As Anna remembers it, there were a dozen women standing outside the ladies’ room, barring one of her fellow tutors from going in. The reason? She looked like a boy.
“They were whispering that she was ‘neither male nor female,’” recalled Anna — to protect the identities of my interviewees, I have given them all pseudonyms. A 34-year-old early education tutor in Beijing and a lesbian, Anna stepped forward, grasped her colleague’s hand tightly, and silently led her through the crowd. Her colleagues, aware of Anna’s reputation for taking firm stances on LGBT issues, quietly let them past.
In recent years, workplaces across China have started adopting new, more inclusive diversity policies that better protect sexual minorities. Yet, while these have helped reduce overt discrimination, many LGBT employees remain wary of coming out at work. They thus face a conundrum in how to push boundaries and build a more inclusive workplace without outing themselves in a potentially hostile work environment.
More than 90% of the 70 sexual minorities I interviewed said they had tried to challenge heteronormativity at work in one way or another. But only about 6% dared do so openly. Almost all of them were already out; and all of them worked in traditionally more open and diversity-friendly workplaces such as foreign-invested or privately owned firms.
John took the discrimination he experienced straight to human resources. “I was furious when my manager told me that I didn’t get promoted because I was ‘different,’” the 29-year-old Beijing-based sales manager said. “This is typical discrimination against sexual minorities.” His foreign-owned company’s HR department later sent out a letter reemphasizing its non-discrimination policy and reassigned his manager.
As John learned, while some companies may have employee handbooks that clearly forbid discrimination against sexual minorities, these policies are not always enforced. “These policies are rendered merely symbolic, because people often ignore them in the orientation training,” 26-year-old business consultant Alex told me, adding that some trainers deliberately “skip” or “ignore” this section of the training. “I talk to every regional office before all the new employee orientations to ensure the non-discrimination policy for LGBT employees is actually carried out and presented.”
Other LGBT workers who are out actively push their companies to adopt successful diversity policies from elsewhere. As Lily, a 33-year-old creative director at a foreign-owned advertising firm put it: “I constantly monitor how other companies design and implement diversity policies ... and I propose those best practices to my boss and suggest that our company should do the same. I believe this can benefit my company by keeping it competitive with other firms.”
But outside of the private or foreign-owned sector, the LGBT workers I spoke with generally adopted a more indirect approach. One of the most common strategies involved the intentional display of symbols like rainbow flags or photos of their partners at work, or occasionally posting LGBT-related articles and songs on their public social media accounts, hoping to gradually challenge their co-workers’ biases.
A few said they deliberately insert LGBT topics or messages in their work. One of my interviewees told me he had added a “same-sex” option to one of his dating company’s marketing campaigns. “I wanted to convey a message to my colleagues that same-sex relationships are the same as heterosexual relationships,” he said.
Another strategy is to initiate or actively participate in conversations about LGBT issues in an effort to educate their colleagues.
“I am attuned to quickly detect any possible opportunity to incorporate LGBT topics, such as news or even gossip, into my daily conversations with my colleagues,” said Grace, a 23-year-old marketing specialist in the eastern city of Nanjing. “They have too little knowledge about sexual minorities, and some things they thought they knew were incomplete or inaccurate.”
In these conversations, LGBT interlocutors often present their opinions in a neutral tone, citing scientific research or official reports in support of their perspectives. In doing so, they avoid exposing their sexual orientation, antagonizing their co-workers, or undermining the power of their arguments.
These tactics do not require LGBT employees to fully come out to their co-workers, as not everyone in the office understands their implications. That said, using them can invite speculation as their co-workers read between the lines.
In less LGBT-friendly environments, such as the government or military, disclosing one’s sexual orientation is not an option, and even talking about LGBT-related topics is risky. Even so, many LGBT workers or soldiers refuse to fall silent. Instead, they find subtle ways to promote the idea of equal rights to their colleagues.
Take Ted, a 24-year-old soldier in the central city of Zhengzhou, for example. “I can’t disclose my sexual orientation, but I still feel an urge to promote equal rights for minorities,” he said. He adopted the strategy of defending other discriminated-against groups, such as women. For instance, his fellow soldiers sometimes make rude or unprofessional jokes about their female colleagues, such as calling a woman who had dated multiple men a “slut” when a man with a similar romantic history would be admired.
“We can’t use double standards to judge people,” Ted recalled telling his dormmates. “That’s discrimination against minorities.” By explicitly stating his position, he hoped his peers would gradually learn to respect minorities, including sexual minorities.
Though they remain easy targets for discrimination, LGBT employees have played a critical role in pushing Chinese workplaces to become more inclusive. Their work pushing boundaries both exposes their co-workers to LGBT issues and facilitates tolerance in the workplace. That said, they cannot do it alone. Real changes will require the cooperation of management and workers as a whole. Only then will every employee receive the equal respect and treatment they deserve.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: tomaz/E+/People Visual)