Advancing Employment Equality for LGBT Older Adults

November 2013 | Andrew Cray, Center for American Progress

The basic principle of workplace fairness is that qualified employees who are willing to work hard should be judged according to their merits. This is the fundamental value that underlies the American dream. But for too many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workers, this principle has not held true. While a patchwork of state laws, court decisions, and EEOC opinions provide some degree of protection to LGBT employees and job seekers, there is still no federal law that provides explicit protections from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.   

Workplace inequality and discrimination are harmful to LGBT workers of all ages, and older adults are no exception.  A number of economic factors have lead to older Americans staying in the workforce longer or reentering the job market after retirement. In fact, the number of employed workers over age 55 reached a peak in 2012, and employment among those age 62 and older has also been climbing rapidly. LGBT older adults are undoubtedly among those who are part of this diverse and growing segment of the American workforce.

Despite the growing numbers of employed older adults, the workplace is not always be a safe and fair environment, and LGBT older workers may face multiple sources of discrimination on the job. Even with federal laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, age-based workplace discrimination continues to harm older workers. Older job applicants are more likely to be passed over for interviews than their younger counterparts, and once hired, older workers are likely to be paid less than their younger coworkers. For older LGBT workers, the effects of age-based discrimination may be compounded by discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Between 8 and 17 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people report being discriminatorily fired or denied employment, and between 13 and 47 percent of transgender people report being denied a job because of their gender identity. On the job, LGBT workers also face significant wage gaps, high rates of harassment, and difficult prospects for career advancement. LGBT older adults exist at an intersection of discriminatory attitudes on the basis of age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The result is that many face an employment landscape characterized by opportunity barriers.

Older LGBT adults may, in fact, be even more vulnerable to anti-LGBT employment discrimination than their younger counterparts. This is because, contrary to popular assumptions, older LGBT workers are more likely to be “out” at work.  More than 1 in 5 older adults are open about their LGBT identity at work, and survey data focusing on transgender workers reveals that transgender workers over age 55 are as likely or more likely to be out than transgender people ages 18 to 54. Unfortunately, lack of legal protection from workplace discrimination contributes to increased likelihood of discrimination against “out” employees.  Research shows that workers who are out at work are nearly 4 times as likely to have experienced discrimination on the job, compared to those who are not out. Thus, older workers who are more likely to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity are also more likely to experience adverse and discriminatory consequences.

The effects of employment discrimination against older LGBT workers are not static or confined to the workday. Workplace discrimination adds up over the course of a lifetime, and the effects of years of potential job instability and unequal pay can contribute to financial insecurity well after retirement. Underemployment, extended unemployment, and lower pay can contribute to elevated poverty rates among older LGBT adults – meaning that these workers may be faced with significant economic struggles in their later years. Eliminating employment discrimination against LGBT workers is not just a matter of fairness in the workplace, but it is also essential in ensuring that LGBT older adults are able to achieve the same degree of financial security earned by other employees after years of hard work.

There is much work to do to advance employment equality for LGBT older adults, but there is hope on the horizon. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, has earned strong bipartisan support in Congress. If signed into law, ENDA would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, providing clear protections for hardworking LGBT Americans in every state. Passing ENDA would secure protections for all LGBT workers, including older LGBT Americans who continue to contribute to the workforce and who deserve their opportunity to live the American dream. 

Andrew Cray is a Policy Analyst for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress. His work includes advocating for LGBT inclusion and engagement in state implementation of the Affordable Care Act, raising awareness of health insurance policies that improve coverage for LGBT families, LGBT-inclusive data collection, and improving outcomes and support for LGBT youth. He holds a B.S. in communications from Northwestern University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.