The Lavender Bamboo Ceiling: LGBT+ x AAPI Perspectives on the Workplace
I’ll admit, it sounds weirdly specific to say I lead a group dedicated to LGBT+ Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) professionals. But on the heels of AAPI Heritage Month, in the thick of the growing #stopasianhate movement, and marching through Pride Month, this is our moment and we have a unique story to share.
I write this piece to show you what I’ve gathered as common themes that affect LGBT+ AAPI individuals in the workplace. These stem from conversations with various folks I’ve met through my life and career, from personal experiences, and from my own NAAAP PRIDE team and community. However, I should clarify that this list cannot possibly encompass the vast diversity of LGBT+ AAPI experiences. I speak mostly from my perspective as a cisgender, gay, mixed Chinese- and Vietnamese-American man in the built environment industry living in a major U.S. city, and it would be irresponsible to ignore the specific privileges and limitations of my worldview.
Let’s dig into how these three aspects of identity overlap. The first two, LGBT+ and AAPI, are considered (relatively) constant/enduring “primary identities” that describe who we are. The latter, professional, is a secondary characteristic that describes what we do.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. However, it wasn’t until June 2020 (just one year ago!) that the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock vs. Clayton County that “sex” inherently includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. As a society, our collective understanding of identity has evolved and our institutions and policies must evolve with it. We have also begun to examine how these multiple layered identities color our lives in unique ways — popularizing the ever-trending term intersectionality.
The following broad, intersecting categories describe the series of mental gymnastics, questioning, and gaslighting (both externally and internally ignited) that LGBT+ AAPI individuals face in their daily lives. Questions that may never occur to our white cisheterosexual male counterparts. It doesn’t even begin to describe all of the discrete policy issues that LGBT+ people still encounter at work (see here for more on that).
Common gay male stereotypes include being excessively flamboyant, sassy, hypersexualized, and feminine. Common (East) Asian stereotypes include being submissive/docile, perpetual foreigners, and robotic worker bees who lack social or leadership skills. Stereotyping, in its worst forms, results in discrimination and even violence (see rise in anti-Asian hate crimes). While the different subsets of LGBT+ and AAPI present different stereotypes, it’s fairly safe to say that neither set, especially combined, describes our Western society’s typical image of a professional leader, who is often white, heterosexual, and cis male.
For example, as a gay Asian man in the design and construction industry, I’ve struggled with how I should behave at, say, a construction job site, where testosterone and machismo often reign supreme and Asians are a rarity.
- Should I reject or accept some or all of the stereotypes thrust upon me? How would that contribute to my professional/personal brand identity?
- How do I avoid being typecast in a professional setting?
- How do I express aspects of my identity without them becoming my WHOLE identity?
Many of us in the AAPI community have faced situations in which we are expected to speak on behalf of all Asians (e.g. host cultural events at work, or provide a certain “diverse” perspective in a meeting). Sometimes, these experiences are great opportunities to share and educate. But oftentimes, it burdens us with additional responsibilities that our white coworkers do not bear. Even worse, it can feel exploitative and performative, like we’re being reduced to our “Asian”-ness instead of embraced as full human beings. Now imagine this on top of being LGBT+ and out at work, and having to represent all these marginalized identities.
Instead of providing an example of tokenism, I can share a positive experience in which I was approached to work on a project in a place known as a queer mecca. My coworker (also queer, also not a manager) sent me a message asking if I’d like to contribute on the project, explaining that the team was centering LGBT+ designers as part of the process, given that the project would serve a significant LGBT+ population. Rather than feeling used for my queer identity, I felt like my voice would be affirmed and valued in this team dynamic, and that I had the option to say no. The context and explanation within my coworker’s request was essential to ensuring that I didn’t feel tokenized.
- How do I navigate being the poster child for marginalized groups vs. just trying to fit in at work?
- How do I avoid being pigeonholed into certain roles/tasks purely for aspects of my identity that I never actively signed up for?
- How should I use my voice: as a responsible gatekeeper of all things LGBT+ and AAPI, or as an individual with unique experiences?
- How should I divide and conquer my mental/emotional labor between being a voice for LGBT+ issues and being a voice for AAPI issues? Am I obligated to do so?
Coming out to a traditional Asian family is one thing (and a lot that I can’t cover in this write-up); coming out in the workplace is yet another. Sometimes coming out is just blatantly dangerous depending on the context. For the more privileged of us, there’s a tension we face in deciding whether it’s worth it, and we may end up gaslighting ourselves and minimizing our identities in the process. We might also have to deal with rumors and gossip depending on the office culture.
Coming out for individuals with divergent gender identities can be even more distressing than for those with divergent sexual orientations only. Among other things, it may have policy implications related to dress codes, bathroom use, medical care, and how other employees speak of and relate to you.
Even if LGBT+ AAPI employees have certain legal protections against workplace discrimination in writing,
- They can be difficult to enforce on a micro level, given both the wiggle room for legal interpretation and varying local attitudes toward LGBT+ or racial issues
- Religious protections for employers may conflict with LGBT+ protections for employees
- In the case of a civil rights violation, defending oneself in court requires resources and privileges (e.g. money and time) that the most vulnerable LGBT+ and AAPI subpopulations often lack
- There is still often legitimate fear and concern about how our careers or reputations might be damaged after coming out, and how we might be treated and seen by our peers, outside of illegal firing, harassment, or other obvious violations
- How much should I share at work?
- Is it necessary for me to come out to feel fully authentic at work?
- How do I do it without drawing so much attention/scrutiny/judgement?
- Is it even safe to do so?
- Is there any chance of repercussions, whether by discrimination, job loss, or just plain gossip/extra stares?
- Will I lose my credibility/reputation after coming out?
We all grapple with the question of how we present ourselves in personal/social settings vs. at work. Everyone throughout their career has to eventually develop a balance between their “personal” and “professional” lives. I use air quotes because in reality, there is no clean line between personal and professional (especially since the pandemic hit). While we may act differently, we don’t clock in as one person and leave the office as another.
Workplace relationships often require a sense of vulnerability and openness about our personal lives (e.g. the dreaded “what are your weekend plans” question) to establish relatability and build trust. But finding this balance can be disproportionately difficult for LGBT+ folks, whose “personal” lives may be considered controversial or taboo — or at the very least, not “normal”. This othering effect can be compounded by being Asian.
Stereotyping, tokenism, and the stigma of coming out all culminate in preventing folks from bringing their whole authentic selves to work. It can be extremely difficult for LGBT+ AAPI employees to be fully present and thrive professionally when we feel that we have to tone down or hide our identities. This is especially pronounced for folks with divergent gender identities, which may be harder or more emotionally burdensome to hide than a divergent sexuality (see gender dysphoria). All this masking and filtering requires a sometimes unconscious/invisible yet significant amount of mental labor that can ultimately hinder our workplace performance and relationships.
- Is mentioning anything related to my LGBT+ identity (e.g. partners/spouses) in the office considered professional?
- If I share and reveal too much about either being LGBT+ or AAPI, will I be seen as a SJW (“social justice warrior”)? Will I be seen as too sensitive or difficult about certain topics?
- How should I dress, speak, do makeup, or otherwise show up at work to be most authentically myself without drawing unwanted attention or rocking the boat?
Stepping back for a second, I don’t intend to come off as bitter or insecure about being gay or Asian. In fact, I find such incredible beauty and resilience in our LGBT+ AAPI community. Moreover, I discover my own inner strengths and values through asking myself these very questions.
You might respond to some of these questions: why should you care what others think about you? What happened to letting your work speak for itself? The sad fact of the matter is that professional success is often predicated on perception rather than reality. Of course, I will let my work speak for itself, but everything is spoken within a context. None of us work in a vacuum.
And so that’s the question I pose back to you: what is the context that you are actively constructing as a coworker/mentor/leader for your LGBT+ colleagues? What barriers to inclusion are you deconstructing within — your unconscious biases, behaviors, and blind spots? As an ally, you can build spaces where authenticity is the norm, where tokenism is obsolete, where stereotypes are managed healthily, and where coming out is just a conversation and not the conversation. Pride belongs to all of us.
Happy Pride Month!