Coming Out In The Workplace Is Still Hard In America, Even If Tim Cook Makes It Look Easy

When Tim Cook spoke up about his sexuality on Thursday, announcing that he was "proud to be gay," the Internet exploded in applause. Reactions were heartwarming and priceless, and Cook was met with what seemed like overwhelming support from the worldwide web community. But Cook, as he notes himself in his Businessweek piece, is one of the lucky ones. As the CEO of Apple, he "had the good fortune to work at a company that...knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences." But coming out in the workplace for most Americans is still a struggle that too often goes unrecognized.

Last week, one of my college professors told me that she began her teaching career in the 1970's by signing a document that stated that she was neither gay nor a Communist. And while the United States has progressed considerably over the last few decades (at least, our teachers aren't signing those contracts anymore), the stigma against homosexuality in the workplace remains rampant. Worse yet, there are no federal laws, and very few state laws in place to protect employees from discrimination stemming from homosexuality. In fact, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, 29 states, including most of the south and the mid-Atlantic coast, do not have discrimination laws that include gender identity or sexual orientation.

This means that more than half of the workforce in the United States can still legally be fired for being gay.

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If this seems like a terribly outdated practice to you, rejoice in the knowledge that most Americans are in agreement. But unfortunately, most Americans are also unaware that this is still a problem. While a Harris poll released Thursday showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans support the notion that "federal law should be expanded to include protection from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity," a similar percentage said in 2013 that they thought there already were such measures in place. According to last year's HuffPost/YouGov poll on the subject, 69 percent of respondents said that they thought it was illegal to fire people for their sexual orientation. A year later, this still isn't the case.

Back in July, President Obama took matters into his own hands and issued an executive order that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation against all federal employees. That order affected about 2,723,000 people who worked for the federal government, and when Obama signed the order, he noted, "America's federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people." But for the hundreds of millions of Americans who do not operate under federal contracts, this discrimination remains alive and well.

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Numerous studies have suggested that LGBTQ employees feel obligated to hide their sexuality, or worse yet, fear that revealing their sexual preferences would result in their termination. Jason, a 25-year-old information technology professional, told CNN, "You're at-will employment. So they could point blank say I don't want a gay person working under me. I'm going to let you go. I'm not saying that my managers would do that, but you never know." So careful is he to protect his identity as a gay man, he told the news outlet, that he creates two versions of the same photo album — one that includes his partner and one that doesn't — so that he'll be able to show his work colleagues the pictures.

We may have repeated Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2011, but its effects are still as prevalent as ever. According to a Human Rights Campaign survey of 800 LGBTQ employees in May, 53 percent said that hid "who they were at work," and another 20 percent said they began looking for other jobs because their current work environments were not accepting of their orientation. This is unsurprising, considering that one in every four of those surveyed reported hearing sexuality-based epithets like "That's so gay" in the workplace.

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Yet another Deloitte/New York University study found that a stunning 83 percent of LGBTQ respondents felt that they "covered" part of their identity while at work. Though this isn't to say that every personal detail of every individual should be shared by the water cooler, the lack of optionality for LGBTQ individuals to do so certainly differentiates them from their heterosexual colleagues.

When it comes to homosexuality in the United States, we don't seem much closer to coming to an inclusive, accepting consensus than we did in the 1970's when teachers had to denounce homosexuality before being allowed to teach children. Even in the most liberal parts of the country, like Silicon Valley, opinions on LGBTQ issues like marriage equality and workplace discrimination vary widely. In fact, in 2008, 40 percent of Silicon Valley workers voted in favor of Proposition 8, banning same sex marriage.

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And while Tim Cook deserves all the praise he has received for being the first (and only) CEO of a major American company to come out as gay, the fact remains that he is the only one. Though there are certainly other homosexual CEOs, none have revealed their sexuality while at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. John Browne, the former CEO of BP, actually resigned from his post when his sexuality was revealed by a British newspaper.

So what can be done? For one thing, the Out & Equal Workplace Summit is slated to take place from November 3 to November 6 in San Francisco, 36 years after Harvey Milk's famous campaign against the Briggs Initiative that would have mandated the firing of any gay or allied teacher. The summit, which will include 500 companies, will meet in hopes of establishing solutions for greater workplace equality, regardless of gender identity or sexuality. Apple, of course, will be one of those companies.

While Tim Cook may be the exception and not the rule when it comes to coming out in the workplace, perhaps his bravery will start an important trend that is decades, no, centuries, in the making.

Images: ACLU/Huffington Post; Getty Images (4)