Hiding for safety 

The fear of being out at work in Indiana

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Tony and Jerome have the kind of love you see in movies, the kind you hope for in real life.

They met by chance as kids, while Jerome's family was vacationing at Ottawa Lake in Wisconsin. Tony, whose family lived near the lake, brought his nephew for the day. Thirteen years later they ran into each other somehow, maybe by fate, and Jerome told a friend: "I've just met the man I'm going to marry."

There was a phone call, a first date, a first dance.

"It was the dancing that sealed it," Tony says, smiling.

It's been 20 years now. He's a truck driver. Jerome is in sales. Like couples everywhere they finish each other's sentences, refill the other's coffee and order food for each other.

Like couples everywhere, Tony and Jerome know each other's habits, tastes, needs. There's just one problem: They have to hide. In fact, for this story, Tony insisted we not use his real name. Jerome asked that we not use his last name.

Tony's afraid he'll lose his job if co-workers learn he's gay. Jerome has come out at work, but at a cost: He's lost his last two jobs – most recently, the company said, because they had to eliminate the position.

Jerome isn't sure he lost his job because he is gay. Tony doesn't know either, but is positive that if his co-workers learned about Jerome he'd be fired – or harassed by co-workers until he quit. The truck driver is so sure of this, he spoke only on condition that he not be identified, and asked to be called Tony for this story.

"You have to do it if you want to keep your job," Tony said.

"Or your life," Jerome added.

Tony's fears are not unfounded.

Amid the certainty of their love is the uncertainty of what would happen if Tony's employers knew he was gay. Indiana is one of 28 states without laws protecting the LGBT community from employment discrimination, and adding these protections has not been a smooth process for lawmakers.

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In Illinois, Megan Sommerville is doing something neither Jerome nor Tony could do because of Indiana law. She is suing her employer for discrimination based on sexual identity. Sommerville, a transgender woman, sued her employer, Hobby Lobby in 2014 because she was not allowed to use the woman's restroom at work even though she identifies as a woman and looks like one.

She is suing under the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and other areas based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other characteristics.

"Indiana, surprisingly, for a northern state," Sommerville said, "is exceedingly conservative and far behind."

Indiana Senate Bill 344, which would have provided protection for Tony, Jerome and their jobs, failed in the General Assembly in February. Two Republican senators, Travis Holdman and Brandt Hershman, drafted the bill.

Mary Kite, a psychology professor at Ball State, has researched attitudes toward LGBT people for over 30 years. She has found that gay men are 34 percent less likely to receive an interview for a job. Lesbians are 12-13 percent less likely. In her study, gay subjects mentioned that detail of their lives in an "interests" section of their resume or cover letter when applying for a job. >>>

<<< "Oftentimes," Kite said in a faculty presentation at Ball State University on April 6, "it seems like discrimination is gone, but it's really not."

On the job, according to a 2011 survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank through UCLA School of Law that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, 35 percent of LGBT people reported being harassed at work because of their sexual orientation. Sixteen percent of respondents reported they lost their jobs because of it.

The same survey found that up to 78 percent of transgender people had experienced harassment or mistreatment at work because of their gender identity. Further, 47 percent reported they had been discriminated against in hiring, keeping a job or being promoted.

Kite said this discrimination reflects a lack of understanding about sexuality. An emerging notion among some psychologists is that gender, rather than being simply male or female, lies instead on a scale.

And the ambiguity may be physical, as well. In an exploration of the topic in the journal Nature last year, writer Claire Ainsworth noted that some researchers think as many as 1 percent of the population has some degree of "intersex" development.

"Doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another," Ainsworth wrote.

Kite said people who don't identify clearly as male or female, or who don't possess the traditional male or female characteristics, can become targets.

"Pretty much anytime people violate gender roles, there's pushback," she said. In the workplace, this can come in the form of harassment or discrimination.

Carisa Cunningham, of the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), says discrimination is caused by the stigma and prejudice against this community. She said that's also because there are no nationwide legal protections against discrimination for LGBT people.

When Jerome did come out at work, the decision was not an easy one.

"I was afraid I would get fired," he said. "I was afraid I would get hurt."

Like Tony, 53 percent of LGBT employees report feeling obligated to lie about their personal lives while they are at work, according to a 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign.

Jerome, Tony and Sommerville are not without hope, though.

Organizations like GLAD and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission use litigation to earn rights for the LGBT community. Spokesman James Ryan for the EEOC in Washington, said when the agency receives a charge of discrimination, it first validates the claim and then tries to mediate a solution.

If that does not happen, the EEOC will file suit, hoping that the attendant publicity will deter other companies from discriminating.

"Anyone who works in the United States has the right not to be discriminated against in the workplace," Ryan said.

Kite said it is a matter of when change happens, not if.

"It takes a while," she said. "It's definitely starting to pick up in the major cities in Indiana."

Already, Indianapolis, South Bend, Evansville, Muncie, Kokomo, Carmel among others, have passed laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The movement appears to transcend politics: While Democrats have often led the fight for LGBT rights, the mayors of Evansville and Carmel are Republicans.

"It's a ripple effect that's going to change the world," Sommerville said.

Though the debate is over for this year, Senate leader David Long, also a Republican, told the IndyStar in an article on February 3, that Indiana lawmakers will revisit the gay rights issue next year.

The Hobby Lobby manager is still waiting for a decision on her lawsuit. Sommerville said the increasing acceptance of LGBT people across the country gives her confidence that the case will turn in her favor.

For Jerome and Tony, who do not live or work in towns with LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, they find comfort with each other.

"We're just a happily married couple who just happens to be gay," Jerome said. 

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Michele Whitehair

Michele Whitehair

Michele Whitehair is a journalism student at Ball State University with a love for writing about the issues that affect people's lives.

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