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Queer careers

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Riley Folds says he had the same questions that many LGBTQ people have when he began thinking about his career.

"My personal life is my personal life," he says. "Why does my personal life matter to my work life? But our work [lives] and our personal lives collide every day, so it does matter."

Folds is the founder of Out for Work, a nonprofit organization that prepares LGBTQ college students for life in the work force. He's also the author of "Your Queer Career: The Ultimate Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Job Seekers."

Nazareth College's career services department will host "Your Queer Career," a talk by Folds, at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 7, in the Arts Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Folds says he spends much of his time talking with students about the transition from college to the job market.

"Academia provides such a comfortable environment and these students are working hard and taking on leadership roles, and they're doing all of these amazing [social activist] things," he says. "But then they have to go out into the working world and they have to move to places like Kansas or Texas, places where there isn't this kind of support and protection [for LGBTQ employees]."

Almost everyone in today's economy could use some type of career counseling, Folds says.

"But specifically for LGBTQ individuals there are clearly different challenges that enter the process that heterosexual individuals never really have to consider," he says.

Research shows that sexual orientation and gender identity have no correlation to how individuals perform at work. But reports over the last 20 years show "high levels of discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people at work," according to multiple studies by the UCLA School of Law.

One study says that as many as one in four LGBT employees experienced discrimination in the workplace. And about one-third were not out at work due to fear and intimidation, the study says.

Employment for transgender individuals is especially dire. The Human Rights Campaign says that in surveys between 1996 and 2006, as many as 57 percent of transgender respondents said they experienced discrimination both in getting jobs and while employed.

And the Employment Discrimination Act has stalled in Congress. ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Though the problem has eased somewhat in the last few years, Folds says, LGBTQ individuals can still be fired, or denied employment or a promotion in 29 states.

Most of the questions that students have are about resumes and interviews, Folds says. For example, "What does it mean to be out on a resume or in an interview?" Or, "How out should I be?"

Folds has an exercise where students are asked, "Would you target LGBTQ [friendly] companies?" "Would you target them, but it wouldn't be a deal breaker?" "Or would you target any organization, no matter what their policies are?"

Folds says he typically finds that most students prefer the first two choices. And most are embarking on their first interviews for internships or entry level positions, he says, so they're already stressed. Adding the LGBTQ component ratchets their anxiety even higher, he says.

"We're not saying you should disclose, 'Yes, I'm bisexual' or 'Yes, I'm a lesbian,'" Folds says. "We're saying, 'These are my skills, qualities, and experiences that I've had via this community, and they're valuable skill sets for your organization.'"

He says that some students worry about vocational stereotypes, such as gay men being perceived as more suitable for feminine jobs and lesbians being perceived as more suitable for masculine ones.

Those concerns may have historical roots. LGBTQ historians have found that gays often pursued some vocations, such as floral design and hairdressing, out of a necessity to be self-employed.

Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of the online gay social network Grindr said as much in a recent Inc.com interview. Before starting Grindr, Simkhai said he questioned whether his sexual orientation might prevent him from being successful in the corporate world.

Folds says he urges students not to limit their career choices because he's seen a shift in corporate culture during the last 10 years.

"Out for Work is supported by about 40 Fortune 500 companies and they come to us to find ways to recruit LGBTQ specific candidates as a component of their diversity recruitment model," Folds says. "They're looking for different ways to attract talent other than just going to the college career fairs every year. They want to know how else they can target this community for the jobs they have."

Growth industries like aerospace, health care, and the STEM-related fields are looking for this diverse talent, he says.

And some of the push to attract LGBTQ workers comes from employees within these companies.

"They want people to know that this is an inclusive place to work, that you can bring your whole self to work, and this is a top organization for LGBTQ individuals," he says.

Students also have to do their homework, Folds says. For example, when working with students who are pursuing careers in education, he says, they should know if the state or municipality provides protections for LGBTQ individuals.

"What is the district's nondiscrimination policy?" Folds says. "Are there any LGBTQ groups within the system? Can you network with other individuals within that school to find out what the climate is for someone who identifies as LGBTQ?"

Though Folds says he doesn't tell students they can't be closeted, he does say that it may be getting harder due to social media. And being closeted carries its own message.

"We're not saying you should be running in with your rainbow flag every day," he says. "But just being yourself and taking your whole self to work benefits both the employee and the employer."

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