What to do if you are the target of discrimination

Sometimes, no matter how much research you have conducted, you may find yourself in a difficult situation. Discrimination can be subtle or obvious, individual or institutional. In any case, it is important to identify the problem and take appropriate steps to deal with the situation.

If you feel that you are the target of discrimination based on your sexual orientation, the first step you must take is to conduct an honest evaluation of the circumstances. Can you identify specific actions/situations in which your sexual orientation was an issue? If the problem is a poor evaluation from your supervisor, might there be legitimate improvements you need to make? It's always difficult to hear that you need to improve your work, but it doesn't always mean that you are being discriminated against due to your sexual orientation. It's always a good idea to take some time after a negative review to let emotions cool off so that you can assess the situation more clearly.

The key to identifying discrimination is having documentation of specific incidents. Noting vague feelings of discrimination, while certainly important, will not help you take steps necessary to change or improve the situation. Did a co-worker do or say something to you? Are there employer-sponsored events that are open to heterosexual couples but not gay or lesbian couples? Does the work environment include homophobic materials such as cartoons in break rooms? Do co-workers or supervisors tell gay "jokes" in the office? Write down these incidents with dates, times, and names of others who were present. You may want to make notes like this in a journal or other record-keeping method at home. Keep in mind that if the situation escalates to legal action, your entire journal may be reviewed, not just the parts you think are relevant to the situation.

After careful consideration of the circumstances, it is time to evaluate your next steps. If you think there was an isolated lapse of judgment (e.g., a stupid "joke" told by a co-worker who may not have realized it was offensive), your best step could be to simply document the incident and continue to work as usual. An even better response would be to talk individually to the person and explain why the joke was inappropriate. Take care to note this conversation as well. 

Steps become more complicated if you are subject to repeated acts of discrimination from co-workers or discrimination from your supervisor. Again, if you believe you have a solid relationship with your supervisor, a conversation outlining your concerns may be helpful. Keep in mind, however, that  employers are often nervous and defensive when issues of discrimination come up. Approach the conversation calmly and with specific examples of incidents and concerns. After the meeting, document the content, including date and time of the conversation. Take care to document any steps that your supervisor agrees to take in order to remedy the situation.

If the discrimination continues after this meeting, or it is your supervisor who has been discriminatory or abusive, you may need to make more formal steps. If your employer or state includes sexual orientation in their non-discrimination clause, you should also be able to find information regarding steps to filing a complaint. Check with your Human Resources department or employee handbook. At this time you may want to discuss the situation with a third party. Talking to a counselor, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) representative, or a similar professional may help you sort out the situation and determine your options.

Filing an internal complaint is a step that should not be taken lightly. Although it may ultimately be rewarding and result in positive changes, it can also be quite stressful, and you may not get the results you hoped for. Negative consequences can include everything from a "cold" environment in the workplace to being suspended or even fired. A strong support system within or outside of the work environment may help you deal with the stress and keep things in perspective.

Finally, you may have legal remedies available to you. This depends on many factors, including the non-discrimination policies of your employer and state, the type or level of discrimination, and documented evidence. Sexual harassment and discrimination allegations can be difficult to prove, and consultation with an attorney can help you analyze the situation and identify your options, which may include mediation or litigation. When choosing an attorney, research his or her experience with sexual harassment/discrimination claims as well as his or her experience working with GLBT clients. Local, state, and national GLBT organizations, some of which are linked to this page, may be able to refer you to appropriate attorneys.

We all hope that we will be judged solely on the basis of our performance, and for the most part we find this to be true. However, if you find yourself in any of the situations described above, you do not have to go through it alone. Seek out support from GLBT groups in your area, talk to a professional counselor, or lean on your family and friends. Although it may be of little comfort when you are going through this situation, many long-term changes in policy, laws, and cultural expectations have resulted from the hard work of people committed to establishing equal protection and treatment for all.

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