Legally entrenched discrimination, such as the current denial of same sex marriage, often dominates public debate regarding LGBTI Australians.
Less often discussed is the experience of queer people in the workplace.
After all, most adults spend around half their waking hours in employment, so negative experiences in the workplace can have a significant impact on one’s mental and physical health, and in turn their earning capacity.
Employee surveys provide some statistics on harassment and whether sexuality is seen as a barrier to advancement, and employer-driven awards give an idea of which organisations want to be seen as progressive. But in reality this paints a pretty limited picture of the experience of queer people at work.
So what is it like?
To find out, The Mandarin spoke to a range of LGBTI public servants and their colleagues from several jurisdictions.
While it’s hard to sum up the broad range of lived experiences of such a diverse group of people, a few common themes emerged.
Much experience is positive
Firstly, many say they have not had a problem at work. This includes both recent recruits and people who have been in the service for 20-30 years, as well as employees in agencies or jurisdictions one might otherwise assume would perform poorly.
One Queensland public servant who said she “had never felt discriminated against” over her sexuality, noting leave was willingly approved when her partner’s parent died. “Individual staff attitudes are probably better now — peer to peer. Have never seen nor experienced manager bias/discrimination re sexuality.”
Maria Katsonis of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet — and the former director of DPC’s equality portfolio, the first of its kind in Australia — told The Mandarin her sexuality has never presented problems for her in the 20 years she’s been around the VPS.
Yet it’s only been during the past couple of years, with the creation of the equality portfolio, that it’s felt like the government had made a deliberate effort, through communications and initiatives, to encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, she added. Victoria’s efforts at improving inclusivity will be the subject of a subsequent article.
Lack of support
But this is far from the whole picture.
Many LGBTI people working in the public sector feel they are not being fully supported or understood by their workplace, and some have been victims of outright discrimination.
A few people who spoke to The Mandarin reported leaving jobs due to problems regarding their sexuality. One reported being bullied out some decades ago; another recently quit an office with “terrible, terrible morale … but also because I was frustrated by management not listening to its LGBTI employees, myself included.”“It struck me how closeted people were in the public sector.”
One APS employee was told a decade ago they would not be promoted to SES level because they were gay. “And I certainly wasn’t the only one,” they added. Eventually they joined another department and were promoted.
Others are pointedly left out of activities or have to deal with inappropriate questions.
Then there’s the story of the four gay NSW police who were subject to a drugs investigation due to their “loose morals”. They were all cleared.
Official responses often add insult to injury, with a lack of action by the agency commonly meaning change must be driven by individual LGBTI staff, sometimes at great personal cost.
Many aren’t out
In such environments, many just choose not to come out.
While it’s hard to know how many public servants are still in the closet, several people The Mandarin spoke to said it was still fairly common. One commented that after coming from a previous career, “it struck me how closeted people were in the public sector.”
There are senior leaders who have spent decades avoiding the subject of partners; some have gone so far as to bring someone of the opposite sex to a work social event.
Even young public servants worry their sexuality might be an impediment to their career. This point is driven home by a lack of role models in senior positions.
Then there are the many queer people who are partially out at work, telling those they know will understand and avoiding the subject with others.
This secrecy can cause staff to feel alienated from their colleagues and can even have serious mental health impacts.
The reality is that for queer people, you do not just come out once, but many times. Many say that when meeting someone new, there is a voice in the back of your mind that wonders whether they will think differently of you, or will be awkward about it, or even behave differently around you — and occasionally they do.
“It’s always scary coming out,” says Stephanie Amir, councillor at the City of Darebin in Melbourne’s north and former Victorian public servant.
“And awkward when people assume my partner is a man and I have to decide whether to let it slide to avoid the awkwardness but mislead them, or correct them and then have to tolerate the awkwardness that follows.
“I don’t think there’s a good understanding of how stressful it is on a day to day basis,” she told The Mandarin.
Queer staff notice the awkwardness
Awkwardness and discomfort with discussing queer issues are common and can be alienating for LGBTI staff.
A common example is managers or human resources being unsure how to handle harassment or inappropriate comments and choosing not to ‘make a big deal out of it’, hoping the problem will go away without them having to intervene.
A Victorian said that when she put up a photo of her partner on the desk at her new job, her manager, who had made a point of asking about her sexuality beforehand, commented, “that’s a bit much, don’t you think?” The manager turned out to have “a bunch of prejudices”, and when she eventually made the decision to make a complaint, she felt that human resources effectively ignored her, failing to update her on what was being done in response to her complaint. The complaint eventually petered out, unresolved, as both left their jobs.“The thing I would really like is for bystanders to step in when someone is being treated unfairly.”
“It felt like the needs of the perpetrator came first, even as I felt like I was putting my career on the line to make a complaint about someone more senior than me.”
Failure to deal with problems demonstrates for many that their colleagues do not understand a key facet of their identity, or don’t care.
“In general managers are not proactive about it,” believes Amir.
While their colleagues might be supportive in principle, when controversy arises many turn out to be “fair weather friends” unwilling to inconvenience themselves to support LGBTI staff.
Same sex marriage survey
The same sex marriage survey has created many such situations.
For many LGBTI people, having to justify who you are and why you deserve to be treated equally brings up dark memories. The marriage survey has caused distress for many LGBTI Australians, with anecdotes suggesting both public sector employee services and public counselling services have been heavily used during this time.
Some public agencies have been unsure where the line sits between political impartiality and supporting LGBTI staff during the survey, not making clear what is and is not acceptable, in turn allowing such debates to be drawn out among staff. The placement of same sex marriage campaign material in offices has caused controversy in some places, leaving LGBTI employees with the emotional burden of arguing for their own rights to be respected by their colleagues, which can lead to stress and resentment.
Walking this line between impartiality and asserting basic rights has been especially fraught for Commonwealth employees. Conservatives have been keen to catch public servants out for openly supporting the yes campaign, such as when Senator Eric Abetz complained about a yes poster displayed in the lobby of the Department of Environment and Energy in Canberra. Other public servants have been personally and publicly targeted for openly supporting gay rights.
Political interference — again at the Commonwealth level — has also been a problem recently for gender diverse people working at Defence, as conservatives have challenged the department’s right to effectively recognise their existence and provide them with support.
Even something intended to be positive like a workplace morning tea in support of LGBTI staff can reveal divisions, as some staff choose not to attend, leaving people wondering whether they were just busy or trying to make a point. An idea that can be helpful if your workplace has already done lots of culture change, but can create extra problems if poorly handled.
Narrowing the pool
Allowing an environment where queer staff feel uncomfortable to be themselves leads to self-selection.
This dynamic is often noted in discussions about diversity, and came through in the way people talk about their careers — whether that’s young trans people saying they can’t imagine working in the public service because the culture is unwelcoming or employees leaving their organisations out of frustration over managers who just don’t get it.
“When I am looking at jobs (public service or otherwise) I intentionally only consider workplaces that I know or believe are inclusive of LGBTIQ people,” says Stephanie Amir.
“For example, I’ll look at which organisations have won inclusion awards; I will talk to people I know in the organisation to see what the culture is like; I look on LinkedIn to see who works there and look for suggestions that they might be in the community — such as listing volunteer roles at LGBTIQ organisations or having common connections who are queer; observe people I see or meet at the interview to look for signs of support or homophobia.
“I also speak in interviews about my work on the board at LGBTIQ radio station JOY94.9 and formerly being manager of Safe Schools Coalition as a way for my prospective manager to either welcome or reject that experience — ie. if s/he is homophobic and I don’t get the job, it wasn’t the right job for me, and I do get the job I’m already partly ‘out’ which may avoid awkwardness.”
Amir is one who has had “almost exclusively positive” experiences in the VPS, but thinks this is “partly due to me selecting roles where I felt confident that my manager would be inclusive”.
Complacency is a threat to progress
Clear leadership backed up by serious efforts to implement initiatives and culture change can have a real impact.
In some places it has helped undermine the ambiguity and tension around the same sex marriage survey.
One staffer at Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services said they were “really grateful” Secretary Kym Peake sent out a statement when the survey was announced, stating that the department would not tolerate homophobia.
LGBTI staff are also suspicious of “rainbow-washing” — organisations not backing up their verbal support with action on the ground. While symbolism is important in itself, it’s of limited use if support systems don’t function effectively or complaints are not acted upon.
“That’s often where people in the public service find it really hard — some people who make statements not following up.”
One interviewee said complacency was a threat to embedding change, comparing queer rights to what happened with the women’s movement. Many feminists felt much of their work was done once legal structures holding women back were abolished in the 1970s.
“There was an assumption it would all be fine, but we know now that the problems won’t fix themselves.”
Cultural change — making clear an inclusive workplace is everyone’s responsibility — is key. Support from secretaries and directors general can help empower staff to call out bad behaviour when they experience it or see it.
“There has been a lot of discussion about family violence in Victoria over the past couple of years about asking, ‘as a bystander what’s your obligation?’ It’s similar. Often there’s not a lot of courage to stand up to bad behaviour.
“I think people do worry about the impact it will have on them — retribution from a boss or colleague. But fundamentally it’s important to show compassion. Even if you don’t step in at the time you can come up after and say ‘that’s not what I think’ and support that person.
“The thing I would really like is for bystanders to step in when someone is being treated unfairly.”