Opening the closet on LGBTI people in heavy industries
By: Dean Laplonge
There is a significant lack of discussion about LGBTI identities within heavy industries, such as mining, construction, oil and gas. Should this change?
Over the years I’ve spent investigating the role of gender in the resource industries for research consultancy Factive, I have met many queer people. I have been approached by human resources personnel who want advice on how to speak to an employee who is transitioning from male to female. I have met women who have successfully passed as men for many years, working in all-male teams and living in all-male camps.
Most common are the married men I have counselled who experience homosexual fe
elings. Many of these men often tell me how much they love the mining lifestyle, because when they fly in, they feel temporarily liberated from the claustrophobia they experience at home.
If we are going to explore what it means to be queer in heavy industries, there should be a focus on long-term education.
Given what is known about the impacts of societal norms on LGBTI people, it is likely that some queer people who work in heavy industries will have experienced workplace bullying. Some will be struggling to act in ways which do not match their preferred gender.
Personnel who work in heavy industries are often ill-equipped to deal with issues that might affect their LGBTI colleagues. In my experience in these environments, discussions about sexuality or gender identity are virtually non-existent. The links between safety and sexual identity, or issues around gender preference and gender identity, are only now starting to be explored in academic research, but this work is barely trickling down into workplaces.
As we break the silence on queer people working in these industries, it’s likely that consulting companies will start to offer workshops that seek to raise awareness around LGBTI issues. This training will be promoted as improving the ‘people skills’ of senior leadership; or it will be targeted at human resources personnel who are encouraged to ‘expand their knowledge of diversity’. But quick workshop training is not the solution.
Of course, not all LGBTI people working in heavy industries need help. For some, the silence that exists is welcome: they are able to remain unnoticed. This enables LGBTI people to go about their work without their sex, gender identity or sexuality affecting their career. They can enjoy the financial and professional rewards that are available to straight, cisgender men.
Similarly, it is crucial that LGBTI people are not forced to open the closet doors in a way that could put them at risk. There are different reasons for why somebody would choose not to announce their sexual or gender identity; not all of these reasons indicate that the person is repressed, oppressed or unhappy. Forced opening of the closet could lead to violence, despair, depression, ridicule or abuse.
In my opinion, more damage than good will be done by offering an off-the-shelf workshop to discuss what it means to be queer. This approach may meet the desires of management to show they are doing something positive, but it could result in people who are working in very small communities suddenly thinking about whom among them might be gay, transgender or queer, without any real understanding. While leaders and personnel in human resources might have a better understanding of these terms due to their training, the rest of the workforce and community will not, and may not know how to respond appropriately.
In order to explore what it means to be queer in heavy industries, there must be a focus on long-term education. A good starting point would be to begin conversations about how the structures and culture of a workplace reinforce the notion of what is ‘normal’, and what this means for LGBTI people within those industries.
Dean Laplonge is a leading researcher and practitioner in the field of gender in resource industries. He is a Director of the cultural research company Factive and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales. His book ‘So you think you’re tough: Getting serious about gender in mining’, was published in 2014.
Image courtesy of Kinetic Group
This blog was edited on 17 September.