Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students in the Pursuit of Meaningful Work

A few years ago, one of my queer-identified students shared with me some resume advice they had received from a colleague in our career center: not to include their internship at an LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization because potential employers would respond negatively. This advice confused and frustrated the student. They were out, and their queer identity had played an important part in their vocational discernment. This internship had reinforced their sense of calling by clarifying and strengthening their emerging professional commitment to work in the queer community after graduation. Not surprisingly, this student wanted to know what I thought they should do.

This encounter raised important question about how best to advise our LGBTQIA+ students as they discern their future careers and navigate their entries into professional work. As I responded to the student, I refrained from providing a definitive answer. Instead, I asked the student to reflect on what they wanted, explored with them their understanding of the context of their intended work environment, and provided a framework for their ongoing discernment. As educators and advisors, we best serve our queer students not by adopting a one-size-fits-all kind of approach but rather by helping them understand and articulate the relationship between their sexual and gender (and other intersecting) identities and their emerging and evolving professional interests. Ultimately, this student decided to include their internship explicitly in their application materials, but depending on context—geographic, political, personal—what a queer student should do in such moments can vary widely.

As educators and advisors, we best serve our queer students not by adopting a one-size-fits-all kind of approach but rather by helping them understand and articulate the relationship between their sexual and gender (and other intersecting) identities and their emerging and evolving professional interests.

In the United States, LGBTQIA+ people long lacked federal protection from employment discrimination. But in June 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to LGBT people, which effectively banned discrimination in the workplace. Even so, this significant decision has yet to be fully and consistently implemented in state law and workplace policies. The challenge to create truly inclusive and equitable workplace environments for all queer people is ongoing. Prejudice, harassment, and even hostility continue to impact our lives at work.  

As we mentor and advise our LGBTQIA+ students and help them prepare for their careers and meaningful work, we must be aware of the prejudices that they may face as well as their varied contexts. According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2018:

  • 46 percent of LGBTQ+ workers reported that they are closeted at work;
  • One in five LGBTQ+ workers said that have been told or implicitly encouraged to dress in a more feminine or masculine manner;
  • 53 percent of LGBTQ+ workers have heard jokes about lesbian or gay people at least occasionally;
  • 31 percent of LGBTQ+ workers reported feeling unhappy or depressed at work; and
  • LGBTQ+ workers shared that they don’t report negative comments because they don’t think anything will be done and they don’t want to harm their relationships with co-workers.

Without assuming every LGBTQIA+ student will face such barriers, as advisors we should consider them with our students as sensitively as possible. We should help students identify resources and strengthen their inner resilience to confront this reality and begin to navigate the next phase of their lives. Our goal should be to help them develop the self- and world-knowledge needed to cultivate their own agency as they make the decisions that will lead them to flourish in their work.

Those readers not familiar with editors Craig M. McGill and Jennifer E. Joslin’s excellent recent collection, Advising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer College Students, will find an abundance of insights into advising queer students, both in the context of career development and in academic advising more generally. The volume’s seventeen chapters cover a range of important theoretical and practical issues, which will strengthen the capacity of any advisor committed to supporting LGBTQIA+ students’ vocational discernment and their search for meaningful work.

Rather than telling students how to manage their sexual and gender identities as they move into the world of professional work, the authors of chapter seven—“LGBTQA+ Students and Career Advising”—argue that we can better serve them by engaging them in broader conversations about the centrality, salience, and valence of these identities. As the authors suggest, “When an individual considers career options, they might consider how their personal sense of self—as a social being who has a variety of life roles (e.g., student, single mother) and identity characteristics (e.g., first-generation, lesbian)—impacts their decision-making.” To help students better understand this relationship, they offer these questions: What priority does the student give their sexuality and/or gender, or how central is it to them? How prevalent or salient is it in the particular work context in which they are interested? And what are the positive or negative attitudes that the student holds about their sexuality or gender—that is, what valence do their identities have?

These broader concerns and questions lead to a more particular set of reflective questions that can allow queer students to better understand and articulate their identities and values in relation to their emerging career interests and the contexts in which they will pursue them (which I have adapted from this chapter):

  • How important is to me for me to develop interpersonal relationships with my boss or coworkers and be out to them about who I am?
  • What might I feel, experience, or be able to do if I were to share openly my sexual orientation or gender identity (and other relevant intersecting identities)?
  • What barriers might I face if I did so? What opportunities might I encounter?
  • What might my employer or coworkers feel, experience, or be able to do if I were to share this information?
  • How important is it to me that my boss and coworkers use my pronouns, even if they might not match my legal documents or my sex or gender assigned at birth?
  • How ready am I to come out in the workplace and navigate both the positive and negative consequences of doing so?

Even more practically, we can create space for our queer students, especially our transgender students in transition, as they make decisions on the name to use in their applications and other communication with potential employers, and figure out how to navigate expectations around professional dress. Using tools like HRC’s Corporate Equality Index can help students better understand an employer’s culture and how they might want to present themselves within it. Ultimately, all of these suggestions reinforce our role in facilitating LGBTQIA+  students’ vocational discernment and the development of their self-awareness and self-advocacy.

This post’s discussion focuses on helping students navigate and even accommodate the decidedly unjust contexts in the world of work after college. As important as this kind of approach is, we should not overlook our role in developing students’ skills of critiquing and transforming the larger structures of injustice, both in higher education and in other professional contexts. In my next post, I’ll explore some additional ways we might foster this kind of active resistance and resilience.

Geoffrey W. Bateman is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University. In 2017, he participated in NetVUE’s inaugural faculty seminar on “Teaching Vocational Exploration.” His scholarship on vocation includes “Queer Callings: LGBTQ Literature and Vocation” in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies and a forthcoming essay, “Queer Vocation and the Uncommon Good.” To read more blog posts by Geoffrey, click here.

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