The Work ‘Closet’: Alive and Well, Thank You Very Much

By Kaitlin Bain

Mark Phariss, a Plano attorney and a past plaintiff in Texas’s most notable same-sex marriage case, worked in his previous job for 10 years, and every day he kept his sexuality a secret.

Phariss’s past experience matches that of many people who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender. Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression is legal in 30 states, including Texas, said Robert Salcido, San Antonio regional field coordinator for Equality Texas.

“Most people get to sit there (at work) and talk about their weekend and say, ‘I went with my family, I went with the wife or we went to the beach or whatever,’” Phariss said. “If you’re gay, you can’t say that. It’s psychologically hurtful, and you feel like you’re lying, and you don’t like that, but you feel compelled to do that, so you feel like you’re not being completely honest with people.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion report, 53 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) individuals across the nation feel the need to hide their sexuality at work.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Slaton March Phariss and Vic Holmes were two plaintiffs in De Leon v. Perry, a court case that challenged same-sex marriage in Texas before the Supreme Court ruled that such bans were unconstitutional. The couple is now happily married in Plano.

Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes were two plaintiffs in De Leon v. Perry, a court case that challenged same-sex marriage in Texas before the Supreme Court ruled that such bans were unconstitutional. The couple is now happily married in Plano. Photo courtesy of Andrew Slaton.

Phariss is currently employed at a company that has signed the Texas Competes pledge, and his employer knows about Phariss’ sexuality and his husband. However, Phariss said, until sweeping legislation is passed, workplace discrimination could affect him at any place he wants to work at in the future.

“For instance, Exxon: they can’t discriminate now because they’re doing work with the federal government, but up until then Exxon refused to adopt a policy,” he said. “So if I was to try to get a job at an oil and gas company, I could not be hired because they have no policy about nondiscrimination. So I was worried about future jobs and hurting my career, and I was concerned about where I currently work.”

Any concern with his current employer, however, dissipated the Monday after he returned from getting married to his husband, he said. Everyone in the office was in the conference room to eat and celebrate Thanksgiving lunch.

“I walked into the conference room to sit down with everyone to eat, and the CEO was in there and he said, ‘Well, congratulations on getting married,’” Phariss recalled. “At that point, I ceased worrying about how anyone would react there and that then made me feel comfortable enough to ask them to join the Texas Competes pledge.”

Courtesy of the Texas Competes website

Courtesy of the Texas Competes website.

Texas Competes defines itself as “a partnership of business leaders committed to a Texas that is economically vibrant and welcoming of all people, including lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people.”

The pledge is intended to not only to help make Texas more accepting of LGBT individuals, but also better the Texas “brand” and make the state more competitive in attracting talent, entrepreneurship, corporate relocation opportunities and tourism.

Supporters of Texas Competes include Southwest Airlines, Dell, Hilton Worldwide and GameStop, according to the website.

Not everyone is as supportive of individuals who are not heterosexual and cisgender, though.

A 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign, which ranked 353 cities around the country in terms of LGBT equality, gave Lubbock a zero. By comparison, Austin scored 95, and Fort Worth scored 86.

The survey was based on six categories: non-discrimination laws, relationship recognition, how the municipality acts as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and overall relationship with the LGBT community, according to the report.

Lubbock also got negative attention in the LGBT community in 2014, when a homosexual children’s social worker was fired by the Children’s Home of Lubbock for “presenting a lifestyle that is damaging to kids,” said Lynn Harms, president of the home, according to the Huffington Post.

“As a faith-based, church-related outreach providing welfare services, if you will, to children and families, there is a set of biblical values that we adhere to and live by,” she said, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “When you are implementing life training and so forth – particularly with children – to put a confused message out there is counterproductive.”

While Lubbock and Texas as a whole have made progress in the past two years, there is still much to do, Salcido said. The biggest way in which any employee can help is by reviewing and discussing his or her employer’s policies to see if they are inclusive to the LGBT community.

Statistics courtesy of the Human Rights Coalition

Statistics courtesy of the Human Rights Coalition.

His suggestion: The biggest way in which any employee can help is by reviewing and discussing his or her employer’s policies to see if they are inclusive to the LGBT community.

“While we may not have state protections, companies can still add policies that are inclusive to individuals,” Salcido said. “It’s really about having conversations with coworkers and HR professionals and with those in leadership, and just having an open and honest conversation about what’s needed and why it’s needed.”

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