship that attempts to ameliorate the threat LGBT people and their immigrant partners pose by utilizing normalizing discourses of belonging to frame the issues—a strategic move with potentially significant consequences” (Chávez, 2010, p. 137). Chávez’s review of organizational texts positions work as an “acceptable” pathway of citizenship for undocuqueers. She explicated:

Characteristics such as personal responsibility and financial stability/ability as well as a desire to exist within the mainstream are all hallmarks of good citizenship. A number of the narratives express upholding these values at the same time that they reject undesirable qualities that would disqualify them from belonging as good citizens. These narratives are both racializing and class-based. (p. 143)

Chávez also reviewed organizing documents from Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) that instead used solidarity with U.S. citizen and immigrant laborers impacted by low wages and centered relationality (p. 149). She established the need for intersectional and coalitional organizations supporting queer migrants.

In 2017, Chávez continued to call for new queer worldmaking for immigrant justice. She credited “undocuqueer” leaders for “illuminating the fact that immigration is a queer issue” (p. 132). She noted how mainstream queer organizations continuously ignore intersections that immigrants face around nation, poverty, racism, and more. Chávez cautioned against LGBTQ+ organizing that does not center immigrant intersections, such as tracing the violence enacted by the 2016 Creating Change Conference hosted by National LGBTQ Task Force who invited U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a panelist. She explained why their apologies and removal of ICE from the conference were not enough because of their participation in “other kinds of violence named in the refusal-deportations, financial insecurity, and invisibility of LGBTQ immigrants” (2017, p. 134). Thus, future scholarship must examine undocuqueer workers, support immigrant queer and trans people, and theorize how organizing and rhetoric can be instrumental in queer and trans worldmaking.

Another important intersection for LGBTQ+ workers is age (Croghan et al., 2015; Drumheller & McQuay, 2010; Meyer, 2009). Meyer (2009) revealed the organizational communication tensions faced by LGBT college students as younger adults, including three themes of unity/difference, commitment/apathy, and empowerment/disempowerment from ethnographic research on one university with three LGBT organizations. For example, “participants noted that they could finally ‘be themselves’ once they affiliated with one or several of the three organizations, and frequently indicated that they ‘felt good’ about their contributions to the LGBT community” (Meyer, 2009, p. 508). In contrast, students experienced disempowerment bound in heteronormativity. One participant attributed being out in the student LGBT organizations as making “her subject to talk and rumors that she would not have dealt with prior to affiliating with the organization” (p. 509). They called for further research on organizations as communities.

Croghan et al. (2015) advanced an understudied area of age, sexuality, and gender identity intersections by looking at LGBTQ+ elders. They questioned, “How best do health and human services providers communicate readiness to work with a community that has a history of significant discrimination?” (p. 648). Their survey of 327 LGBT baby boomers and older adults focused on what organizations (particularly social service organizations and service workers) could do to communicate inclusion to older adults. Importantly, older adults responded to organizations who actually employed LGBT service workers, explaining “it is difficult to convey a welcoming environment to the public if an organization’s staff does not feel welcome and safe enough to be out on the job” (Croghan et al., 2015, p. 647). They also valued physical artifacts being displayed like “general signage and the rainbow flag, and using inclusive language on forms” (p. 647). Beyond artifacts, LGBT older adults reported that employees’ inclusive language use communicated welcoming environments. Organizations should not only utilize artifacts of acceptance on display but also employ queer, trans, and intersex people and train all for inclusive communication to support older adults. Like with LGBTQ+ elders’ communication needs, LGBTQ+ organizations and organizing must respond to complex needs across workers’ intersectional experiences.

Intersectional LGBTQ+ Organizing

Research examining intersectionality also focused on the benefits and challenges of LGBTQ+ organizing and organizations. From tensions in student organizing (Meyer, 2009) to queer immigrant organizing (Chávez, 2010, 2017) to intersectional grassroots organizing (Eger, 2021) to regional complexities (Drumheller & McQuay, 2010) to intersectional media organizing (Costanza-Chock et al., 2017), theorizing LGBTQ+ organizing is an area of vibrant inquiry in communication studies that impacts workers and those served by intersectional outreach.

Drumheller and McQuay (2010) focused on LGBT organizing in conservative areas in the United States by specifically focusing on a rural/urban outreach center in the Bible Belt. Their project demonstrated how regional identity and religion impacts work and organizing experiences. They explained that “in an area where religious dogma supersedes social justice, it might be difficult for community members to even admit they are LGBT much less seek out needed services such as counseling, networking, social events, or anything else that heterosexuals likely take for granted” (Drumheller & McQuay, 2010, p. 71). Their focus organization, LGBT Outreach Center (LOC), faced challenges of organizational commitments (similar to those faced in Meyer, 2009), marketing and fundraising tensions, and membership. Drumheller and McQuay’s (2010) focus groups revealed three themes of life as: struggle, apathy, and compartmentalization. For life as struggle, they traced how in moving “into this community, gay males and lesbians are quick to find what one participant referred to as ‘heterophobia,’ making them fearful of the response of conservative heterosexuals. Further, participants felt that most were fearful of their families more than anyone else” (p. 76). Because of the fear of coworkers, community members, and even family members, identifying with the organization and receiving outreach became a barrier. This also led to the second theme of life as apathy when it became difficult to unify around a common LGBT cause.

Third, members faced compartmentalizing in two important ways: (a) LGBT people were forced to compartmentalize their sexuality and gender identities, and (b) heterosexual and cisgender people used compartmentalization to cause violence. LGBT people in the urban/rural region were forced to often comply with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” community and organizational policies and norms. This created contradictions where “LGBT participants of the focus groups would talk about how safe they felt in the city, on the one hand, and then tell tales of those fearful of losing their jobs if they came out” (p. 79). Similarly, heterosexual friends or coworkers said, “Community members engage in compartmentalization as they place the gay individuals they know into a separate category from the LGBT community as a whole, thus accepting the individual but denying the larger group” (p. 80). Drumheller and McQuay (2010) thus surfaced important challenges LGBTQ+ organizing must address for creating inclusion across U.S. regions and organizations.

While many LGBTQ+ people struggle to find belonging at work and in community organizations (even in queer, trans, and intersex ones), other organizations driven by grassroots and intersectional organizing present welcoming alternatives. Costanza-Chock et al. (2017) surveyed 231 LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations to explore their media and communication challenges and strengths. Their article tracked powerful exemplars of “transformative” media as intersectional by LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations. However, their analysis revealed that organizations using intersectional, multi-issue approaches were largely excluded in “mainstream media coverage,” which instead “are often narrowly focused on single issues” (p. 167). This lack of mainstream coverage impacted intersectional LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizers’ access to funding, visibility, and resources.

Eger (2021)’s three-year ethnography and volunteering with the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico (TGRC) centered grassroots, intersectional transgender organizing to combat:

systemic discrimination transgender people face not only for their gender identities but also other identities including race, age, disability, citizenship, sexuality, and more. TGRC specifically serves large populations of transgender women of color (particularly indigenous trans women) as well as transgender people experiencing addiction, engaging in survival sex work, and experiencing chronic homelessness. (p. 260)

Eger revealed how using “chosen family” communication as an organizational identity shaped how participants understood their inclusion and TGRC’s communication of radical acceptance. For example, Theresa a “Black, trans woman in her early 40s who identified as homeless, worked in sex work, and experienced addiction” (p. 267) explained how TGRC’s intersectional organizing was unique and affirmed her as a whole person. She said that TGRC:

stands out because they really show you that they care. I mean, a lot of organizations will say this or say that but the Transgender Resource, it stands out because they show it. They just don’t talk about it. They really be about it, and they do care. (p. 268)

One of the directors of TGRC, Henry (a white, housed trans man in his 40s), focused on the importance of intersectional trans organizations using love and family throughout their organizing. Even without sustained funding for TGRC in their early years, Henry “described the incredible life-saving importance of love to create a chosen family” (Eger, 2021, p. 268). The family organizational identity was not without challenges, however, with volunteer staff turnover, spatial and rule tensions, and tensions when a community member experiencing addiction who used violence against staff created turbulent navigation for keeping them in the family. Yet, despite the inclusion of the family and the immense impacts of TGRC’s organizing, trans and nonbinary people still faced systemic barriers in seeking employment, social services, and housing because of intersectional violence (see Eger, 2018, 2021). Combatting daily embodied violence made the importance of family-based organizing like TGRC all the more important for trans survival (Eger, 2021). Organizing for justice for LGBTQ+ workers, then, must include action across intersectional experiences.

Future Research

While there is growing research on LGBTQ+ workers in communication studies, our discipline requires sustained scholarship and new foci for the future. First, future research should center LGBTQ+ workers’ voices and their intersectional organizational experiences, such as age, citizenship, race, region, disability, education level, social class, and more. One needed area is on the experiences of Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) at work, especially researched by QTPOC scholars. Theorizing intersections of racism and cisheteronormativity in organizational communication, cultures, and structures that impact QTPOC workers’ livelihoods is vital to not continue to reinscribe whiteness. This follows ongoing calls to disrupt the whitening of queer and intersectionality theorizing in communication studies (see Eguchi et al., 2020). Applied communication policies and practices research is also needed to support not just LGBTQ+ workers’ sexuality or gender identities but them as whole people with complex, interconnected lives. One place communication studies can contribute is in more development on language, rhetoric, and policies. For example, organizations may share policies and practices against homophobia or transphobia, but simultaneously lack policies addressing LGBTQ+ workers’ experiences of racism, ableism, or languages spoken. Researchers should explore what decolonial, queer, trans, and crip futures can be imagined, created, and enacted for LGBTQ+ workers and organizations. Theorizing leadership and diversity management of intersectional identities of LGBTQ+ workers could also enrich future scholarship and praxis.

Second, LGBTQ+ people are not monoliths; thus, we need to understand the complexities of sexuality, gender expression, sexual identities, and gender identities across queer, trans, and intersex workers. This calls for research to have more inclusion of trans, nonbinary, Two-Spirit, and other gender nonconforming workers’ experiences and avoid leaving the “T” out of research. Throughout the literature reviewed previously, certain workers are included more than others, so researchers should specifically investigate how pansexual, bisexual, queer, asexual, aromantic, intersex, Two-Spirit, demisexual, polyamorous, questioning, and more workers face unique barriers and joys at work as they transverse cisheteronormativity at work.

Third, past research surfaces queer and trans workers critiques of their own and others’ experiences in academia, which is important to mark and dismantle violence in our own institutions. To build upon this scholarship, we need further inquiry into all forms of work beyond academic and white-collar labor to including blue-collar work, manual labor, undocumented work, sex work, underground work, and more. Because the field often privileges white-collar work overall, the experiences of other workers are marginalized and are needed for justice in our organizational communication praxis.

Fourth, to better conceptualize workplace disclosure complexities, we need further research on closeting communication across sexualities, gender identities, and intersections. For example, how one discloses their sexuality and/or gender identity can play an important role regarding communication and relationships with coworkers. Disclosure communication can function to completely alter the communicative situation as a whole. This has been shown in past research on cancer disclosure at work to peers (Wittenberg-Lyles & Villagran, 2006) and personal health information to supervisors (Westerman et al., 2017). Thus, deeper understanding of the different ways to disclose (or not disclose) sexuality and gender identity could offer insight into strategies workers attempt in these interactions and how their communication shapes these very relationships and organizations. Communication studies could provide an opportunity to understand workers’ affirming experiences of disclosure while also reducing adverse reactions and outcomes for LGBTQ+ workers when facing cisheteronormativity and violence at work.

While some of closeting communication research examines gender identity, further theorizing of the continuous processes of coming out as trans, nonbinary, Two-Spirit, or gender nonconforming at work is needed. As trans and nonbinary workers face systemic discrimination, especially trans and enby women, immigrants, people of color, and people with disabilities, theorizing how they navigate disclosure and creating better best practices for hiring, promoting, and retaining them is essential. Researchers might examine: How do coming out experiences for gender identity connect to or differ from sexuality? How is closeting communication complicated by intersectional identities (see Eger, 2018)? When is closeting or passing inadequate as a frame (see McCune, 2014)? Additionally, how does already being established within an organization impact the experience and communication of coming out as trans or nonbinary (see Schilt, 2011)? How can we better theorize consent and closeting communication (Eger, 2018)? How can we understand closeting communication through an anticategorical, intersectional approach?

Fifth, we must not only contend with whiteness in organizational communication scholarship but also the U.S. dominance in the literature. This article focused predominantly on U.S. LGBTQ+ workers based on what current literature is available to read in the discipline. There is an urgent need for more international foci on LGBTQ+ workers’ communication from more countries and their experiences (see exceptions from Mitra & Doctor, 2016; Lloren & Parini, 2017; and see further readings from sister disciplines). Organizational cultures impact policies and interpersonal interactions for international coworkers and supervisors. Researchers may question how companies with varying workplace cultures, located internationally, with different societal expectations and norms, impact the work-life experience of LGBTQ+ workers. Additionally, how do LGBTQ+ workers face inclusion and/or exclusion in different countries and regions? How do language, laws, rhetoric, borders, and structures shape LGBTQ+ workers’ experiences across the globe? How can decolonial theorizing connect to queer, trans, and intersex theorizing across locations and spaces? What decolonial LGBTQ+ working futures can we imagine and build?

Sixth, while some research examines workplace relationships with supervisors and coworkers, further inquiry connecting interpersonal and organizational communication for LGBTQ+ workers is needed on workplace relationships and romances for queer, trans, and intersex workers. This may include areas such as: romances where one partner is trans or nonbinary and how that impacts their personal relationships at work; relationships where two or more LGBTQ+ partners are polyamorous and how this frames their disclosure, friendships, and relationships at work; or LGBTQ+ coworkers’ romantic relationships and hook-ups. Additionally, interpersonal relationships with supportive supervisors are needed to theorize best practices for inclusion. Research could also investigate cisgender or heterosexual workers who identify as “allies,” and pair interviews or surveys with their LGBTQ+ coworkers to distinguish between claiming ally identity and actually enacting allyship.

Seventh and finally, there is a plethora of research on discrimination and resiliency strategies for LGBTQ+ workers attempting to assuage the effects of harmful and violent organizational communication. There is not enough research on the ways in which supervisors, employees, and coworkers can help to remove or alleviate such violence for LGBTQ+ workers. Research should focus on ways to increase retention and structural inclusion and put the onus on cisgender and heterosexual people to do the work for change, rather than LGBTQ+ workers always laboring for and championing their own organizational survival. Such research should not only be critiques using queer and trans theory but also practical, applied guidance for practitioners who can utilize new communication lenses to create justice at work. Further inquiry into LGBTQ+ organizing for justice is needed to realize how queer, trans, and intersex collectives can best serve their communities. More scholarship on joy, queer and trans worldmaking, and justice at work is also necessary. May the communication studies discipline become a catalyst for radical changes that increase not only the survival of LGBTQ+ workers in their organizations but also support them to thrive at work.

Further Readings

References

Notes

  • 1. We use the acronym LGBTQ+ to include workers’ queer, trans, and intersex identities and namings. This acronym stands for: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, and Questioning. The + symbolizes that naming is a complex practice, and not all community or individual namings are listed by letter in this acronym. This is not to erase those identities or experiences but instead point to how current Communication Studies research has predominantly examined LG workers (and sometimes BTQ+ workers). Throughout this article, we use language from researchers and their participants, and we call for more inclusive and extensive research on underrepresented workers including nonbinary, QTPOC, Two-Spirit, pansexual, intersex, asexual, aromantic, demisexual, polyamorous, and more LGBTQ+ intersectional experiences.