Today, a growing number of policies and protections are supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer-identifying (LGBTQ+) employees in the United States. This follows a history of systemic barriers and challenges—a period that began with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 ban on federal gay and lesbian employees to Barack Obama’s repeal of the U.S. Army’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in 2018.

Despite millions of people making up the LGBTQ+ workforce in the United States, there is still a lack of research, surveys, and census data that captures their experience. At the same time, being LGBTQ+ is not always a visible status. 

Given these constraints, a comprehensive account of LGBTQ+ representation in the workplace still has a long way to go. However, studies have examined the landscape of various inequalities and roles occupied by LGBTQ+ individuals.

It's important to start with the history of LGBTQ+ protections in the workforce and how it has affected LGBTQ+ representation among U.S. employees. 

Key Takeaways

  • LGBTQ+ employees make up 5.9% of the U.S. workforce.
  • LGBTQ+ representation across various roles in the workforce is low, notably at senior executive levels.
  • Transgender workers face greater barriers in the workplace, from job offers to career advancement.
  • The landmark 2020 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Previously, LGBTQ+ employees could be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.
  • The history of LGBTQ+ workers' rights has denied LGBTQ+ individuals federal government jobs, benefits, insurance, protections, and equitable protections.

History of LGBTQ+ Protections in the Workplace

The history of LGBTQ+ worker protections—or lack thereof—in the U.S. is both brief and mostly dismal. During the 1950s, gay and lesbian employees were rooted out of federal government and intelligence jobs in what was called the Lavender Scare. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that banned gay federal employees, which stood in effect until 1973 and wasn't revoked entirely until 2017.

In 1961, Frank Kameny brought the first civil rights case based on sexual discrimination to the Supreme Court. Kameny, who held a doctorate of astronomy from Harvard and fought in World War II, was fired at 32 from his job as an astronomer in the Army Map Service because he was gay, and was prohibited from employment in the federal government indefinitely. The Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

Three decades later, President Bill Clinton enforced the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) measure for the armed forces despite a broad lack of support. This forced LGBTQ+ military members to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret. President Obama repealed DADT in 2011. 

Later, in 2013, a Supreme Court 5-4 ruling denied same-sex spouses—in states where same-sex marriage is legal—the right to receive federal benefits. Just two years later, same-sex marriage was legalized on a federal level, also legalizing spousal benefits through work.

Soon thereafter in 2017, Kimberly Hively, an adjunct math professor at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, was fired for being a lesbian and was denied full-time employment and promotions after working there for 14 years. Hively fought against her employer and won the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2017.

Following this decision, in 2018, the majority of transgender individuals were banned from serving in the U.S. military by President Donald Trump. In 2020, however, LGBTQ+ and transgender individuals won a landmark case in the Supreme Court, protecting them from being fired solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The ruling held that language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is germane to gender identity.

“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” stated Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. More than 200 large corporations, a record, signed on to an amici curiae brief filed with the court in support of LGBTQ+ employees.

LGBTQ+ Protections in the Workplace Today

Since President Joe Biden took office, a handful of critical LGBTQ+ workplace protections have been written into law. Notably, an executive order signed on his first day ensures that LGBTQ+ employees will receive the same protections against discrimination as other classes of protected individuals.

Secondly, President Biden signed an executive order that aims to remove systemic hurdles to benefits, insurance coverage, and care for underrepresented populations. This reverses a previous executive order put into force by President Trump.

President Biden also signed an executive order allowing openly transgender individuals to serve in the military, reversing a ban that came into effect in 2019. "President Biden believes gender identity should not be a bar to military service and that America's strength is found in its diversity," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Along with key executive orders, numerous federal actions were implemented to help protect LGBTQ+ workers in President Biden’s first 100 days.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also provides resources surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, such as what actions to take if you think you've been subject to discrimination.

Understanding LGBTQ+ Representation in the Workforce

According to recent estimates, LGBTQ+ individuals make up 5.9% of the U.S. workforce. However, on many levels, data on the LGBTQ+ population is quite limited. Globally, population censuses do not identify LGBTQ+ people, including in the United States. Argentina and the United Kingdom are among the few exceptions. 

With this being said, however, several studies throw light on workplace roles and conditions for LGBTQ+ employees in corporate America. For example, a study from McKinsey examines various roles held by LGBTQ+ employees. It finds that openly LGBTQ+ women make up 2.3% of entry-level roles and 1.6% of managers. LGBTQ+ men, meanwhile, account for 3.1% and 2.8% of these categories, respectively. The McKinsey study also researched transgender employees (see below), but the reported data does not pull out nonbinary employees who identify with neither gender.

When it comes to more senior levels, LGBTQ+ women make up smaller percentages of these roles as seniority increases, the McKinsey study reports. They make up 1.2% of senior managers/directors, 0.7% of vice presidents, and 0.6% of senior vice presidents. Importantly, the research points out that survey respondents may not have felt comfortable identifying as LGBTQ+ despite the survey's provision of anonymity.

LGBTQ+ men surveyed make up 3% of senior managers/directors, 1.9% of vice presidents, and 2.9% of senior vice presidents. However, twice as many men as women say they feel that their sexual orientation is likely to affect their career advancement. Overall, research shows that LGBTQ+ workers are 11% less likely to occupy higher managerial levels, along with 4% lower earnings levels.

Transgender Representation 

Trans individuals account for roughly 1.4 million U.S. adults and face distinct barriers to advancement at work. Transgender adults experience lower likelihoods of hiring and of holding management roles. One study showed that trans individuals were six times less likely to get a job offer than cisgender applicants; job offer rates for trans applicants were 8.3% compared to 50% for cisgender applicants. 

Not only that, but transgender individuals also face greater levels of workplace discrimination. One 2020 survey found that, of LGBTQ+ adults who faced discrimination over the past year, three in five of them were transgender people. 

The good news is that workplace protections for trans workers are increasing. In the Human Rights Council 2021 Corporate Equality Index, 71% of Fortune 500 companies provide trans-inclusive health insurance coverage. In 2015, this stood at 34% of Fortune 500 companies. However, much work still needs to be done on multiple levels.

Fortune 500 CEO LGBTQ+ Representation 

As of 2020, just four Fortune 500 CEOs were openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who came out as gay in 2014, was the first in the Fortune 500's history to do so. Along with Cook is Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’Lakes, a $14 billion cooperative. In 2018, Ford became the first openly gay woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow Chemical Company, also came out as gay in 2014 after 30 years as an executive in the company. At the helm of Macy’s is Jeff Gennette, an openly gay man who assumed the role of chairman and CEO in 2017.

Meanwhile, a number of other senior executives are openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. One is Martine Rothblatt, founder and CEO of United Therapeutics, who was at one point the highest-earning biopharmaceutical CEO and transgender adult in the country—earning $38 million annually. Prior to United Therapeutics, Rothblatt founded SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Google Director of Engineering at Ray Kurzweil stated, “She has to my knowledge a perfect track record in making [her] visions real.” 

Jason Grenfell-Gardner, CEO of Teligent, was the first openly gay CEO of a publicly listed company in the United States. R. Martin Chavez—following his tenure at Goldman Sachs where he was the most senior openly gay executive—is vice chairman and partner at Sixth Street. As of 2021, Sixth Street oversees $50 billion in assets under management.

The Bottom Line

A number of studies provide insight into LGBTQ+ positions of power. Overarchingly, representation levels are quite low across every role, especially at the highest levels of management.

As inroads are being made on the corporate and public policy fronts, protections for LGBTQ+ workers continue to advance. With President Joe Biden in office, greater support is anticipated for LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace, with sweeping executive orders set in place on his first day in office alone. Critically, this directly impacts transgender workers who faced significant setbacks under the Trump administration. 

The LGBTQ+ experience in the workforce is shaped by long-entrenched social and systemic forces that won't disappear quickly. But as protections gain momentum, more equitable policies appear to be within closer reach.

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