Research Communications

Graduate student Timothy McKenna explores how gay and lesbian employees navigate the workplace 

Nov. 4, 2013

By Kathryn McFadden


Most heterosexual professionals don't think twice about placing family photos on their office desks, but for gay and lesbian employees, the gesture may invite unwanted scrutiny, says Timothy McKenna, an Ohio University doctoral student in communication studies.

With support from the university's Claude E. Kantner Fellowship, McKenna is examining gay and lesbian discrimination in the workplace. He argues that these individuals continually face marginalization in their careers.       

"It's legal in 29 states to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation and legal in 34 states based on gender identity," he says.       

 Timothy McKenna, Ohio University graduate student in communication studies
Timothy McKenna. (Photo by Kathryn McFadden)

Many individuals who identify as gay or lesbian are continually excluded from workplace diversity initiatives and protections, such as medical or even vacation benefits, the student has found.       

"I interviewed a former airline employee who identifies as gay. In his time with the company he was required to work holidays just because his partner was not viewed as a family because they could not be legally married," McKenna says.   

McKenna has interviewed more than 30 gay and lesbian professionals so far; his goal is to reach 50 before winter. His interviewees range between 28 and 62 years old, from across the country, and represent various segments of the workforce: an accountant, a former state trooper and many others.    

So far, McKenna's findings have shown that the longer they're in the workforce, older gay and lesbian employees have learned to seek out jobs where they can be out and protected. Younger employees, however, want to be out wherever they work.   

McKenna admires their confidence, but notes that not all work environments will accept openness—even where it's required.   

"Even though policies are in place, policies can't speak for you. If a gay or lesbian worker doesn't have a supportive manager or human resources department, little might be done about workplace discrimination," he says. "Just because there are rules, it doesn't mean people follow them."

McKenna acknowledges that there is a limit to how much one should discuss personal life and opinions in the workplace. He argues, however, that workplace diversity initiatives should broaden to include the topics of sexual orientation and religious beliefs, as well race, ethnicity, age and sex.    

"When it becomes a non-issue, the best work can be done. Workers are not worrying about negotiating their identities and they can just be themselves," McKenna says.

The student says he has been fortunate to be at Ohio University where he has been supported in his work, and that in many instances being "out" in the workplace can be a wonderful attribute.   

"Not everyone can say they're gay. If a person can work in an organization, be out, and use it as a benefit, he or she will represent diversity and offer something valuable to the workplace community," he says.   

With support from the Kantner Fellowship, McKenna has been able to focus on collecting data for his research project. The award also funded a trip to Chicago to attend the "Out for Work" conference for the LGBTQ community.

The student plans to wrap up the project in February and pursue faculty positions after his graduation in May. McKenna looks forward to publishing his findings on gays and lesbians in the workplace for a wider audience.        

"I'm talking to a lot of incredible individuals whose career stories are important and need to be heard. My hope is that my research will be part of a greater effort to help gay and lesbian employees know that they are not alone and to provide a source for organizations to draw from when trying to create more inclusive workplaces," McKenna says.

The Claude E. Kantner Fellowship at Ohio University is awarded through a competitive nomination basis. The fellowship provides $14,488 plus a full tuition scholarship for fall and spring semesters. For more information, visit http://www.ohio.edu/graduate/fellowships.cfm.