Report

LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment

September 2021

Using survey data collected in May 2021, this report examines the lifetime, five-year, and past-year experiences of discrimination among LGBT employees. It is one of the first studies to look at LGBT employment discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the year following Bostock v. Clayton County.

Highlights
One in ten LGBT workers experienced discrimination at work in the last year.
LGBT employees of color were more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment.
Many LGBT employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors to avoid harassment or discrimination at work.
Data Points
46%
of LGBT workers have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives
9%
of LGBT employees experienced discrimination in the past year
11%
of LGBT employees of color reported being fired or not hired in the last year
57%
of LGBT employees reported the unfair treatment was motivated by religious beliefs
38%
of LGBT employees reported experiencing harassment at work
36%
of LGBT employees of color experienced verbal harassment
26%
26% of white LGBT employees faced the same
50%
of LGBT employees are not out to their current supervisor
26% are not out to any co-workers
34%
of LGBT employees have left a job due to treatment by their employer
Report

Executive Summary

Over 8 million workers in the U.S. identify as LGBT.1 Employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT people has been documented in a variety of sources and found to negatively impact employees’ health and wellbeing and to reduce job commitment and satisfaction. 

This report examines experiences of employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT adults using a survey of 935 LGBT adults conducted in May of 2021. Lifetime, five-year, and past-year discrimination were assessed among adults employed as of March 2020—just before many workplaces were forced to shut down because of COVID-19. 

Accordingly, this survey is one of the first to gather information about experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity employment discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the year following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County,2 which held that employment discrimination against LGBT people is prohibited by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.3

Our analysis indicates that employment discrimination against LGBT people continues to be persistent and widespread. Over 40% of LGBT workers (45.5%) reported experiencing unfair treatment at work, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives. This discrimination and harassment is ongoing: nearly one-third (31.1%) of LGBT respondents reported that they experienced discrimination or harassment within the past five years. 

Overall, 8.9% of employed LGBT people reported that they were fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year, including 11.3% of LGBT employees of color and 6.5% of white LGBT employees. The percentage was five times as high for those who were out as LGBT to at least some people at work as compared to those who were not out (10.9% compared to 2.2%). 

Over half (57.0%) of LGBT employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at work reported that their employer or co-workers did or said something to indicate that the unfair treatment that they experienced was motivated by religious beliefs. Nearly two-thirds (63.5%) of LGBT employees of color said that religion was a motivating factor in their experiences of workplace discrimination compared to 49.4% of white LGBT employees. 

Many employees also reported engaging in behaviors to avoid discrimination and harassment, including hiding their LGBT identity and changing their physical appearance, and many left their jobs or considered leaving their jobs because of unfair treatment. 

While the key findings of the report are summarized below, the full report includes several quotes from respondents providing more detail about their experiences of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. 

Key Findings

  • Discrimination: Over one in four (29.8%) LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of employment discrimination (being fired or not hired) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
    • One-third (33.2%) of LGBT employees of color and one-quarter (26.3%) of white LGBT employees reported experiencing employment discrimination (being fired or not hired) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
    • LGBT employees of color were significantly more likely to report not being hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity than white LGBT employees: 29.0% of LGBT employees of color reported not being hired based on their LGBT status compared to 18.3% of white LGBT employees. 

Transgender4 employees were also significantly more likely to experience discrimination based on their LGBT status than cisgender LGB employees: Nearly half (48.8%) of transgender employees reported experiencing discrimination (being fired or not hired) based on their LGBT status compared to 27.8% of cisgender LGB employees. More specifically, over twice as many transgender employees reported not being hired (43.9%) because of their LGBT status compared to LGB employees (21.5%). 

    • Beyond being fired or not being hired, respondents also reported other types of unfair treatment based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, including not being promoted, not receiving raises, being treated differently than those with different-sex partners, having their schedules changed or reduced, and being excluded from company events.
  • Harassment: About one-third (37.7%) of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of harassment at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
    • One in five (20.8%) LGBT employees reported experiencing physical harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Reports of physical harassment included being “punched,” “hit,” and ‘beaten up” in the workplace. 
    • LGBT employees of color were significantly more likely to report experiencing verbal harassment (35.6% compared to 25.9%) at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity than white LGBT employees. In addition, transgender employees were significantly more likely to report experiencing verbal harassment over the course of their careers than cisgender LGB employees (43.8% compared to 29.3%). In many cases, the verbal harassment came from employees’ supervisors and co-workers, as well as customers. 
    • One in four (25.9%) LGBT employees reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace because of their sexual orientation and gender identity at some point in their careers. Although transgender employees were not more likely than cisgender employees to report sexual harassment over the course of their careers, they were twice as likely to report recent experiences of sexual harassment: 22.4% reported sexual harassment in the past five years compared to 11.9% of cisgender LGB employees. 
  • Workplace culture: Two-thirds (67.5%) of LGBT employees reported that they have heard negative comments, slurs, or jokes about LGBTQ people at work. Many LGBT people reported being called or hearing words like “f****t,” “queer,” “sissy,” “tranny,” and “dyke” in the workplace. 
  • Recent experiences: Of LGBT employees who experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace, about one-third (31.1%) said at least one of these experiences occurred within the past five years; an additional 14.0% said that they had these experiences over five years ago.
    • LGBT people continue to experience workplace discrimination even after the U.S. Supreme Court extended non-discrimination protections to LGBT people nationwide in Bostock v. Clayton County. Nine percent (8.9%) of LGBT employees reported that they were fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year. 
    • One in ten (11.3%) LGBT employees of color reported experiencing some form of employment discrimination (including being fired or not hired) based on their sexual orientation or gender identity within the past year.
  • Religious motivation for discrimination: Over half (57.0%) of LGBT employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at work reported that their employer or co-workers did or said something to indicate that the unfair treatment was motivated by religious beliefs. For many, this included being quoted to from the Bible, told to pray that they weren’t LGBT, and told that they would “go to hell” or were “an abomination.”
    • Of those employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at some point in their lives, 63.5% of LGBT employees of color said that religion was a motivating factor compared to 49.4% of white LGBT employees. 
  • Out at work: Many LGBT people avoid discrimination and harassment in the workplace by not being out to their supervisor and co-workers. Half (50.4%) of LGBT employees said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor and one-quarter (25.8%) are not out to any of their co-workers.
    • Those who are out to at least some people in the workplace were three times more likely to report experiences of discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity than those who are not out to anyone in the workplace (53.3% compared to 17.9%). 
    • While approximately 7% of those who are not out to anyone in the workplace reported experiencing verbal (7.4%) or physical (7.4%) harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, of those who are out to at least some people in the workplace, about one in three reported experiencing verbal harassment (37.8%) and one in four (25.0%) reported experiencing physical harassment. 
    • In terms of discrimination in the past year—post-Bostock—those who are out to at least some people in the workplace were five times more likely to report experiencing discrimination (including being fired or not hired) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity than those who are not out to anyone (10.9% compared to 2.2%). 
  • Covering: Many LGBT employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors in order to avoid harassment or discrimination at work, including changing their physical appearance; changing when, where, or how frequently they used the bathroom; and avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work. Some of the respondents reported engaging in these covering behaviors because their supervisors or co-workers explicitly told them to do so.
    • Transgender employees were significantly more likely to engage in covering behaviors than cisgender LGB employees. For example, 36.4% of transgender employees said that they changed their physical appearance and 27.5% said they changed their bathroom use at work compared to 23.3% and 14.9% of cisgender LGB employees. 
  • Retention: One-third (34.2%) of LGBT employees said that they have left a job because of how they were treated by their employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Download the full report

LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment

Kerith J. Conron & Shoshana K. Goldberg, WilliamsInst., LGBT People in the US Not Protected by State NonDiscrimination Statutes1 (2020), https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-nondiscrimination-statutes. 

140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020). 

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

Participants who selected gender identity response options, including male, female, transgender, and nonbinary, that differed from their sex assigned at birth, were classified as transgender.