Pride in government: The LGBTQ+ community and the federal workforce
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Pride in government: The LGBTQ+ community and the federal workforce

June 24, 2021

Social movements like the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and Act Up! are visible milestones in the struggle for gay civil rights, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that a slow but steady cultural and political shift helped the LGBTQ+ community gain acceptance. Yet, an area often overlooked is the struggle and success of the LGBTQ individuals in the federal workforce. In 80 years, with advancements and backslides, the federal government has transitioned from discriminating against LGBTQ+ employees to protecting their rights. 

For much of the 20th century, the federal government discriminated against LGBTQ+ employees. It’s estimated that between 1940 and 1960—a period known as the Lavender Scare—7,000 to 10,000 employees were fired or forced to resign because of their sexuality. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order banning federal agencies from hiring gay and lesbian individuals, and it would take two decades for a federal judge to rule the order unconstitutional.

Improving support for LGBTQ+ federal employees

Even though there were advances from 1980 through 1990, it wasn’t until 1998 that the Clinton administration issued an executive order affirming the policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal employment. In 2004, President Barack Obama signed a different order that banned federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of gender identity.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination on the basis of both gender identity and sexual orientation. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order that directed federal agencies to apply the Bostock decision to other laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex—a move that will provide LGBQT+ individuals with new protections in housing, education, health care and more.

Up to now most protections have been the result of presidential initiatives linked to each president’s agenda. This situation presents an area of opportunity for Congress to advance and permanently guarantee the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens.

Similarly, in recent years the federal workplace has become significantly more inclusive toward LGBTQ+ individuals. The Obama administration appointed more than 250 LGBTQ+ professionals to the executive branch, and the current administration has followed a similar trend. As of now, 14% of President Biden’s approximate 1,500 political appointees identify as LGBTQ+. The administration also includes Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the country’s first openly LGBTQ+ Cabinet member, and Assistant Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, the first openly transgender person to be confirmed by the Senate.

What else can be done for LGBTQ+ employees?

All told, LGBTQ+ individuals make up an estimated 5.9% of the federal workforce—a statistic based on data from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which began allowing individuals to identify their sexual orientation in 2012. Despite this progress, however, LGBTQ+ employees still face challenges in the federal workplace.

In 2015, an analysis of 300,000 federal employees across 28 agencies showed that LGBTQ+ workers fared worse than their non-LGBTQ+ colleagues in terms of perceived treatment, workplace fairness and job satisfaction. As a recent report suggests, access to this type of data on LGBTQ+ populations is critical to building a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

The active work of recent administrations to protect LGBTQ+ populations has been a substantial step in the United States; however, long lasting change can only be achieved by actively supporting and advancing inclusion in our everyday life. For non-LGBTQ+ individuals, learning how to be good allies can be an important opportunity to build a more inclusive workspace. For agencies and leaders reaching out to LGBTQ+ individuals in the federal workforce, making connections to strengthen advocacy for the marginalized and working to make the workplace more equal are three important steps to support the long stride towards equality.

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