By Mariel Alison L. Aguinaldo
The COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges to the LGBT+ workforce, which their employers might not realize.
Gender discrimination when it comes to job security is an underlying concern for LGBT+ employees. Company leaders—instead of basing their retrenchment decisions on skill or merit—may have “silent biases,” said Ronn Astillas, chair of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce, an inter-industry organization of businesses by and for LGBT. With most companies lacking anti-discrimination policies, LGBT+ employees have nothing to lean on if they feel they have been unfairly retrenched.
LGBT+ entrepreneurs also face a similar problem. Instead of being able to confide and consult with their professional peers, discrimination adds to the already heavy burden of keeping a business afloat during the pandemic. “If I’m a gay enterprise owner and then I go to a gathering of an old boys’ club, and from there I feel that they’re not accepting, I will not talk to them about my concerns. In fact, I might protect myself by not revealing my identity,” said Mr. Astillas.
LGBT+ employees who are retained by their employers, meanwhile, also have to contend with the fact that some companies still do not allow their partners to be named as beneficiaries in their healthcare coverage plans, potentially placing them in a financial bind if their partner falls ill. This stress is magnified amid the coronavirus pandemic which has infected millions.
Lockdowns have also denied transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals from accessing transition medication. These procedures are not merely cosmetic for the community. According to Out & Equal, an organization on LGBT+ workplace equality, tranistioning decreases anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior caused by gender dysphoria, or distress due to a conflict between one’s gender identity and birth sex.
Members of the LGBT+ community have also reported mental health problems amplified by their lack of interaction with friends. This is especially alarming considering that LGBT+ individuals are generally 1.5 to 2.5 times more prone to having anxiety or depression compared to heterosexual or cisgender individuals.
“They need a very strong support system because of all the stigma and discrimination that they’re usually subjected to, and part of that is having a social space… where they can go to and hang out with like-minded individuals or individuals who accept them for who they are. Because of the pandemic, they have lost access to all of those social spaces. Sometimes, the virtual space does not compensate for that,” said Marla Garin-Alvarez, former diversity and inclusion lead of Thomson Reuters, a news and information services company that is supportive of the LGBT+ community.
Unfortunately, lockdowns also increase the risk of physical or psychological abuse at home. Mr. Astillas shared that an LGBT+ employee in a partner company insisted on working at the office even if they were allowed to work remotely. “Apparently, it’s a case of an unaccepting family… because of the gender identity of the person,” he said.
NO NEED TO HIDE
Fortunately, there are companies that offer solutions to a few of the aforementioned challenges. Thomson Reuters and Unilever Philippines allow LGBT+ employees to extend their healthcare coverage plan benefits to their partners, in addition to the customary paid leave for when they must tend to sick partners, and maternity and paternity leave for taking care of a new child.
Thomson Reuters provides free online counseling for their employees to help them cope with anxiety and stress. Some companies under the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce also hold fun activities once a week, such as quiz nights and film viewings, to help ease the minds of LGBT+ employees.
Mr. Astillas cited partner companies that provide accommodations for LGBT+ employees who experience abuse at home, and assistance to transgender employees who need help getting their transition medication amid the lockdown.
Efforts specifically for LGBT+ employees, while still relatively uncommon in the country, help set the right direction for businesses. By taking the initiative to be accepting—and not merely tolerant—of their LGBT+ employees, companies create a space where everyone can flourish regardless of gender.
Genuine workplace inclusion benefits not the just LGBT+ employees but the company as well. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation states that inclusive businesses attract a better job applicant pool, have higher employee retention, and enjoy an improved company brand and reputation. Workplace inclusion also increases productivity since LGBT+ employees can focus all their energy on work; they do not have to worry about hiding their identity from their colleagues or customers.
“That effort alone carries both mental and physical stigma for the person… because you have to hide yourself, you have to lie, and at times, it impacts the relationship because you’re not as forthright,” said Ms. Garin-Alvarez.
‘THE BATTLE IS NOT OVER UNTIL WE REACH THE RAINBOW’S END’
Workplace support is especially crucial considering that pro-LGBT+ government policies are sparse.
On the bright side, some local government units have passed anti-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBT+ rights. The City of Manila is the latest to join that list: on Oct. 29, the local government approved an ordinance that penalizes any “distinction, exclusion, restriction, or other differential treatment” against members of the LGBT+ community. In March, the Insurance Commission clarified that LGBT+ partners can be named as insurance beneficiaries.
While the pace is slow and the path is littered with opposition, members of the LGBT+ workforce remain positive that they will someday reach the finish line with flying colors.
“What we say over at the chamber is, ‘The battle is not over until we reach the rainbow’s end…’ Hopefully we win every day, but we look at the battle as if it has not ended until we reach that end of the rainbow. That’s when we can say, true enough, that we are happy to be in a society that accepts everybody, that is inclusive, and that has a diverse composition of people expressing themselves with different identities,” said Mr. Astillas.