LGBT Panel promotes honesty with sexual orientation in the workplace

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When Captain Julie Gillespie joined the UT Police Department in 1986, not only was she one of the few women working in a male-dominated workplace, but she was also gay.

“Pretty much almost immediately I was out at work and I probably was not the first lesbian that worked there but was the first one to be out,” Gillespie said at a panel last week titled “Living with Pride: Out at Work.”

For those in the LGBT community, coming out at work presents a set of social, moral and legal implications. While Gillespie describes her experience with the University and within the police department as “nothing but positive,” many struggle with the decision of whether or not to come out at work.

The “Living with Pride” panel hosted by the Gender & Sexuality Center, the Sanger Learning Center and UT Residential Life was just one of several events on campus last week organized to mark National Coming Out Week and National Coming Out Day on Thursday. Coming out in the open about one’s sexual orientation is often associated with its effect on friends and families, not bosses and supervisors.

Amanda Ritter, president of the GLBTQA Business Student Association, said deciding to not hide one’s sexual orientation at work can be a challenging but rewarding decision for many LGBT students.

“Not all students are comfortable and confident because this country is still in the process of accepting the LGBTQ community,” Ritter said. “Therefore, a lot of students do struggle. A lot of students that choose to come out, including myself, do so because we don’t want to hide any part of who we are. It just makes things easier to enjoy your job, too.”

In Texas, the legal implications can be especially threatening to LGBT employees. Cary Franklin, assistant professor at the UT School of Law, specializes in employment discrimination.

Franklin said Texas’ labor laws do not defend openly gay employees from discrimination.

“It is legal, under state law, to terminate employees on the basis of sexual orientation,” Franklin said.

Fortunately for students at UT, Austin is one of several Texas cities that have passed bans on employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, Franklin said.

Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and El Paso have passed similar laws. In the 2011 Texas legislative session, Rep. Mike Villarreal D-San Antonio and Rep. Marisa Marquez D-El Paso, respectively, authored a bill to enact a statewide ban on such discrimination, but the bill failed to get out of committee.

Music senior Torsten Knabe said coming out at work is important for reasons far more personal than simply the legal aspects involved.

“People are most productive when they feel they are in a healthy, friendly environment that accepts them for who they are,” Knabe said. “You want people to be able to bring their identity to the table versus having to hide themselves.”

For her part, UTPD Captain Julie Gillespie said she doesn’t see herself as a role model to LGBT youth, but hopes her example can show that coming out at work can be a positive experience.

“I think as individuals, as we come out and are able to see people on TV and people in high positions coming out and it being okay and it being supported, then I think it helps them as they struggle with the issues of coming out in a workplace or at home or wherever,” Gillespie said.

 

Printed on Monday, October 15, 2012 as: Panel explores new side of 'coming out'