Workplace reactions to same-sex relationships suggest that legal recognition has done little to erode the marginalization many LGB people face, new research from a University of Kent sociologist concludes.
Dr Mike Thomas looked at the workplace as an arena for assessing the social impact of same-sex marriage and civil partnership. Drawing on groundbreaking research carried out in the UK, USA and Canada, Dr Thomas found that getting married or forming a civil partnership sometimes led to problems for lesbian and gay people at work.
In a paper presented on 25 August at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association, Dr Thomas concluded that while on the one hand news of a same-sex wedding or civil partnership made gay and lesbian employees more visible at work and led to a sense of belonging and inclusion, this was often an uncomfortable process that tested the limits of acceptance.
He found that some of those who took part in the research felt they'd lost the respect of their colleagues and faced gossip and hostility from co-workers when news of their wedding or civil partnership got out. Some were outed as gay or lesbian as a result of this process. Even apparently benevolent efforts to include lesbian and gay workers, such as organising a workplace party to recognise an employee's wedding, were likely to draw hostility and underline a lack of respect or recognition for lesbian and gay workers. This lack of respect was seen as undermining the position of lesbian and gay employees at work.
Dr Thomas said: 'These findings show that legislation and policy only tell part of the story: we need to look at the daily lives of gay and lesbian people to understand the real impact of same-sex marriage.
'Lesbian and gay employees' accounts of workplace reactions suggest that legal recognition has done little to erode the exclusion and marginalisation they sometimes face at work. If anything, these attempts to break the code of silence on same-sex relationships may have exacerbated their sense of difference and isolation.
'There are important lessons for employers here, in that attempts to raise the visibility of gay and lesbian people at work -- however well meaning -- can go badly wrong without strong equality policies and an assessment of how and whether employees want this kind of sensitive information to be shared at work. Lesbian and gay employees should, of course, be the ones to decide this, rather than being used by employers as guinea-pigs for promoting diversity and equality at work.'
Dr Thomas is a lecturer in social work within the University's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. His paper is entitled Silence at the water-cooler: understanding the impact of same-sex marriage in the workplace.
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