Kiernan: Legislation won't end harassment and discrimination alone

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I began Pride Month (in June) sharing thoughts for the appreciation of the season - one where we reflect on victories, outline the work ahead, and the need to consolidate efforts to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Companionably, June brought a victory to the Queer Community from a Supreme Court 6-3 ruling which confirmed an individual's sexual identity and orientation are protected class under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As this ruling was broadcast like a huge wave over the national news cycles, there was a trough of local news reporting in states where this decision was already adopted. The reporting rippled out in a manner that seemed to buoy a progressive narrative that some states were ahead of federal intervention for establishing equality. Vermont was one of those states. The uncomfortable truth is that discrimination and harassment continue; rendering such protections as ethics in theory, not in practice.

Our first year here in Vermont my husband experienced a hostile workplace situation stemming from his sexual orientation, which has been supposedly illegal since 2007. For months he endured uncomfortable small side comments in private that eventually snowballed to more brazen comments and exclusionary actions in front of other employees. At one company event I was in attendance for, both the state director and regional director approached us offering unwarranted and inappropriate comments. This interaction left even his colleagues at the table wide-eyed and clenched-jawed.

In a company with an unspoken acceptance of operations normalizing retaliation for speaking up against improprieties, there was a challenge of where to direct a safe line of communication to addresses the continued discrimination and harassment. Once Human Resources (HR) was formally contacted at the corporate headquarters, my husband's termination still came swiftly and unexpectedly. The HR representative ceased to communicate from that point further. His work email, where he saved emails with inappropriate language was no longer retrievable. When contacting the State's Attorney General's office, there was no advice offered on how to access evidence that was only accessible by the former employer. Instead, it was sent to mediation, which was its own special hellscape.

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Mediation brought the uncomfortable situation of asking colleagues to partake in the process with the risk of retaliation and financial instability. This fractured friendly relationships when they understandably did not want to be put in such a situation. The process also set up an imbalance of not having the financial resources to hire an experienced professional to help navigate the process, despite the company sending one of their corporate attorneys. The attorney offered starkly creative reasons to excuse discriminatory behavior as to remove responsibility from the leadership in the company, dismissed his claims as irrelevant to his abrupt termination, gaslit as to how he did not experience harassment, and carefully nuanced bullying him as to why contacting HR was inappropriate and disrespectful for whom he was making the claim against. The process ended without an official apology, acknowledgment of any of the claimed offenses, agreement to implement training to avoid future occurrences, or create Queer-inclusive workplace policies. It really just served as a formal means to agree to disagree on the hostile harassment-filled workplace environment.

'You just don't strike me as gay.', 'I would have never guessed you are transgender.', 'But are you really more gay or straight.', 'Who's the man in your relationship.', sexual orientation stereotyping, referencing the employee's sexual orientation if it does not have anything to do with the matter at hand, referring to a co-worker's spouse or partner as their "friend," invasive questions about surgeries or sexual positions - these are just a handful of examples of harassment towards an LGBTQIA+ employee. One is not exempt from being a harasser simply because their friend, son, aunt, peer, neighbor, a person they nodded to politely once in a checkout line is a member of the Queer Community.

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Inclusion of the Queer Community to their civil rights here in Vermont occurred in 2007, yet some people and companies still lag in properly adapting to change. Seventy percent of LGBTQIA+ people experience workplace harassment and discrimination. Arguably, the most injudicious form of complying with workplace discrimination protections occurs before hiring in the denial of LGBTQIA+ persons to the interview process. How does that change? By speaking up; sharing lived experiences.

There is a patchwork of chaos for communities of nonwhite, nonmale, noncisgendered, nonheteronormative-conforming individuals who intersect with the archaic and oppressive systems in place. If you are not in the primary focus group the system was meant to serve, you are integrally disenfranchised from opportunities and protections other individuals are favored to maintain. The 2020 Supreme Court decision is narrow in scope to address only employment and workplace equality. As exhaustive as it is to think about, it does not include other blatant areas where the Queer Community can be excluded from other entities, such as education, housing, jury system, or public accommodation.

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June is Pride Month, making it an especially important time to help allies reflect and elucidate themselves about microaggressions, or subtle, but hurtful acts or comments that show implicit bias. These subtle acts serve as a daily reminder that LGBTQIA+ identities are not respected equality in certain areas of our communities. As we see with the importance of bringing forward MeToo, Indigenous, and BLM movements, we are stronger when we fight side by side, inter-microcommunity-in-nature.

The more people are aware of how to recognize and call out oppressive behavior, the further we can mainstream eradication of unethical standards currently existing in various sectors of life. Our normalization of treating people less than has gone on for generations too long. Legislation and oversight won't end harassment and discrimination alone. While you emphasize the importance of the Equality Act on the federal level with your social in-road connections, share your personal stories. Direct human-connection is powerful.

It's important to think about how we all navigate the human experience akinly but not identically, however, we should all be universally treated equal.

P trick Kiernan of Harmonyville, Vermont is a small homesteader and blogs about the intersections of mental health and the self, marriage, and health care systems at patrickundcalebk.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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