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Older LGBT employees finding it tough in today’s workplace

Research indicates that employees aged 55+ less likely to be open about their sexuality
Sal Romano, a closeted gay character on US series Mad Men who struggles with his sexuality.

One of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes is: ‘...the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.’

As I was reading through some research by the UK's leading lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization Stonewall about the experience in the workplace of LGBT people aged 55 plus, I was conscious of how easy it is to mistakenly interpret other people’s actions through your own experiences.

In brief, Stonewall’s research suggests that people aged 55 or over are less confident to be open about their sexuality than those in the 25 to 55 age group.

I am a firm believer (although not always the best practitioner) in being completely authentic in every aspect of your life - you will perform at your best and engage at a deeper level with the people that you are working with if you let them get to know you, to understand you, and to trust you.

I was born in 1972 and grew up near Melbourne in Australia’s state of Victoria. That state decriminalized homosexuality in 1981. After graduating from university, I remained 'closeted' at work for my first few professional jobs during the late 90s, but in the year 2000 I started a new job and decided to start laying it all on the table - a decision I haven’t regretted.

To be aged 55 or above (and therefore part of the research findings that Stonewall has produced), you would have been born before 1957. This means that you probably started your working life sometime around 1975.

Let's just re-cap what was going on in the 1970s from an LGBT perspective:

  • 1970: The first gay liberation march was held in New York
  • 1973: The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders
  • 1974: The first openly LGBT telephone helpline opens in London
  • 1978: Harvey Milk (one of the few openly gay politicians in the US) is assassinated in San Francisco
  • 1978: The first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is held

It wasn’t until 1988 that Sweden became the first country to pass laws protecting homosexual rights regarding social services, taxes, and inheritances.

If you began your working life in the 70s or 80s (when homosexuality was either a criminal offence or at the very least severely career limiting), it’s highly likely that you would have created a closeted identity for yourself at work.

It really isn’t a surprise then that this older generation sometimes struggles to adapt to a changed environment where LGBT characters are portrayed in a positive light on the telly, professional sportspeople can be openly gay and large companies compete to demonstrate that they are actively supporting their LGBT employees.

Once you’ve worked hard to create a plausible closeted identity with your employer, your colleagues, your clients and your professional networks, it eventually becomes almost impossible to unwind that and suddenly reveal your true self.

I spoke with Dr Cindy Holden, a general practitioner working in Melbourne, about what sort of personal impact that this type of workplace experience could have on older LGBT people: ‘There are potential mental health impacts in this type of situation - older gay and lesbian people could be at risk of feeling socially isolated at work which may in turn impact on their personal confidence and job performance.

‘With the current economic climate and society's obsession with youth, people in this age group may be feeling extra vulnerable and therefore more at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Adding to the stress levels may be some of the general issues facing those over 55 such as a possible increase in their own physical health problems, and social factors like caring for aging parents.’

While many companies and large employers are working hard to support and engage with their LGBT employees, there appears to be little evidence of organizations directing resources to address the specific needs of older LGBT employees.

For example Morgan Stanley (ranked 45th in Stonewall’s 2012 Workplace Equality Index) has, according to spokesperson Sandra Hernandez, ‘an active Pride and LGBT Ally group that actively engages employees at all stages of their careers.’

What this means is that it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. With older employees being more reserved and less-likely to be confident about articulating their needs, it’s easy to see how older employees continue to be over-looked in the workplace.

Law firm Simmons & Simmons (ranked 10th in Stonewall’s 2012 Workplace Equality Index) reports a similar situation, with a spokeswoman advising that: ‘Our work hasn't specifically focused on the experiences of older LGBT employees.’

So while LGBT employee networks are a good first point of call for older LGBT employers seeking support, information and advice or just some new social opportunities, the members of these networks may not necessarily understand or appreciate what the workplace experience has been like for someone aged 55 or over. A failure to connect in this way with younger LGBT colleagues could potentially exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals.

Dr Holden says that the important thing is to reach out and ask for help: ‘If feeling isolated or vulnerable, older LGBT people should speak with their doctor for a non-judgmental discussion and for advice about how to access help such as locally based counseling services, or support groups. There’s also a range of online resources available which some people may find an easier starting point.’

Having started with Wilde, I'll conclude with a quote from JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: ‘Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.’

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