Creating LGBTQIA+ inclusive workplaces

These Pride celebrations are worth travelling to. Picture by Axel Schmidt/Reuters

As a queer person – someone who doesn’t identify with established heterosexual norms as they  relate to gender or sexual identities –, negotiating space is exactly that: a negotiation. Everyday queer persons must negotiate our lives, safety, and our humanity in a world that does not see us or accept us in a world that does not deem our lives worthy of protection and dignity.

The workplace, like many other spaces we find ourselves in, is yet another place where our identity can come under scrutiny and attack in the most violent ways. 

According to GLAAD, more than 40% of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGBTQIA+) people have experienced workplace discrimination, harassment and mistreatment while a staggering 90% of transgender people have experienced oppression in the workplace. While these statistics reflect the experiences of the American LGBTQIA+ community, there are some insights to be taken from this data that are relevant to the South African context. It is a context where institutionalized bigotry and othering is embedded within the country’s histories and woven in the very fabric of this “post-apartheid” society.

South Africa’s constitutional developments of early democracy witnessed major strides in protecting the LGBTQIA+ community. The Civil Union Act is an example of legislation that aimed to recognise gay marriages and protect these unions – a move hailed as a change in the right direction; a step closer toward equality. These strides were fought for by the Gay and Lesbian movements of the 1980s and 1990s against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition and in a climate of volatile change.

While these achievements have been significant and should always be honoured as such, there remains a noticeable disjuncture and disconnect between protective legislation and the lived realities and experiences of this marginalised community. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community remain subjected to structural violence, discrimination, sexual violence and social and economic exclusion, and everyday micro-aggressions. As a society, we have yet to acknowledge, understand, and grapple with these different forms of queerphobia violence.

Exclusion and discrimination in the workplace are common and present other barriers that require daily negotiation for queer persons.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation conducted a study on discrimination against LGBTQIA+ persons in the workplace. The study was conducted in 2014 and found that “despite a changing social and legal landscape for LGBT people, still over half (53%) of LGBT workers hide who they are at work” while “35% of LGBT employees feel compelled to lie about their personal lives while at work”.

Work spaces mirror society and it would be naive to assume that the multitude of injustices – so pervasive in South Africa – do not play themselves out in the workplace as well. The truth is that South Africa remains a difficult and hostile space to live and thrive in as a queer person and our existence often hinges on our proximity to power and privilege along racial, economic and social lines.

As far as queerphobia/homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are concerned, South African workplaces have been complicit in these hostilities for too long, and work environments have ultimately normalised and condoned queerphobic behaviours and language. Vitriol and queer discrimination buttressed by stereotypes and ignorance have hurt and harmed members of the LGBTQIA+ community and led to feelings of deep insecurity, estrangement, and othering. For queers of colour or Black queers, these struggles are often compounded by the realities of racialised inequalities, racism, white supremacy and pervasive racial power dynamics in South Africa.

Workplaces, as we know, already produce multiple pressures and are a primary source of stressors for many. And for queer people, workplace pressures are compounded by further queerphobic or homophobic discrimination in their work environment from  colleagues and or management. Discrimination can take the form of violent and bigoted language being used by others in the space and condoned through office social norms.  Discrimination of this kind (and any kind for that matter) can leave Queer persons feeling unsafe to be their authentic selves, feeling unseen, unheard, and unprotected. To eradicate this  bigoted culture would require deliberate action, a shared willingness to co-create a new, and positive office culture, and a lot of unlearning and re-learning.

The South African psyche is regressive in many ways. Democracy has painted a picture of ‘’progress’’ but our continued and collective normalisation and reinforcement of violence through our cultural and social norms stand contrary to this. Religious doctrine is often at the of centre our justifications to inflict harm, hate and abuse on others, and in this case, members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Religion and religious people have been complicit in and perpetrators of violence towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Their members, affiliates and congregants must hold religious communities accountable for the myriad of ways in which violence is perpetuated. In my experiences, workplaces can mirror and reinforce these dangerous attitudes and behaviours. This, underpinned by white supremacist and patriarchal Christianity (which is the context I speak from), makes the workplace a difficult space to navigate, exist in and thrive in as a queer person.

Office cultures must be scrutinised since workplace values and social and cultural norms reinforced (subtly or overtly) in the work environment play a critical role in how comfortable or safe members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel in the professional space. Workplaces must make concerted efforts to create a healthy and welcoming environment for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Creating a safe environment is a process that needs to be deliberate and should perhaps start with an honest examination of the company or organisation’s policies (especially its hiring and recruitment policies), its anti-discrimination policies, and its employment equity policies. This process should ensure that these policies are updated, holistic, and reflective of these lived realities. Moreover, these policies must be strongly implemented and enforced in aid of fostering a zero-tolerance culture against hatred and discrimination in its attempt to protect LGBTQIA+ employees. 

Furthermore, disciplinary procedures must follow should anyone inflict or reinforce discriminatory violence in any way. There needs to be a collective understanding and culture that ensures that matters of discrimination and hatred will be taken seriously in the space.  

This honest reflection ought to be extended to the office and work culture as well. Our world is constantly changing and evolving, and it’s imperative that our workplaces and company cultures do too. Encouraging internal discussions and dialogues around how people experience the company culture in a safe space where voices are heard could prove to be useful. In addition, having these conversations facilitated by someone with experience in facilitating difficult discussions would be even more beneficial. Sessions like these are helpful to fostering open dialogue, understanding and empathy among colleagues.

While interrogating organizational policies and creating safe spaces for dialogue are a positive start,  it is important to note that all genuine attempts at fostering a LGBTQIA+ inclusive workplace ought to be followed through with structural, systemic and material changes that are representative and reflective of the workplace’s commitment to transformation. Examining and rectifying gender and racial wage gaps is an example of addressing the structural challenges. Making sure that hiring and recruitment policies do not discriminate unfairly is another. And ensuring that LGBTQIA+ employees are paid a dignified salary, while enforcing total salary equity in a context of worsening inequalities, is a necessary step toward eradicating queerphobic bigotry. 

Creating a safe environment for LGBTQIA+ individuals needs to be deliberate, intentional and genuine.  It needs to be collaborative and transformation  to place the needs of marginalised persons at the centre. The workplace can no longer be yet another place where our identities and our lives come under violent attack. Our lives are worthy of protection and dignity too.


Jodi Williams is a Project Officer at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation IJR) in Cape town and is part of the Sustained Dialogues team. The views expressed here are entirely her own.