In 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong claimed that the LGBTQ community is not harassed or discriminated against (Wong, 2015).
In 2019, Singapore Minister of Health (then Minister of Education) Ong Ye Kung claimed that there is no discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community “at work, housing (and) education” in Singapore (Mokhtar & Loh, 2018).
In a recent third universal periodic review (UPR) with the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee cited Pink Dot as an example of how the LGBTQ community in Singapore does not face discrimination (Oh, 2021)
Is that really true?
While wrongful dismissal claims can be filed due to grounds of discrimination in Singapore, the definition of discrimination in the Employment Act does not cover sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The Act only covers discrimination based on age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities or disability (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2019). This meant that if an individual were to be dismissed due to sexual orientation discrimination, the Employment Act will not protect them from wrongful dismissals.
So… what is sexual orientation discrimination?
Sexual orientation discrimination is the differential treatment solely due to his or her real or perceived sexual orientation (Ozeren, 2014). Discrimination may occur because of others’ perception of someone’s orientation, whether that perception is correct or not, or based on an individual’s association with someone of a different sexual orientation. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) career cycle, sexual orientation discrimination can be found in 8 stages (United Nations Development Programme, 2018). Some ways sexual orientation discrimination can be manifested include being denied a job, fired, less chance at career promotions, having lesser pay and benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, not being allowed to participate in the company or organization, having unequal employment opportunities or having an unsafe work environment due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression (Mara et al., 2020). This often led to negative consequences, such as decreased physical and emotional well-being, lower wages and career advancement, and lower job satisfaction and productivity (Sears & Mallory, 2014, as cited by DeSouza et al., 2017). Therefore, it is important to understand when sexual orientation discrimination occur in the Asian workplace so that appropriate strategies can be employed to protect oneself against sexual orientation discrimination.
Sexual orientation discrimination during the job search
During a job search, LGBTQIA++ individuals may not have access to employment or be able to utilise the employment services as compared to their heterosexual counterparts. A study done in 4 Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore) found that trans people were less likely to receive a positive response (such as being invited for an interview) compared to their cisgender counterparts even though the resumes have all been rigorously tested to ensure equivalent attractiveness in the job market (Winter et al., 2018).
In addition to that, an LGBTQIA++ individual’s sexual identity may limit their access to the wide range of occupations. A research done in Thailand suggests that transgender persons are mostly likely to be systematically excluded from many mainstream jobs in both public and private sectors, causing them to seek employment in the stereotypical jobs that are open to them (Suriyasarn, 2016). A study done in Singapore also found that hiring personnel have been found to discriminate against gay men and lesbians for task-dependent occupations, which require the individual to have more interactions with colleagues (Lim et al., 2018). Gay men were found to be more likely to work in female-dominated occupations compared to heterosexual men, while lesbians are more likely to be found working in male-dominated occupations than heterosexual women (Tilcsik et al., 2015). With these restrictions in place, it is not hard to understand why LGBTQIA++ individuals are more likely to be concentrated in high-independent jobs (Lim et al., 2018).
Sexual orientation discrimination after getting the job
At the workplace, the LGBTQIA++ individual might face discrimination from their management, colleagues, clients, or customers. In a study done in China, 75.7 per cent of 10 000 surveyed are still closeted at work and 21.2 per cent indicated that they experienced negative treatment in the workplace, with transgender and intersex people receiving the worst negative treatment (Suen et al., 2020). The discrimination they faced includes being reminded by management, colleagues, clients, or customers to watch their appearance or their mannerisms, receiving verbal attacks, told to change the way they dressed or acted, facing sexual harassment, and even suffering from physical abuse (Suen et al., 2020). This discrimination is pervasive even in Taiwan, the first province in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage (The Straits Times, 2019). Research shows Taiwan companies with older-generation leadership are often slow when it comes to sexual-orientation diversity support and it is challenging to get support from family and colleagues (Achyldurdyyeva et al., 2021). A 2020 survey, consisting of 359 full-time employees from 7 countries (China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan), also found that 40% of the respondents indicated that being openly LGBT would be a hindrance to one’s career prospects, compared with only 11% who say it would be an advantage (EUI, 2021).
Winds of change at the workplace
However, even though sexual orientation discrimination exists, there are companies that are stepping up and are willing to learn about how they can make the workplace better for the sexual minorities. More than 100 local companies decided to become sponsors for Pink Dot 2017 after the Singapore government prohibited multinational companies, such as Google, Facebook, JP Morgan etc., from supporting the event in 2016 (Kok, 2017). A poll conducted by the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan and Taipei City-based Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association found that the probability of LGBT people needing to pass as straight, being told to change their sexual identities or gender expressions, as well as having one’s privacy violated have reduced as compared to a poll that was done in 2016 (Taiwan Today, 2020). Another study conducted in Japan found that more companies are conducting LBGT awareness training for their employees and are taking part in or have sponsored events for sexual minorities (Ryall, 2020). Through these evidence, we can see that companies have begun to look at how they can make the workplace a more inclusive environment for the LGBTQIA++ community. The winds of change may just be a small breeze for now, but nonetheless change is happening.
So, while this change is great in the fight against sexual orientation discrimination with regards to workplace policies, how can you, as an individual, overcome this discrimination in your own lives?
How can you overcome workplace discrimination?
A systematic literature review has come up with a model with 4 different categories of coping strategies that the LGBTQIA++ people used against workplace discrimination: internal, external, reactive and proactive (Mara et al., 2020).
Internal strategies are the most widely use out of the four categories that the researchers have identified. Employees who use internal strategies tend to stay closeted and choose not to seek help from others (Mara et al., 2020).
Some individuals choose gender-normative strategies and try to blend in’ by displaying the traditional gender attitudes and behaviours that is expected of them. Code switching, in this context, is the adjustment of one’s mannerisms, speech patterns and dressing for self-preservation against sexual orientation discrimination at the hostile workplace (Higdon, 2017). Preventative-preparative strategies involve anticipating how one should respond if they are faced with homophobic remarks or behaviours, avoiding situations where they may face discrimination, using “half-truth disclosure” to “keep them guessing”, choosing occupations or jobs that they perceive to have lesser discrimination, assessing if the job position is hostile against LGBT workers and customers, as well as avoiding transphobia by choosing to work in tolerant environments (Mara et. al., 2020). LGBTQIA++ people may also choose to outperform in their jobs by amplifying their work performance, taking on tough tasks, trying to do better than their heterosexual counterparts and developing a reputation as someone who is tough (Mara et. al., 2020).
Emotional-regulation, self-affirmative and cognitive reframing strategies are also part of the internal strategies’ category. Emotional-regulation strategies are used to build resilience and allow the LGBTQIA++ individual to keep calm when faced with homophobia, as well as using humour to tackle the issue of sexual orientation discrimination (Mara et. al., 2020). Some may also choose to use relaxation techniques to manage their mental health (Mara et. al., 2020). A study found that mindfulness, as a form of emotional-regulation strategy, was able to reduce emotional exhaustion and increase job satisfaction (Hülsheger et. al., 2013). Self-affirmative strategies can help one become aware of their strengths and in turn build their self-esteem and confidence despite sexual orientation discrimination while cognitive reframing can help one maintain positive thinking and understand things a slightly different perspective (Mara et. al.,2020). A study has shown that self-esteem can serve as an effective protective factor against high discrimination stress (Romero et al., 2014). Emotional-regulation, self-affirmative and cognitive reframing strategies not only allow the individual to be able to resist the negative effects of sexual orientation discrimination on their mental health, but it can also serve as a useful tool in other aspects of the individual’s life.
The last two internal strategies that people engage in are disengagement strategies and escapism. Some may request for a job transfer, quit their jobs, be emotionally detached, or intentionally ignoring or isolating themselves from their colleagues (Mara et. al.,2020). Others may bury the past or take up habits that negatively affect their health, such as alcohol and drug abuse (Mara et. al.,2020). Many studies have shown that substance abuse rates are significantly higher amongst the LGBT community as compared to their heterosexual counterparts (Emslie, Lennox, & Ireland, 2017). While appearing as a convenient way to escape reality, the consequences of substance abuse are severe. Findings have indicated that the use of alcohol and drugs is associated with a higher risk of engaging in high-risk sexual behaviours (Heath et. al., 2012). Therefore, it is better to seek support and find healthier means of coping with the stressors that sexual orientation discrimination may bring than to resort to substance use.
The next category of strategies that the LGBTQIA++ community used to manage sexual orientation discrimination is to talk to external parties outside of the work environment about the discrimination they faced at work. This may include confiding in their closed ones, engaging mental health or legal services, and using spirituality or religion as a means of coping (Mara et. al.,2020).
Reactive strategies usually involve the disclosure of one’s sexual identity in response to the discrimination, often involves waiting until the LGBTQIA++ individual has reached seniority or if the individual is certain that they will not lose their jobs (Mara et. al.,2020). This may include discussion with management or Human Resources about the discrimination they are facing or confronting the perpetrator about the homophobic behaviour (Mara et. al.,2020).
The last category is proactive strategies that individuals use continuously to reduce the chances of discrimination. This may involve coming out to colleagues beforehand, being involved in LGBT organisations, attending professional conferences, educating others on LGBT rights, along with serving as a role model for others (Mara et. al.,2020).
Hope will never be silent. – Harvey Milk
For many LGBTQIA++ individuals, sexual orientation discrimination is an everyday affair. It can come from family members, friends or even from strangers. Having to face this stigma during the job search and even after getting a job may make you feel hopeless, alone, and isolated from society. However, it is important to remember that nothing is impossible in face of such unfair and unjust actions. Change addressing sexual orientation discrimination at the workplace may be slow for now, but it is happening. Meanwhile, you can take active steps to help yourselves face sexual orientation discrimination and become a stronger you to spur positive changes in your own environments. All you need is to have hope.
Camellia Wong (M.A), Camillia Thng
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